The key to survival for architectural lighting firms in the most alarming economy since the Great Depression is flexibility in every aspect of one's practice—from business structure to design approach.
Adapting—whether it means working on only the design phases of a project and not overseeing build-out, developing an alternative fee structure, exploring a new market, or the ability to change and think in terms of both short- and long-term timelines—is the key to many an architect and lighting designer's business survival strategy in 2009. “If somebody on the street asked me what I do, I'd say I'm a designer. But really, I'm a service provider,” says Mitchell B. Kohn, whose solo lighting design practice is based in Highland Park, Ill.
WORK IS WORK Budgets for design and construction are far tighter than in previous years, and every potential client is looking to spend what resources they have left economically and efficiently. “[Clients] expect the same quality [work], but they don't want to pay,” says Janet Nolan, owner of J.S. Nolan + Associates Lighting Design in San Francisco. “Everybody wants a deal. And as much as we may not like it, it is the reality right now.”
There is widespread hope on the part of the architectural and lighting design communities that with the Obama administration unleashing some $787 billion in stimulus money, some of those new New Deal dollars could find their way to design firms. But much of the work in the pipeline that lighting designers will see in the years to come will most likely be the result of renovation, expansion, and updating the energy efficiency of buildings, says Nancy Kleppel of New York–based business consultancy Nancy Kleppel Consulting. Kleppel—who has been involved in the architecture profession for more than 20 years—and her firm tend to offer their business consulting services to design firms. “It's going to become a bigger chunk of available work,” Kleppel says. “And that's not a bad thing, since it's work that will benefit us all.”
Kleppel encourages architects and lighting designers to position themselves to capture jobs that, while not necessarily the most glamorous, do provide a steady cash flow. For example, she recently advised an architect just starting out that a replacement window project was precisely the type of work to get a foot in the door and start building a relationship with a client that could lead to repeat business and larger-scale projects. “Now more than ever people are open to [commissions they might not have previously considered] because they need the income,” Kleppel says. “Whoever you are, wherever you're from, I don't think anybody should be too proud to take those jobs when they're relevant.”
EXPAND YOUR SERVICE AREA, AND YOUR SCOPE OF SERVICES Some firms, such as Marina del Ray, Calif.–based Integrated Lighting Design (ILD), achieve flexibility through geographic diversity. With more than 20 years experience, principal Babu Shankar has overseen projects in the United States, India, China, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. While the financial downturn has hit economies all over the globe, having an international practice means Shankar's firm sees more potential business opportunities, allowing it to have greater latitude than firms only operating in one market or one country. “If one place falls, the other place picks up, and so on,” Shankar explains.
ILD's project portfolio currently includes 70 percent hotel and hospitality work, 20 percent retail, and 10 percent high-end residential, which in the past few years has been a component of many new hotel campuses. Shankar observes that hospitality work is starting to dry up and is worried about the second half of 2009. Like most architects, he's had some projects canceled and others put on hold or delayed.
But Shankar remains optimistic. Despite the economic turmoil, he still has clients who believe now is an opportune time to build—as long as they have the financing. “I've gotten two projects where people feel it's a good time to build because everybody is hungrier and they can get better pricing,” he notes.
Lighting design firm Available Light, which has offices in Boston and New York, is structured into three areas of business: architectural lighting, museum exhibition design, and corporate communications lighting (mainly for trade shows). Diversification in three different markets gives Available Light great flexibility, and also improves its design services. “A lot of what we learn about high-tech lighting—what's the latest in the industry—has come from the trade show work, which then feeds it's way into the architecture, museum, and theatrical work,” says company owner and lighting designer Steven Rosen.
FOSTER CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS For Rosen, Kohn, and others, another key to surviving these turbulent times—both in terms of obtaining new projects and maintaining professional ties—is networking and keeping up with old clients. Attracting new business is always welcome, but in a time when finding new work is difficult, it's important for lighting design firms to realize that they need to work just as hard to keep the business they already have. Cultivating relationships with the current client base can go a long way, and staying on top of projects and what clients are doing is essential to gain momentum in this economy.
If anything, these economic times require not just flexibility, but tenacity. “It's a little bit of forecasting—keeping a chart of who said they've got such and such a project and they'll need me at some point in the future,” Kohn explains. “Then it's [about the follow-up]—a phone call saying, ‘You mentioned a project a couple of months ago, are you working on it?'”
Ethan Butterfield is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist who has written for BUILDER, ARCHITECT, and other publications.