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Editorial: Are We There Yet?

By Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen,

I'm not going to say it's over. I'm not sure anyone can say so with any certainty, at least not right now. But it sure seems like the economic outlook for 2011 is brighter.

I know—unemployment is still hovering just over nine percent, home prices continue to drop with millions of foreclosures depressing the housing market, and the government is expected to run a deficit exceeding $1 trillion for the third consecutive year, according to the Associated Press (AP). Things still appear pretty bleak if you look at certain data, and if your firm isn't seeing an increase in design activity yet, I don't blame you for having a more pessimistic attitude.

So why am I (relatively) optimistic? In short, economists generally agree and statistics show that things are getting better, even for some design and architecture firms. Overall in 2010, factories produced more, shoppers spent more and companies hired more, all of which point to a stronger economy in 2011, according to a recent survey of nationwide economic conditions conducted by the Federal Reserve. As it relates specifically to the A&D industry, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) inched up three points, hitting its highest mark (52 points) since December 2007. This is significant because according to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), any score above 50 indicates an increase in demand for design services. Also, the current U.S. office furniture market forecast from the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) shows an increase in production from $8.2 billion in 2010 to $8.9 billion this year.

Still, apprehension is understandable. Though the ABI index is up, not every firm is feeling the momentum. "While this is heartening news, it would be premature to say the design and construction industry is out of the woods yet," says AIA chief economist, Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA. "We continue to hear a wide mix of business conditions, with a good deal of it still indicating flat or no demand for design services. Once we see several months in a row of increasing demand we can feel safe saying we have entered a recovery phase. Until then, we can expect continued volatility in business conditions," he concludes.

Whatever lies ahead, it is still an exciting time to be in design, as evidenced by some of the great projects and content we've packed into this issue. For example, our cover story on Cooper Carry's new Atlanta headquarters is a striking departure from your typical high-rise office, with a beautiful and bold reception area clad in black granite walls and a modular, black steel-plate flooring system with the firm's LEED certification etched into it. With the goal of doing more than paying lip service to the gospel of sustainable design that they preach to their clients, project architect Brian Parker says their new office "dispels the misconception with a percentage of the general public that a really high level of sustainability may mean bamboo or visibly obvious cliché products." We couldn't agree more.

Speaking of breaking down traditional models and modes of thinking, one of the latest trends in design is doing just that as it relates to products and furnishings: customization. In her article, visionary designer and artist Stacy Garcia explains that "with customization tools, designers no longer have mills and manufacturers making trend choices for them. The entire spectrum of colors and other options is at our fingertips." That freedom of choice, however, comes with a caveat that should be heeded by all designers: temperance. "Once we are freed from the old model of manufacturer-controlled trend development and pre-manufactured products," writes Garcia, "we run the risk of getting carried away. In a world of amazing options and wild possibilities, we must always temper our own creative vision by asking ourselves, 'What will make our customers happy?' That requires restraint."

If the goal is happy customers, then furniture manufacturer Gunlocke certainly knows a thing or two about it. In this issue, they reveal the makeover story of the winning entry in their first "Office Needs for Good Deeds" contest. Donating $75,000 worth of furniture to the non-profit organization Crisis Nursery in Illinois, the company has put a huge smile on the faces of the Nursery's staff and the neglected or abused children they serve.

And that's something we can all feel good about.