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Architects see light at tunnel's end

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Arthur Lubetz smiles when he drives past the Glass Lofts along Penn Avenue in Garfield, a complex with residences, offices, retail space and a bright green facade.

"Part of the concept was to stimulate a positive buzz about the community," said Lubetz, 71, a longtime Oakland architect and Carnegie Mellon University professor. "It's painted electric green to announce things have changed here and the neighborhood is on the way up."

He hopes some of that feeling will rush through Downtown when PNC Financial Services Group completes a 40-story skyscraper at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Wood Street that will become the bank's headquarters. The Tower at PNC Plaza could create 2,500 construction jobs before it is finished in 2015.

"I think the new PNC building will elevate the psyche of the city," Lubetz said. "I'm a lifelong Pittsburgher, so I'm really pleased at what it probably means for the city."

The business of architecture hit hard times in recent years, when about one in five architects lost jobs. Demand for architects' services picked up in late 2010 and this year, but declined in April and May.

"It's sort of like the light is at the end of the tunnel, but we just don't know how far away that is," said Andrew Goldberg, spokesman for the Washington-based American Institute of Architects.

The AIA's latest Architecture Billings Index, an indicator of construction activity, fell on Wednesday. The index for May slipped to 47.2 from 47.6 in April, showing a continued decline in demand for design services. An index score above 50 indicates an increase in billings. The AIA's new projects inquiry index for May was 52.6, down from a mark of 55.0 in April, its lowest level in almost a year and a half.

"Whatever positive momentum that there had been seen in late 2010 and earlier this year has disappeared," said AIA Chief Economist, Kermit Baker. "There is no denying that the prolonged credit freeze from lenders for financing commercial projects is the number one challenge to a recovery for the design and construction industry."

Pittsburgh architects say they look forward to the PNC project, even if they are fairly certain it will not directly impact the architecture market in Western Pennsylvania.

"It's interesting that PNC is moving along ... but I haven't seen any ripple effect yet," said Gerard Damiani, founder and president of Studio d'ARC Architects in the South Side. "But it's good for Downtown."

PNC chose Gensler, a San Francisco-based architect, to design the building. Gensler designed Three PNC Place, Downtown, and PNC Place in Washington.

Lubetz, Damiani and others said Gensler's selection continues a trend of awarding local projects to out-of-town firms. The Westmoreland County Museum of American Art this month hired Ennead Architects of New York City for its $15 million expansion and renovation.

"It's becoming much more competitive," said Damiani, who founded his firm in 1996 and went from designing spaces for startup technology companies and university projects to focusing mainly on residences. "I can't say there is favoritism to out-of-town firms. It's just a broader market."

It isn't just big projects that attract firms from other cities, said Anne Swager, executive director of AIA Pittsburgh.

"They're coming in and going after work they didn't used to go after, things they used to consider small potatoes," she said. "Now they're doing it because work is so scarce."

The increased competition comes with an upside, said Eric Fisher, 51, principal of Fisher Architecture in Shadyside.

"It's going to raise the state of Pittsburgh architecture," Fisher said. "Let the chips fall where they may. Pittsburgh is known for being 10 years behind in design. Maybe this will make us more part of the world."

Almost two-thirds of architects nationwide reported they have at least one project -- with an average value of $50 million -- stalled because of inability to secure loans, the AIA reported.

"They have clients with sound projects, but they can't get money from banks," Goldberg said. "Everything is frozen, essentially."

A bill pending in Congress could help the industry, Goldberg said. The Capital Access for Main Street Act would temporarily allow community banks with less that $10 billion in assets to spread out commercial real estate loans over seven years, which in theory would make available more money to lend to small businesses, such as those looking to hire architects, the AIA said.

"That would be a huge key," Swager said. "Loosen up the money supply."

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