Residential design work may have slowed to a trickle over the past few years, but architects are nonetheless finding ways to keep busy. Some have managed to survive simply by retrenching—scaling back their offices and staff—but others have also actively expanded the range—and viability—of their practices by pursuing alternative types of work.

According to the latest ra reader survey—"The State of Your Business 2009," in which we asked architects to share how their practices are enduring the challenging housing environment—residential practitioners have experienced steep declines in revenue since 2006, in addition to a significant shift in their new-home-design/-remodeling-work ratio.

Ten percent of respondents indicated that in 2006 new-home design comprised between 91 percent and 100 percent of their business while 15 percent reported 81–90 percent new-home design work. For 2009, those reporting 91–100 percent new-home work fell to 4.7 percent and those in the 81–90 percent category plummeted to 2.4 percent. Conversely, the percentage of respondents reporting that new-home design made up 0–10 percent of their businesses increased from 14 percent in 2006 to nearly 48 percent for 2009.

Along with the decrease in new residential work, many practitioners reported that their companies grossed much less in 2009 as compared to 2006. Some expect their revenues in 2009 to total as little as $20,000 or less. One respondent expects to gross 50 percent less in 2009 than 2006, and a few others expect to make nothing from architecture work this year.

Not surprisingly, new-home and multifamily design work has decreased from 2006 levels, among survey respondents. Those who expect to design just five or fewer new homes or multifamily residences in 2009 increased to 70 percent, up from 41 percent in 2006. Architects who said they designed between 6-10 new home or multifamily units decreased slightly from 2006; just 6 percent expect to design between 11 and 20 such units in 2009, down from 10.6 percent in 2006. Only 2 percent of designers said they expect to work on 100 new residential units this year, versus 10 percent in 2006.

Most of the residential work designers have been able to secure are smaller remodels/renovations and room additions. Very few practitioners said that they did any remodeling design work in 2006; the highest percentage of respondents worked on 10 or fewer remodeling projects. While rhey expect the number of remodeling jobs to change very little in 2009, the percentage of architects taking on this work has increased.

Nearly 73 percent of respondents indicated that whole-house renovations are still a part of their practice, and 69 percent are doing kitchen expansions or additions, 51 percent are doing bathroom additions, nearly 64 percent are doing master-suite additions, and 55 percent say they're doing family room additions. Kitchen and bathroom remodel jobs are also very common. Some designers say they have been taking on basement and attic build-outs (37 percent and 33 percent, respectively) as well.

Sustainable and energy-efficient homes appear the ray of hope during the downturn. For 2009, sustainable design work increased incrementally across the board, with most firms reporting it comprises a greater percentage of their work overall.

  • 10.5 percent reported 91-100 percent sustainable work, up from 8.1 in 2006;
  • 7 percent reported 81-90 percent sustainable work, up from 0.0 in 2006;
  • 9.3 percent reported 71-80 percent sustainable work, up from 2.3 in 2006;
  • 2.3 percent reported 61-70 percent sustainable work in 2009, maintained from 2006;
  • 10.5 percent reported 51-60 percent sustainable work, also up from 4.7;
  • 9.3 percent reported 41-50 percent sustainable work, up from 4.7 in 2006;
  • 11.6 percent reported 21-30 percent sustainable work in 2009, compared to 4.7 percent in 2006;
  • 12.8 percent reported 11-20 percent sustainable work in 2009, down from 22 percent in 2006; and
  • 22 percent reported dedicating 10 percent or less of their firm's work to sustainable design, down from 44 percent in 2006;

    Additionally, when asked about specific types of green residential work they are taking, 29.8 percent of respondents said they've worked on green new construction projects and 36 percent reported involvement in green or energy-efficient remodels.

    Nearly 43 percent of residential practitioners also report they're doing light commercial work, while a minority say they're designing for religious or institutional projects (18 percent), schools (12.8 percent), or other types of nonresidential work (17 percent).

    Despite the difficulties of the current housing market and economy, many residential architects are finding new diversons, both professional and personal, although little of itinvolves actual design work. The top alternative pursuits designers reported were:

  • Pursuing professional accreditations, such as LEED or NCARB.
  • Improving CAD skills.
  • Fulfilling continuing education requirements.
  • Consulting work on a variety of design issues.
  • Teaching.

    A few said they're taking the time, while they have it, to finally build their firm's website, enter design competitions, or contribute to their local newspapers. Some are also developing educational curricula on architecture and design. A few respondents indicated they are laying the groundwork for future achievements during their imposed downtime. One architect says she's finally getting around to writing the book she's been planning. Another is developing a small affordable net-zero energy demonstration house, while one is in the beginning stages of planning a consortium to develop a design/build project.

    Personal pursuits can also reap professional rewards during the downturn, which is what one practitioner found when she adopted a puppy and began obedience training classes. She has met two potential clients through the puppy class. "It never hurts to spread yourself around various areas of your community and gain exposure, even if it is in an area that is not related to architecture," wrote Regina Konet, AIA, of Studio KONET in Powhattan, Va. Volunteer activities such as mentoring students or participating in community groups and organizations can bestow many rewards.

    While many designers still aren't sure how they will change their practices to address the cultural, economic, and environmental changes wrought by the current recession, some are already planning ways to revamp or reinvent their firms so they'll be well-positioned to take advantage of new opportunities when housing markets and lending conditions improve. Many respondents said they plan to shift their practices to more, or all, sustainable work, including recommending smaller, more-efficient residences for clients. Some will pursue a greater proportion of commercial work and take on fewer residential projects. Several are either considering or are actively seeking collaborations with allied professionals such as home builders or developers. A few plan to branch out into design/build or prefab residential. And some respondents who were let go from their positions with firms believe this is the perfect time to launch a new, solo career.