AIA Oregon members concerned about degree to which stimulus funds
support design sector, long-term growth
When Oregon architects traveled to Washington, D.C., for AIA‟s Grassroots
Leadership and Legislative Conference in February, they joined colleagues from
across the country in meeting with congressional leaders to highlight the
significant impact the design sector has on the economy.
Portland's Greg Flinders, AIA, and Doug Benson, AIA, were members of the
architectural contingent who witnessed firsthand the political process in action,
and both say they won‟t soon forget the experience.
“This was my second grassroots conference, and first I‟d say it‟s very
empowering to be involved. On some level, I think we go with a sense of awe
and history,” said Flinders, AIA Portland president and a project architect and
designer at SERA Architects. “Being there a couple of weeks after President
Obama‟s inauguration and the reality of the enormity of that moment was
“It truly is an inspiration to know we‟re there in the midst of debate on this
important legislation,” Flinders added. “We were speaking to Oregon‟s
congressional leaders, and we really felt like several of them have a great
understanding of the issues already and are willing to listen. It was a really good
feeling that they are interested in these topics. I think we had an impact on those
who were not engaged in these issues in the past, but are starting to realize the
design industry in the bigger picture and its importance.”
Benson, a regional director of the AIA Northwest and Pacific Region and vice
president with Portland‟s MCM Architects, said AIA members‟ goal during the
annual conference typically is to educate congressional leaders on a range of
long-term issues, but the economic crisis created a different atmosphere this time
“This year was a wholly unique experience because of the urgency and the
nature of the situation. Everyone there felt that this was about survival for
everyone. That gave it a different character,” he said. “The contributions we have
to make have risen in the eyes of many members of Congress. We are at a
unique point where we have the visibility and the capital to speak about the value
of architecture as part of the recovery program. The urgency was balanced by
the knowledge that we could make a difference.”
Benson said Rep. Earl Blumenauer spoke to Oregon architects and reiterated the
value of their efforts during the conference. “He fired us up. He said, „You
architects can and do matter, and at this particular time it‟s important that we
hear from you.‟”
President Obama signed the $787 billion federal stimulus bill on Feb. 17, just two
weeks after Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a state stimulus bill that included $175
million for infrastructure projects. Even with billions of dollars in state and federal
stimulus money channeled into such projects, some say Oregon‟s design
profession, and myriad related industries that create thousands of jobs, may
receive little benefit because the funding largely targets “shovel-ready” projects.
“I just attended one of the „Go Oregon‟ presentations on the Oregon stimulus
package. Most of the stimulus is oriented to shovel-ready work and will leave
architects out in the cold,” Linda Barnes, FAIA, a partner at Robertson Merryman
Barnes Architects, said in an email.
“Both the state and the federal stimulus packages appear to take the view of
trying to put people to work immediately and to repair existing infrastructure. That
is not a bad goal, but I'm afraid it will end up being very shortsighted. We are
facing more than just an economic slowdown. A change in our society appears to
be coming and we aren't preparing for that new world or circumstances,” Barnes
David Partridge, AIA Portland past-president and a principal with Ankrom Moisan
Associated Architects, said via email that a double-whammy in late February
illustrated how tough things have gotten.
He noted a February article by Jennifer Riskus, AIA economics research
manager, which detailed the extent to which the recession is impacting U.S.
architecture firms. The article, titled “Billings Hit All-time Low, Inquiry Declines
Slowing,” noted that …”the ABI in January fell to a new all-time low score in the
13 years it has been in existence … Business conditions remained weak at firms
in all regions of the country and in all practice sectors. Many firms have had been
forced to make changes to staff benefits and salaries in light of the recession,
with more than half of our panelists indicating that they have instituted salary
Combined with that report, Partridge noted that The Oregonian newspaper, citing
the poor economy, announced (but recently reversed its decision due to public
outcry) plans cut back the number of daily comic strips it publishes to save
newsprint and cut costs of purchasing comics.
“I think it‟s safe to say that things will never be quite the same with our profession
or with our comics, stimulus package or not,” Partridge wrote. “And I suggest that
we prepare ourselves for a new economy. We will prosper again, but it will be via
a new way of doing business. As some of us begin creative work on projects
fueled by the stimulus, let‟s also be creative about doing it in a new way.”
Bing Sheldon, FAIA, chairman and principal at SERA Architects, agreed, noting
he expects to see little if any benefit for design professionals in the first round of
federal stimulus funding.
“With the emphasis on immediate job creation, this round appears to be primarily
focused on contractors and public agencies with planning and design already
completed,” Sheldon said. “We hope the second round may help the AE industry
if there is more emphasis on the goal of energy independence and accomplishing
longer term goals for the country.”
Flinders said the upcoming AIA Day at the Capitol, scheduled for April 23, is a
prime opportunity for architects to talk with legislators about how state stimulus
funds can have a larger impact.
“It‟s important to get a good showing and craft our message carefully to let them
know that it‟s important that long-term projects are part of the package that gets
put forth in Oregon,” he said. “The idea of paving, road and bridge projects that
are already designed and ready to go is one level of stimulus. We feel projects
that go through the entire process touch a bigger number of individuals, and
that‟s important to have a continued economic recovery.”
Benson said the federal stimulus appears to be a step in the right direction with
respect to the AIA‟s carbon reduction goals as well as job creation. The package
includes some funding for things such as greening federal buildings and
environmentally friendly affordable housing development, though at more modest
levels than architects had advocated for.
While it may be a step in the right direction, Benson said, “It‟s a question of, is it a
long enough stride? Time is going to tell.”
Benson added that architects can and should play a significant role in how the
funds that flow to Oregon are utilized.
“We have to stay focused on the opportunities, and they are significant,” he said.
“You can‟t help but be energized by that. We as a profession love a challenge
and solving problems. I think the self-imposed challenge we have is to maintain
our enthusiasm and persuasive abilities to help political leaders understand the
opportunities with these dollars.
“One of the things we learn early on is how to make each dollar do more than
one thing. That is where we will bring our creative skills to bear and help others
Flinders agreed that Oregon architects have the potential to influence how
stimulus money is spent here.
“I‟d like to think it could make a difference if enough pressure is put to bear on
the elected leaders of Oregon. Hopefully, the direction of some of those pools of
money could, through advocacy efforts, be put to use in a way that is beneficial
to architects, design projects and affiliated design professionals.”
“There is a quote that architecture is a canary in a coal mine,” Flinders added. “It
touches so many other industries and has so many affiliated partners. If we have
one project, it touches a ton of people, something like 50 individuals, and the
construction industry as a whole is one-tenth of our GDP. It‟s a big impact. When
we explain in that way, legislators listen.”