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Architects engineer a comeback as construction revives

ST. PETERSBURG

Few companies here last year played more of a punching bag than Wannemacher Jensen, the architectural firm charged with cheerleading the Pier's voter-doomed replacement candidate, the Lens.

But even as their most prominent project crumbled, the architects' fortunes soared. As demand for new designs surged last year, the firm boosted its staff from seven architects to 12 and saw revenue nearly double to $3.2 million — "our best year ever," partner Jason Jensen said.

If real estate watchers had a crystal ball, it would probably be designed by architects: They start blueprinting and billing nine to 12 months before builders spend their first construction cent. And experts say flourishing demand for architects has inspired optimism that the construction economy is back on track.

Florida added 7,000 architectural and engineering jobs between December 2012 and December 2013, state data show — a 10 percent jump and the fourth best of all industries. (The top three: building materials suppliers, heavy construction and —probably unrelated — hobby, book and sporting goods stores.)

Nationwide, the rate of unemployed architects dropped from 17 percent to 6 percent between 2010 and 2012, the most recent year available, American Institute of Architects data shows. The largest segment of laid-off architects found a new job in less than six months.

So why is the architecture market waking up now? Public purse string holders long strapped by the Great Recession are now seeing surpluses, and opting to restart stalled projects and retool old fire stations, schools and city halls. And pent-up commercial leaders are finding the confidence to suddenly build again after years of just making do.

"People are tired of the economy we've had. We're all tired of it," said Mickey Jacob, the executive vice president of Tampa-based BDG Architects, who served last year as the president of the American Institute of Architects. "Our private sector clients are investing heavily … thinking 2014 will be a benchmark year."

But little is certain even now as to whether architects' fortunes will continue to dip or fall. The Architecture Billings Index, which charts nationwide designer demand, dipped at the end of last year after a run of solid growth, with many firms saying they were "coping with an unpredictable economy."

And though Tampa Bay builders have broken ground on thousands of new suburban homes, developers are a lot less optimistic about the prospects for certain commercial properties — full-service hotels, suburban offices, regional malls — that once served as architects' bread and butter.

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For a flash of optimism, visit Wannemacher Jensen's studio on Mirror Lake, which partner Lisa Wannemacher designed in the late '90s and owns with her husband, Philippe Berriot, the unmistakably French owner of Cassis Brasserie.

All clean lines, bare-block walls and stained concrete, the studio appears stylishly raw; the exterior is oyster shells sprayed onto wet stucco, giving it a distinct Florida crustiness. Outside of a brainstorming chamber loaded with texture swatches, called the "war room," the studio has no enclosed offices; a Daft Punk song playing upstairs provides the soundtrack for the whole studio.

One recent morning, among a tiny town of cardboard models, architect Jean-Frederic Monod aimed his white iPad out the window toward the lake, and this reporter ribbed him for taking a photo with his tablet. To which Monod replied that, actually, he was playing around with "augmented reality": On the screen, a real-time, computerized 3-D model looked as if it had just been built on the lake. It looked realistic, uncanny and kind of amazing. This reporter instantly shut up.

That model, of Madeira Beach's planned City Hall complex, is one of dozens of projects wrested from the deep freeze as tax and business revenues have recovered. But in an interesting twist, the firm's revenue boost came from working on fewer projects than years past: Newly emboldened clients are pushing for projects with bigger visions — and bigger budgets.

"During recessions, people are doing much smaller projects and you accept doing them because you need to keep your people busy," Jensen said. "In 2013, some of those larger projects really started to break away."

To Mickey Jacob, whose 62-architect firm worked on trendy show-stoppers like the Birchwood and Epicurean hotels, that could become one of Tampa Bay's most important wild cards: architects "creating those kinds of iconic buildings, so people who are considering other markets, think, 'Whoa, Tampa's doing cool stuff. I wanna live there,' " Jacob said. "It's more than just our climate now."

For one colorful example, Wannemacher points to her work on C1 Bank's downtown St. Petersburg headquarters, a sprawling refutation, awash in neon, of traditional mahogany-lined banks. The break room alone has doors labeled "PUSH IT PUSH IT REAL GOOD," loungers made from old seat belts, and a Star Trek-ian chair for midday catnaps called a MetroNaps EnergyPod.

Bank CEO Trevor Burgess, who gave a tour of the space in green Gucci rubber loafers, said Wannemacher "helps implement my crazy vision." The bank has opened more than two dozen branches across the state, including one recently in Miami's Wynwood Art District, where the lobby is bathed in a nightly laser light show.

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For most architects, the changing pace of new clients has been subtle. SHiFT Architecture principal David Hugglestone, who helped design Le Mouton Noir Bakehouse in Tampa's Channel District and worked as a project manager on the Oxford Exchange, said designers of today's most in-demand projects, like apartments and health care clinics, are finding the most client demand.

"Those things that were stagnant over the last couple of years are finally seeing activity," said Hugglestone, who shares space with other architects in an Ybor City "design collaborative" they call Sync. "But firms are being cautious as they grow."

Wannemacher says the next months should mean even more corporate clients pushing ahead with new plans, though "we'd be happy if we just stayed stable."

"I think your clients are pleased to hear when you're busy," Wannemacher said. "It means you're successful."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Architects engineer a comeback as construction revives 02/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 5:28pm]

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