Monday, November 30, 2009

Dubai on hold, Vegas on rebound?

After several years of fast-paced growth, development in Dubai hit the skids with about 400 projects put on hold because of a lack of funding for them. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the opening of the $8.5 billion City Center resort on Tuesday could be the beginning of the turnaround for the glitz capital of the world.

So, what do you see ahead for the economy of Las Vegas, Dubai or your neck of the woods? Is the worst over in the U.S. but still to come in other parts of the world? Or are you bracing for another downturn before things fully recover?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An educational marketing campaign

Kelly Teenor, director of marketing and associate at Hall & Foreman, Inc. (Tustin, CA), a 40-person civil engineering, surveying, and planning firm, sends us in to the holiday weekend with a lesson on sharing knowledge and building relationships:

"The premise of this educational marketing campaign is simple: Explain the changes to the California General Permit.

"Effective July 1, 2010, a stricter California General Permit that regulates water quality at construction sites goes into effect. It affects both new development and redevelopment projects. Anticipating that the changes would generate questions from our clients, Hall & Foreman, Inc. teamed with Rain for Rent, a nationwide liquid handling solutions firm, to hold a conference that gives answers. The conference brings together the regulatory agencies and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) construction permit holders so they can discuss the new regulations and implementation solutions.

"The conference format is designed around two concepts: share knowledge and build relationships. The one-day agenda includes two panels. The morning panel features regulators while the afternoon panel features private sector storm water management experts. The panel format provides the audience plenty of opportunity to ask questions and explore 'what if?' scenarios. Networking during lunch encourages the information sharing to continue. A vendor display area showcases local storm water-related products, services, and solutions.

"More than 60 attendees participated in the mid-November conference. Indicative of the high interest level in the general permit changes, the regulator panel ran longer than originally scheduled. To meet the demand for information, two additional conferences are planned throughout Southern California. The conferences are being promoted through multi-channels. Direct client contact is made by project managers and sales representatives who distribute the registration brochure in both hard copy and electronic formats. On-line channels include posting the brochure on the Hall & Foreman website with Tweets linking to the registration form. Plus, each of the panelists can distribute the brochure to their contacts.

"Sharing knowledge and building relationships are key to the building industry successfully navigating the stricter California General Permit. Recognizing this, Hall & Foreman and Rain for Rent are making it happen."

What do you think of this outreach program? Is your firm doing anything similar?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More unfinished business

The cancellation of the University California-Berkeley's proposed museum is nothing new when it comes to grand plans coming to a screeching and disappointing halt in San Francisco. Sadly, many long-time observers say they've seen this before in the City By The Bay.

How are things looking in your neck of the woods? Are plans being mothballed, or is the apparent economic turnaround starting to bring shelved plans back? What do you see happening as we head toward the end of 2009 and on to a new year?

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the eye of the beholder

A list ranking the ugliest buildings in the world picks the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore as this year's winner - or should we say loser? Interestingly, last year's most hideous - Boston City Hall - couldn't even crack this year's top 10 somehow. Apparently, the folks who compiled the list found a lot more places they liked less in the last 12 months. Apologies if any of your buildings made the cut.

So, what do you think about this list? Does it make you want to scale back your creativity for fear of this sort of negative publicity? Or do you believe in the saying, "There's no such thing as bad PR?"

Can't slow him down

Famed 101-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is reportedly back at work just weeks after surgery for gallstones and an intestinal tumor. O Globo, a Portuguese-language daily newspaper, reports Niemeyer is working on a collection of buildings in Niteroi, a city outside of Rio de Janeiro. Talk about a love of his work!

Does this story make you rethink or put off your retirement plans? How prepared are you and your firm for when the next generation of leaders will take over?

Race to the bottom

Ty Kicklighter, chief financial officer at Walter Schoel Engineering Company (Birmingham, AL), a 40-person civil, environmental, and surveying firm, kicks off the holiday workweek with a call to action for his colleagues in the AEC space:

"The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli follows the life of a T-shirt from the cotton field through harvest, production, distribution, initial sale, and finally to the used clothing market in Africa. It is an interesting take on the inner workings of economics and the global economy. One portion of the book describes the 'race to the bottom' in textile production, describing its rise and fall in countries around the world, from Europe in the 1700s to China today, as production shifts to the lowest cost producer. An interesting note is that many of the countries or areas that have 'lost' this race and been beaten out by cheaper labor and manufacturing, ultimately are better off and have a higher standard of living after having lost the race. Prior to entering the race, many of the laborers lacked skills, had very little autonomy, and were primarily in family agricultural jobs that seemed hopeless. Losing the race forced innovation, left a more skilled workforce, and also left a workforce motivated to maintain their autonomy and not return to the farm.

"Certainly in the current economy, fee pressures in the design professions seem like a race to the bottom. Firms are sacrificing profits for work, competing with many more firms for the same work, freezing salaries, and reducing labor costs to stay competitive. Even under these circumstances, it is worth being reminded that the race to the bottom in regards to fees is not sustainable, both for individual firms and for the industry. Those firms that avoid this race by innovative thinking, continuous skill building, and leveraging a motivated workforce will ultimately be the real winners."

So, what do you think? How can your firm and the AEC industry as a whole combat the race to the bottom, even in these trying economic times?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Energy Star changes ahead?

We're not sure when or how this will affect the AEC industry, but there could be some changes coming to the Energy Star system that determines whether a building or appliance is energy-efficient. One possible idea is adding a "superstar green label" for the top performers. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in its Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 that would require an overhaul of Energy Star.

So, what do you think? Should the program be overhaul, given a few tweaks or left alone?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Building safer bridges

Across the country and around the world, structural engineers are planting sensors inside concrete so they can tell when a bridge, office tower, and other tall structure is in danger of collapse. One prominent example of where this technology is being used is the St. Anthony Falls Bridge (I-35W) in Minnesota, which collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more. It's too bad it takes such a tragedy to find ways to prevent them from happening again, but kudos to those who have embraced the increased safety measures.

Has your firm used these sensors? Will it be trying them out?

You're higher!

As if real estate mogul Donald Trump needs to have a reason to brag, he's got another one: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has moved Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower from the seventh-tallest building in the world to sixth after changing its criteria for judging how high a building really is.

We can all breathe a little easier knowing The Donald won't be sulking too long after giving up on his quest to win back his casinos in Atlantic City earlier in the week.

As I write this, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in the world, but that structure will soon lose the perch it's held since 2004 to Burj Dubai, which is expected to be ready in 2010.

Little houses - not just on the prairie

Architect Sarah Susanka, who has become a best-selling author, is taking to cyberspace to sell plans for the small homes for which she's become increasingly famous. Susanka, who penned the "Not So Big House" series, is offering plans for her own humble abode as well as a prairie-style home inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a demo showhouse she designed for the International Builders Show in Orlando.

Let us know what you think of these homes and if you'd buy the plans for yourself or a client.

ABI numbers give some hope

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) (Washington, DC) released its October Architectural Billings Index numbers this morning, with the 46.1 overall score the highest since August 2008. New project inquiries dipped slighlty from September to October (from 59.1 to 58.5). For complete coverage and analysis of the ABI and other economic indicators, check out the November issue of AEC Finance News.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Foam: futuristic or fad?

It turns out foam is not only being used to build fake walls these days, but also to construct real ones. San Francisco architect Tim Murphy says architectural foam "is probably here to stay" based on its durability, low cost and environmentally friendly production. No worries, though: There are no plans to use foam in any structural walls at this point, according to the article.

So, what do you think? Has your firm tried using architectural foam? How have your clients reacted?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Going REALLY old school

Bill Lewis, senior editor for ZweigWhite's newsletters, takes a step in to the Way-Back Machine to kick off the week:

"While wealthy Middle Eastern regions including Dubai and the United Arab Emirates have drawn interest— and billions in investment dollars— from Western architecture, engineering and construction firms, the area's poorest's nation has a rich architectural history of its own.

"That’s the take of an article in The New York Times on Sunday about architectural gems in Yemen, a country with a long history of poverty and isolation. Those factors, the article says, have blocked development booms, but have also helped preserve centuries-old building arts and create an architectural landscape that 'often makes it feel like a refuge.'

"Indeed, building seems to be in the life-blood of Yemeni citizens. The result has been traditional homes that prove to be sturdier and more efficient than their modern counterparts and that have helped Yemen avoid housing crises that have plagued other developing nations."

Friday, November 13, 2009

The sounds of silence

William C. Beckman, CEO at X-nth (Maitland, FL), a 350-person international consulting engineering firm that was 10th on the The Zweig Letter 2009 Hot Firm List, chimes in with his thoughts on the state of the U.S. economy:

"How can the politicians think that the economy is going to get better if the design industry isn’t cranking out designs NOW? We all know design is ahead of construction by one to two years.

"From my viewpoint, too many firms are idle, especially with respect to the U.S. market. Construction drives the economy in a big way. Contractors are steadily eating through backlog. Designers need to be designing NOW to fill the pipeline.

"So the question is: what can we, as members of the building services industry, do to get the government to sit up and take notice so that this so-called changing tide in the economy becomes a reality? Shouldn’t the government be backing lenders who create construction projects rather than banks only interested in shoring up their bottom line?"

What are your thoughts? How can you and your firm make sure there's a true turnaround in the economy?

Controlling the uncontrollable

We all know the cost of health care continues to spiral as Congress continues to debate the merits of a full-scale overhaul. In fact, the November issue of The Zweig HR Letter recently looked at the merits of giving employees who opt out of the firm's health care coverage an incentive. In The Board Room's first post from a firm leader, Robert M. Dankese, Jr., principal and chief financial officer at Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates, Inc. (Boston, MA) a 45-person consulting firm in the areas of transportation planning, traffic engineering, civil engineering, and public involvement/strategic planning, looks at the issue from the inside:

"The spiraling cost of health care is a concern for anyone running a business these days. Our open enrollment and renewal period is Jan. 1. We recently met with our insurance agent and our renewal rates were 17%. It’s too much of an increase to just say okay and move on, especially with many double-digit increases in years prior to this one, so we explore the different options with plan changes. That comes with its own host of challenges. With times tough for a lot of individuals and families, any plan change to them, looks effectively like a pay cut for them. I know all companies having been facing the issue of rising health care costs and many have made plan changes to lessen the increase that their business is facing."

How’s your firm doing handling heath care increases? Have you made plan design changes in the past that have been more accepted by employees and if so, what are they?

On road to recovery?

State agencies have approved more than 10,000 transportation projects to receive money through the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more commonly known as the economic stimulus package, according to Vice President Joe Biden. Most of the projects are small, but some bigger fix-ups are included in what's been doled out so far. So, maybe the stimulus package hasn't been the quick economic fix some had been expecting, but it seems to be making some headway.

How has your firm been helped by the economic stimulus package? Are you expecting better things from it in 2010?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Green 'til 2013 - and beyond

According to a press release from the U.S. Green Building Council, green building will support almost 8 million jobs between 2009 and 2013 and add almost $400 million in wages to the nation's economy in that time. Those figures come from a study by the USGBC and Booz Allen Hamilton. Even if they're even a little bit off, it's pretty clear that green building is here to stay.

So, how's your firm doing in this regard? Do you see green building as a fad? What steps have you taken to either embrace it or find other ways to do business in the era of LEED certification?

Recession hits home for AIA

After nearly two years of recession, the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects (AIA) this week joined the ranks of many of its member firms when it announced it will eliminate 33 staff positions, or 15% of its 203 employees, in its national headquarters. The decision came after the AIA’s board of directors began planning its 2010 budget. The institute’s revenue has dropped by 20% since 2008 and the AIA had two weeklong furloughs for its national office staff in June and August. Plans call for the AIA to create a number of new positions as well that will better reflect what its members need and want today.

So, what do you think about this news? Does it make you worried about how long it will be before the industry recovers from its economic slump?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Office shooting at Orlando engineering firm

The disturbing trend of office shootings across the U.S. struck a little too close to home this morning when a former employee at Reynolds, Smith and Hill opened fire, killing one person and injuring five other people. Our condolences to the RS&H family for this terrible loss.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What happens in Vegas ...

For decades, we've all thought of Las Vegas as the center of glitz, glamor, debauchery, and decadence. As we've all heard, the recession has not been kind to Sin City, as evidenced once again in this piece.

My ZweigWhite colleagues said it was striking to see evidence of the potential City Center project in the middle of the Strip during last week's Hot Firm Conference but no signs of any work being done there any time soon. Let's hope things turn around there - and across the country - real soon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Welcome to The Board Room

If you’ve found your way here, you are obviously someone with a keen interest in architecture, engineering, environmental consulting or the related fields, or more likely someone who’s made your career in one of those industries. We’re launching this virtual community, which we’re calling The Board Room, as a way to bring together some of the best and brightest minds in the AEC industry with the folks here at ZweigWhite, who aim to inform you about the latest news that can affect you and your bottom line.
For those who made it here by accident, let’s give you some introductions and hope you’ll like what you hear and want to stick around and even tell a few friends about us. I’m Craig MacCormack, senior writer for ZweigWhite’s four newsletters - The Zweig Letter, AEC Finance News, Marketing Now, and The Zweig HR Letter. I’ve been with ZweigWhite for almost two years after more than a dozen years in the newspaper business, so I’ve learned what it takes not only to get the tough story but also the features that give you a look behind some of the key figures in your industry. That’s the kind of coverage you’ll get in the newsletters, and even more here, where the industry leaders themselves will help in telling their own stories.
Our team of writers, led by myself, includes several fellow long-time reporters, all of whom know a good news story when they see it, as well as ZweigWhite’s consultants to the AEC industry with decades of expertise in helping firms turn themselves around, become even more successful, or know when it’s time to turn things over to someone else. You’ll also hear occasionally from Mark Zweig, who started this company more than 20 years ago to help leaders in the architecture, engineering and environmental consulting industries achieve their business and personal goals, and still has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in AEC — sometimes even before many of you do.
Combine that team with a stable of firm leaders, including Chris Stockwell, chief marketing officer and executive VP at GEI Consultants, Inc. (Woburn, MA); Bill Beckman, CEO at X-nth (Maitland, FL); and Steve Lucy, principal at Jaster-Quintanilla (Austin, TX) among more than a dozen insiders who will contribute regularly to this space, and you can see this blog will be unlike any you’ve ever read in covering every nook and cranny of the industry. Let me know if you’d like to join the team— all expert opinions and advice is welcome.
Having the people who make the key decisions every day for their firms tell you what they’ve done to be successful and chime in on how the latest industry news will help or hurt the industry could also help your company improve its bottom line. We’re doing this to bring you the news, views, insight, and analysis you truly can’t get anywhere else, no matter how hard you look. Make sure to follow us so you don’t miss a thing.
One last housekeeping item: Remember to leave us your feedback. Your comment might plant a seed for a future newsletter story. The only thing we ask is that you use your real name with your comments and keep them civil. We want to hear what you have to say, but not if we have to censor it after you post it.

Again, welcome to The Board Room. Enjoy your stay and come back again real soon.