Home Posts tagged Industry
Architecture Construction

Designs on Growth

As one local architect noted, we’re far enough away from the last recession to start worrying about the next one — and recessions tend to hit this sector particularly hard. Still, despite mixed signals in the long-term economic picture nationally, work remains steady locally, with municipalities, colleges, and businesses of all kinds continuing to invest in capital projects. Even if storm clouds do appear down the road, the 2019 outlook in architecture seems bright.

Curtis Edgin put it in simple terms when asked how 2019 is shaping up in the architecture sector.

“We’re busy; I can’t complain,” he told BusinessWest. Those five words sum up a strong outlook in an industry that tends to be a leading indicator for the economy as a whole — when things slow down, construction, finance, and other areas tend to follow — and is currently trending up, or at least holding steady.

“We’re far from the last recession — maybe far enough to worry about the next one,” said Edgin, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA) in Chicopee. “But I don’t see that coming yet, looking at our workload.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports a similar outlook, with architecture firm billings nationally strengthening to a level not seen in the previous 12 months. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also improved in January.

“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker noted. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash-flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”

Broken down by region, the Northeast is performing better than the West, but slightly trailing the South (which continues to rebuild from a rough 2018 hurricane season) and the Midwest. Nationally, billings softened slightly in February from the January pace, but remain strong in the big-picture sense, Baker said. “Overall, business conditions at architecture firms across the country have remained generally healthy.”

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm, serving as a buffer against a downturn in any one area.

Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, reports strong business as well, especially in the education realm, traditionally a strength for the firm, with projects for UMass and a historic-renovation conversion project for Elms College.

“Then there’s a mix of multi-family housing and commercial projects,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve got a new office building for Way Finders going up on the old Peter Pan site in Springfield, which is our biggest commercial project at the moment. And there’s a 36-unit, multi-family housing project going up on University Drive in Amherst.”

Caolo & Bieniek, known for its wide range of public projects, from schools to fire and police stations, has expanded its base of private projects since merging with Reinhardt Associates in 2017.

“It’s been kind of a good synergy. We’ve blended our strengths and their strengths,” Edgin said, noting that one example is the recently completed Baystate Health & Wellness Center on the Longmeadow-East Longmeadow line, as Reinhardt has a solid history in medical office buildings.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity. Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

Other recent CBA projects recently started or well underway include a senior center in West Boylston, a police station in Williamstown, a public-safety complex in Lenox, a renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety facility, a pre-K to grade-8 school in Easthampton, and some work with UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, and other colleges.

“There’s a good mix of private and public, and we seem to be doing a fair amount of work with human-services agencies,” Edgin added, noting that the firm just did a project for Guidewire in Chicopee, and Sunshine Village in the city has also been a consistent client. “We seem to have a bit going in that sector right now. We’re busy, and it’s a good mix all around.”

Strong Pace, but Red Flags

The AIA suggests that growth in architecture should continue at least through 2020, but a number of emerging red flags suggest a cautious outlook.

Spending on non-residential buildings nationally is projected to grow by 4.4% this year, paced by healthy gains in the industrial and institutional building sectors, it notes. For 2020, growth is projected to slow to 2.4%, with essentially no increase in spending on commercial facilities, but gains in the 3% range in the industrial and institutional categories.

“Still,” Baker said, “there is growing concern inside and outside of the industry that a broader economic downturn may be materializing over the next 12 to 24 months.”

Nationally, growth in gross domestic product is estimated to be close to 3% in 2019, while the job market continues to be healthy, with more than 2.6 million net new payroll jobs added in 2018, an improvement over 2017’s figure of just under 2.2 million. In fact, the national unemployment rate was below 4% for most of 2018. Consumer-sentiment levels remained strong, and the nation’s factories also were busy, with industrial output achieving its strongest growth in almost a decade.

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction over the past decade, but a rising portfolio of multi-family projects has picked up the slack.

However, there are several signals that point to an emerging slowdown in the broader economy, and therefore in the construction sector, Baker noted. These include declines in leading economic indicators, weakness in some key sectors of the economy, and softness in the markets of major U.S. trading partners. “These signals may be temporary responses to negative short-term conditions, but historically they have preceded a more widespread downturn.”

Meanwhile, since dropping sharply during the Great Recession, housing starts have had a very slow recovery, the AIA notes, and Salvon can attest to that reality locally. But Kuhn Riddle has adjusted in other ways.

“We’ve always been a stool with three legs,” he said. “One-third is work for various colleges, charter schools, prep schools, secondary schools, and even some day cares — we run the whole gamut in education. The second third is residential work; in the past, before the 2009 recession, that was often single-family residences. That market has never really come back, at least for us. But we’ve been lucky to develop a new market in multi-family projects.”

The third leg is a variety of commercial projects, including office buildings, restaurants, and bank renovations, to name a few, Salvon said.

“Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Nationally, Baker sees design work on the commercial front as a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.

“Business investments often reflect what corporate leaders feel is the growth potential for their companies. Investment nationally in new plants and equipment saw healthy growth in 2017 and through the first half of 2018, but slowed significantly beginning in the third quarter of last year,” he noted. “Given the recent trends in business-confidence scores, investment is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. Business confidence fell sharply through 2018, with the fourth quarter showing the lowest levels in six years.”

In the Bay State, the picture is equally muddy. The Business Confidence Index issued monthly by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported a gain in February after dropping in January to its lowest level in more than two years.

“Employers remain generally optimistic about a state economy that continues to run at full-employment levels and a U.S. economy that is projected to grow by 2.2% this year,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the erosion of confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers during the past 12 months raises some concern about the long-term sustainability of the recovery.”

On a sector-by-sector basis, Baker reported, design work for retail facilities continues to suffer from the growth on online shopping.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity,” he noted. “Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

On the other hand, office projects represent the strongest commercial sector in construction right now, with 5% growth projected for this year and 1% in 2020. “This sector has benefited from strong job growth and the apparent bottoming out of the years-long decline in office space per employee,” Baker said. “Much of the increase has come from the booming technology sector, so the outlook is dependent on continued growth in this industry sector.”

Meanwhile, eds and meds — or education and healthcare, two pillars of the Western Mass. economy — represent very healthy sectors nationally for architects and general contractors. AIA projects 5.5% in the education sector this year and an additional 4% in 2020, and 4% growth in healthcare in 2019 followed by 3.6% in 2020. 

“We’re pretty diversified and active in a lot of different environments,” Edgin said. “It’s not just schools, not just police stations, not just fire stations, but a little bit of everything.” He cited the recent renovation of Polish National Credit Union’s Front Street branch in Chicopee, as well as a new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield and a project with the Boys and Girls Club of West Springfield. “A lot of things take a while, so it’s that advance planning that keeps you busy a year or two from now.”

Leading Indicator

Baker reported that business conditions at U.S. architecture firms in 2018, as measured by AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI), were essentially unchanged from 2017.

“Since the ABI has been shown to lead construction spending by an average of nine to 12 months, this would suggest that the growth in spending on non-residential buildings in 2019 should be close to the growth rate of 2018,” he noted. “Additionally, new design contracts coming into architecture firms grew at a healthy pace in 2018, underscoring the robust level of backlogs currently enjoyed by most firms.”

Meanwhile, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook, which predicted that total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion estimated for 2018.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics.

Locally, both architects and builders are maintaining the same sort of cautious optimism, at least in the short term.

“Right now, it’s strong,” Edgin said. “We’ve increased our staffing.”

Finding talented staff remains a challenge, he said, because strong growth among architecture firms in general means stiff competition, and Greater Springfield isn’t always a top destination for young professionals in the field compared to, say, Boston or New York, where pay scales are higher (but, of course, so is the cost of living).

Salvon understands that reality as well, but said Kuhn Riddle has benefited from its location in downtown Amherst, where it has easy access to the UMass architecture program. “We’ve been a little spoiled — we’ve been privileged to get some employees out of that program over the last decade or so, and we’ve tried to make a nice work environment, so people been staying here.”

All things considered, he told BusinessWest, the outlook seems strong in architecture locally, and others agree.

“We’ve been able to build some good staff and a good team, so we’re happy about that,” Edgin said. “Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Total Transformations

With the economy chugging along, home-improvement businesses report solid activity over the past few years, with the prospect of more to come. Locally, perhaps partly because of a relatively mild December and January, companies logged more customer calls during a time of year when homeowners traditionally want to hibernate. Now, on the cusp of spring, they’re ready to hit the ground running.

If there’s one thing R.J. Chapdelaine is grateful for, it’s changing tastes in home design.

Take, for example, the current trend — one that has been building over the past decade or two — of open floor plans.

“People seem to want to open up the kitchen to family room space, open the kitchen to dining room, and create that open floor plan. That, I think, is what we see the most, taking someone’s compartmentalized house and opening it up,” said Chapdelaine, owner of Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons in East Longmeadow.

“You see the center-hall Colonial with a dining room, living room, and kitchen, and we go in and open up the walls,” he continued. “I say, thank God my grandfather and my father built them the way they did. Now I can go in and open them up. It’s job security. And you watch — someday down the road, it’ll go back.”

Whatever the trends and the homeowner’s personal tastes, the home-improvement industry has been riding a wave for some time now.

According to the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), the market for home-improvement products and materials grew by 6.3% in 2018 after a 7.3% jump in 2017. Breaking it down further, the professional market increased by 9.9% last year, while the consumer market saw a sales increase of 4.7%. That trend is expected to slow slightly over the next three years, but still increase by an annual average of 4.2% through 2022.

“What I’ve seen is a very strong push for kitchens and baths, additions, and remodels,” Chapdelaine said. “That seems to be our strongest portion of the business right now. The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

“The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

That’s somewhat surprising because normally calls slow through December, January, and February, he added. “Over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that people really don’t want us in their house around the holidays. But this year, it’s been incredibly strong right through the winter months, which is great. As we gear up for spring, there’s a lot of work on the board. Usually we would be expecting the phone to ring now in anticipation of a good spring start, but it’s been ringing throughout the winter.”

Frank Nataloni, co-owner of Kitchens & Baths by Curio in Springfield, has also seen a busier-than-usual winter, perhaps because the snowfall has not been too onerous.

“We’re a year-round operation, but it really depends on the type of winter we have,” he said. “If we have a mild winter, what happens is demand ends up being spread out, and we see a bit more people through the winter. When the weather is really bad, nobody goes outside. Either way, spring is always the strongest time from a sales standpoint.”

According to the Project and Sentiment Tracking Survey conducted by HIRI toward the end of 2018, which queries adults across the U.S. about their planned home-improvement projects, outdoor living spaces will feature the most activity in the next three months. More than one-quarter of homeowners surveyed indicated they will take on lawn and garden and/or landscaping projects during this time.

R.J. Chapdelaine

R.J. Chapdelaine says the region’s older housing stock and demographic changes have contributed to a strong remodeling business in recent years.

Taking all types of projects into consideration, inside and out, the Northeast and South lead the way, with about two-thirds of homeowners in both regions saying they plan home-improvement projects this spring.

Meanwhile, whether homeowners shoulder the work themselves is relatively dependent on the project type. On average, a little more than half of all projects are of the DIY variety — and of those, many involve outdoor living spaces, with 82.6% of homeowners tackling landscaping projects.

“I have to say, people feel confident, and they’re willing to spend money on their house,” Chapdelaine said. “It seems as though people are upbeat, and we’re reaping the phone calls and the benefits of that consumer confidence.”

Trending Topics

HIRI reports that, nationally, the home-improvement products market continues to outperform many other sectors of the economy. At the organization’s 2018 Industry Insights Conference last fall, experts in the sector shared what they felt were some prevailing trends heading into 2019. Among them:

• DIYers are more likely to be Millennials, which may have to do with that generation’s connection to devices. “DIYers spend more than 60 hours per week on TV and digital devices, including computers and smartphones,” Peter Katsingris, senior vice president of insights at Neilsen, told conference attendees, according to Forbes. “The technology and the choices it provides make DIY a realistic option for people.”

• More than one-third of homeowners who completed a home-improvement project in the past year regret not spending more on the project.

• The rental housing market is on the rise. A wave of growth has increased the number and share of rental households in the U.S., especially higher-end rentals in urban areas. This reality could lead to greater interest in portable and free-standing home-improvement products tenants can take with them when they move, as opposed to permanent fixtures.

• With home wellness on the rise, the lighting industry has been coming up with intriguing options. A technology known as circadian rhythm lighting is one rising trend, producing indoor illumination that more closely matches natural light in its warmth and, paired with home automation, can shift through the day with the sun to ease the impact of artificial light on the human body.

• Finally, remodeling activity isn’t slowing down anytime soon, due in part to an aging housing stock. With home prices increasing and new construction harder to find in some areas of the country, people are staying put and remodeling. “With the existing house stock averaging 38 years old, much of the inventory is in need of updating,” Mark Boud, senior vice president and chief economist at Hanley Wood/Metrostudy, told the conference.

That aging stock is an especially relevant reality in Western Mass., but so is another trend boosting the remodeling market: an increasing desire among Baby Boomers to age in place.

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio reflects some current trends in kitchens, particularly its color palette dominated by white and grey.

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes,” said Lori Loughlin, manager of Frank Webb Home in Springfield. “They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

In some cases, that means installing mobility and safety equipment, but in others, it means building in-law suites, or even moving to — by either building or remodeling — a smaller house.

“We’re getting phone calls now for people looking to to downsize,” Chapdelaine said. “I think the Baby Boomers are going to be looking for that smaller house and aging in place.”

Style Points

As for interior styles, those haven’t shifted much over the past couple of years. Painted cabinetry finishes and color palettes dominated by white and grey are still popular in kitchens and bathrooms, Nataloni told BusinessWest. “I just did a process of cherry wood with a black finish rubbed off, and the cherry comes through the black. It’s spectacular, actually.”

Styles change, he noted, but they don’t change abruptly. “White is very popular, grey is popular, but we are starting to see other colors, hints of yellow and green, coming in. I’ll be doing a yellow kitchen — not school-bus yellow, a very pale yellow, but a very warm color.”

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes. They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

Chapdelaine reported similar, gradual movement toward color, but mainly pastels and muted colors, not too much that would be characterized as bold. “We’re still seeing a lot of white cabinetry and floors stained a number of different colors. With surfaces, we’re still running strong in quartz — some granites, but mainly quartz.”

The most important trend, of course, is that the home-improvement business as a whole remains strong.

“We’re seeing everything from full bathroom jobs to kitchens with the walls removed, right up to additions, which are ranging from family rooms to master suites,” he said. “We’re seeing more whole-house updates — painting, hardwood floors, that kind of work — and we’re also seeing whole-house remodels, which is very similar to building a house. You’re gutting the house down to the bare studs, going through and doing a new bathroom, new kitchen, new flooring, new drywall, which is kind of nice.”

He expects spring to bring its usual rush of customer inquiries as the weather continues to improve, but said people looking to get into the queue for the spring should really be calling in February and March.

Nataloni agrees, and says he appreciates the fact that, with the economy performing fairly well, homeowners are investing more money in their living space, whether they plan to stay there for a long time or improve the house’s dated look in preparation to sell it.

“We have a lot of older housing stock around here,” he said. “Wherever you go, you see someone working on their house.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]