As creeping paralysis makes its way across the U.S. economy, residential architects are beginning to feel parts of their practices go numb. The effect is varied in date of onset and severity, but no one is immune.

As we talked with firms across the country about their experiences with the downturn, we gained important insights that may help others plan for the future. One is that those specializing in sustainable design appear more insulated from the slings and arrows of this misfortune. And smaller, more established practices also stand on firmer ground, as they're able to draw from a long list of repeat clients. Further, custom architects who have several projects in early construction are discovering the real meaning of luck. But six months from now, the edge of the cliff looms.

So it's no wonder that everyone is crossing fingers for a swift recovery—before firms run out of cash reserves, before principals forgo their own salaries to save their businesses, before the most cherished employees are laid off, or before the shop must close altogether.

Word on the Street

  • après le downturn

    We asked visionary architects, designers, and cultural philosophers to predict how the downturn may transform housing. Here's what they told us: "The world is becoming both aesthetically conscious and information savvy. In this digital age, people want to

  • venerable voices

    "Fasten your seat belts, because things happen very quickly. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to hold onto staff when you don't have the work. Because of the diversity of our projects, we didn't really feel the last two downturns, but combined w

  • christine l. albertsson, aia, and todd p. hansen, aia

    Last summer, Albertsson Hansen Architecture seemed on track for one of its best years ever. The Minneapolis firm had found a niche designing residential remodels and new houses, and had added staff each year since its start in 2000.

  • chuck swartz, aia, leed ap, and beth reader, aia

    Reader & Swartz Architects was founded during a recession. “Beth got laid off and I had the brilliant idea of quitting and starting our own firm,” says Chuck Swartz, AIA, LEED AP.

  • david arkin, aia, leed ap, and anni tilt

    David Arkin, AIA, LEED AP, and Anni Tilt have a hard time turning people away. Clients seek out the firm for its expertise in sustainable design, and the husband-and-wife-led team enjoys taking on a mix of residential, commercial, and community projects.

  • eric naslund, faia, and john sheehan, aia

    When the principals at Studio E Architects fell into designing a charter school a few years ago, little did they know the project type would help see them through the current downturn.

  • j. carson looney, faia

    Memphis, Tenn.-based Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) is an award-winning 25-year-old firm that had only reduced staff once prior to 2008.

  • jay janette, aia, and david goldberg, aia

    Seattle-based Mithun always considered itself a regional firm with a strong focus on residential planning and design work, but in 2008 the collective opened a San Francisco office in a move forward as a more diverse and, it hopes, recession-proof company.

  • mark peters, aia

    Mark Peters, AIA, hadn't realized his young firm would be hitting the five-year milestone in 2009—until it was pointed out to him. “The years just kind of pass by when you're busy,” he explains.

  • michael g. imber, faia

    A few years ago, Michael G. Imber, FAIA, was approached about working on a large development. His firm designs primarily high-end custom residential and has since its inception in 1992, so Imber thought carefully before accepting the offer.

  • robert luntz, aia, and joseph tanney, aia

    Joseph Tanney, AIA, recalls the early 1990s’ recession with a hint of nostalgia. “We had just started; we were too dumb to know what was going on,” says the co-architect, with partner Robert Luntz, AIA, of the first Dwell Home.

  • william moore, aia

    William Moore, AIA, started his Denver-based design/build firm in 1996, after he could only find work as a carpenter.