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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A New Normal?

"According to official statistics, the deepest recession of the past 40 years is now behind us. The GDP is growing, the Dow has cracked 10,000, and interest rates remain at historic lows, keeping inflation in check. Wall Street is even paying big bonuses again.

Yet to most people, the tangible effects of the recovery remain elusive. Unemployment has increased over the past six months, the dollar has lost significant value on the currency markets, and many sectors of the economy (especially commercial real estate) remain fragile. Is this what a recovery is supposed to feel like?

Unfortunately, yes. The economy may have bottomed out and experienced something of a bounce, but it’s certain that the boom years of 2005-2007 will not be returning any time soon. While it’s true that panic has subsided into caution, the credit markets remain deeply chilled, if not frozen. While some clients are doing planning new work in anticipation of a more robust recovery, very few new projects are getting the green light, and this state of affairs is likely to pertain for the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances, a slow-growth, cost-sensitive economy is beginning to look like the new normal.

What’s a design firm to do?

Like it or not, get ready for increased competition. Significant layoffs in the profession have spawned a new generation of small, nimble design firms with low overhead. These new firms, often headed by well-regarded professionals with significant experience, can be formidable competition.In the past, perhaps a dozen or so contenders would be chasing any given project; these days, that number can easily double or even triple. Clients are increasingly price-sensitive, so expect significant downward pressure on fees. You will have to price your proposals accordingly, and when successful, execute the work with relentless efficiency. There will be little if any wiggle room.

This will almost certainly require a leap in technology, and specifically BIM, which can be used for all phases of the work from design through construction administration. Sophisticated users of BIM have found ways to create significant efficiencies in the documentation process and have even been able to eliminate the need for shop drawings during construction. Now that the GSA (as well as several states, including Texas and Wisconsin) have mandated BIM deliverables for all projects, the tipping point has clearly been passed. If you have not already done so, it’s time to get on board. Make use of your downtime to acquire the software and institute a firm-wide training program, as BIM capability is fast becoming a gating issue during the selection process....
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