The pandemic has created a global economic crisis, leading to a recession in some countries and a depression in others. While the U.S. is no longer facing a depression, like it did this spring, the country is now in the midst of the COVID recession, and landscape architecture firms are learning to adapt. In a session during reVISION ASLA 2020, firm leaders with Sasaki, SWA Group, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) explained steps they are taking and their outlook for the coming year.
According to Michael Grove, FASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a multi-disciplinary architecture, planning, and landscape architecture firm based in Massachusetts, the firm is focused on “putting people over profits.” To ensure the firm can meet payroll for its 250-300 staff, Sasaki is holding larger cash reserves while cutting pay for its partners, in the form of profits, by 20 percent.
Sasaki is also re-investing in its own capabilities. The firm has increased both internal staff training and investment in research and development (R&D). This enables the firm to “capture higher fees from thought leadership and research,” Grove said. The higher investment in research also allows the firm to benefit from federal and state R&D tax benefits.
Being multi-disciplinary has its benefits as well. “The diversity of our practice helps in different markets.” In China, which is now experiencing an economic recovery, Sasaki is a “known entity,” with an office in Shanghai, so can benefit from growth there.
But Grove cautioned there is worse to come in the U.S. “Design firms are usually impacted 6-12 months after a shift in economic conditions.” The firm is now seeing higher education clients put projects on hold, as universities and colleges rethink the use of their campuses in an increasingly hybrid in person-virtual world. In the commercial sector, some clients accelerated design and construction through the summer, but that is no more given “ongoing angst in commercial markets.” There has been a jump in civic or public projects in China, but in the U.S., “municipal budgets are now stretched thin” without additional fiscal stimulus.
Sasaki is now planning for a “decline projected by the end of the year.” To prepare for this, they are cutting travel and marketing expenses in order to keep cash and profits up.
SWA Group, a multidisciplinary firm that focuses on landscape architecture, planning, and urban design, has also benefited from being diversified. René Bihan, FASLA, managing principal in the firm’s San Francisco office, said SWA Group, which has some 250 employees and is 100-percent employee owned, is organized more like a starfish than a spider.
“If you cut off a spider’s head, it’s game over.” In the same way, in a spider-like organization, there is a “pyramidical hierarchy that suffers when leadership goes down.” In contrast, a starfish has multiple legs that can continue to live and regenerate on their own. An organization organized like a starfish doesn’t have a head. In the case of SWA Group, each of its eight studios spread around the world act somewhat independently and have their own cultures.
For example, their San Francisco office is mostly focused on policy and large-scale sites and has some technical experts. Other offices are known more for project design and construction. With their flexible structure, the firm can move staff and resources from one studio to another as markets grow or shrink.
SWA Group also purposefully keeps a diverse client portfolio. “Right now, 52 percent of our work is international,” with the bulk of those projects in China, Mexico, and the Middle East. Another 20 percent is public projects.
In adapting to the new normal, SWA has altered how it seeks out new business. “We do very few cold calls or RFPs. Instead, about 80 percent of business comes from repeat clients,” Bihan explained. “There is a familiarity. We continually check in with them, find out what they are up to, and look for ways to help them.”
Social media, books and blog posts, public engagement, and word of mouth are other “huge ways to get business,” he said. SWA has even leveraged pro-bono work, including parklets and neighborhood volunteer projects, to find new clients. “These projects can be launch pads.”
MNLA, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm based in New York City, has a staff of 32 and is mostly focused on projects in the public realm. According to Molly Bourne, ASLA, a principal at the firm, MNLA has been investing in a more resilient structure for the past few years. With improvements in IT infrastructure, they were able to transition to all staff working from home relatively easily. “We are so thankful we invested in this transition.” It also helped a great deal that the office went paperless a few years ago, moving to all digital record keeping.
The firm purposefully maintains a balance between public and private projects. “We never go past a certain margin,” Bourne said. “With a diversity of revenues, we never put our eggs in one basket.”
The firm takes on a mix of conventional federal, state, and local government projects, along with projects that result from federal stimulus funds. The firm is also pre-approved for New York City and state “on-call” projects that can be “small and undefined, but can serve as survival work.”
At the same time, MNLA is being as transparent as possible about where things stand with staff, asking people to pitch in where needed. So far, “2020 is good and bad. We’re bobbing along, grappling with uncertainty, and remain very busy.”
Bourne said working during the first few months of the pandemic in NYC was particularly difficult. “It was an emotional time for staff. It was either very quiet or ambulance sirens.” MNLA continues to put staff well-being first. “Staff are our greatest asset.”
Conversation then turned to what the job market is like for landscape architecture students who just graduated or will be in coming months. This is one of the most challenging times to find an entry-level position, at least since ASLA has been keeping records. According to the latest survey, 65 percent of graduating students received no offer this year. Of those who received an offer, more than 40 percent saw the terms or location of their position change.
The speakers recommended job seekers leverage and grow their networks. Most jobs are found through contacts. “Folks mostly hire people they already know can provide value,” Grove said. “They want to hire from a known entity, or get a referral from a trusted source.”
Some more advice: stay flexible and be open to a range of possibilities. Be competitive; make yourself indispensable. Do informational interviews, which are low-pressure. Undertake contract work, which can turn into more permanent positions. Look beyond landscape architecture firms: the government, construction, facilities management — places where a landscape architecture education will be of benefit.