At the depth of the slowdown in residential construction, five attendees at the first annual Civil Engineers’ Summit & Expo, April 21-22, 2009, in Los Angeles, agreed to participate in a working group discussion titled, “Now what? How firms are responding to the land development slowdown.” A couple of the participants reported that their firms’ previous “addiction” to residential land development projects accounted for 75 percent to 80 percent of their business or more. For these firms, the decline in the market began as early as the fall of 2005 in some areas, with significant contraction by mid-2006 across the country.
So how have these small and large firms from the East Coast, the Midwest, the West, and the West Coast survived? The following transcript from the working group discussion provides some insight into what civil engineering firms have found beyond land development.
Drake: How have land development opportunities changed during the last year in your markets?
Bowman: For us, it’s really been over the last three years. Our firm was about 75 percent residential three years ago. We started feeling contraction in the residential market in the middle of 2006. There are a lot fewer land development opportunities than there used to be. I think that’s a statement of the blatantly obvious.
Uitvlugt: For us, the change really started in the fall of 2005. We started to notice that [business] getting progressively slower over the last few years. We’re hoping it’s kind of bottomed out now. We used to do 80 percent of our work with land development; it’s probably around 10 percent right now. Being in Michigan with the economy there, that’s really been impacted.
Burke: We also saw a drop off. We started to see it about mid-2006. In other markets in Montana it’s been the same, where we’ve kind of lagged the other economic sectors. For a firm like ours — we’re 28 people — the bulk of our revenue came from a few larger projects, with a nice backlog of $20,000 to $30,000 jobs that were a mix of public and private. So we definitely see clients with the larger and smaller jobs that have put the brakes on and said, “Don’t do any more. I don’t know what I’m doing.” That leaves us hanging because we have a lot at stake on a few jobs.
Pereira: Our perspective has been a little bit different. We’ve been assisting a lot of public agencies reviewing some of these land development documents. We noticed initially a shift from a lot of residential projects to more industrial and commercial [projects]. Then, even those have started to dry up. This [transition was] from about mid-2006 to the middle of . Now it’s really dried up; the last half of .
Nixon: The shift has been the same for us. We knew it was coming and luckily we’re well diversified. Now we’re seeing [fewer] projects with private land developers and more projects with public agencies.
Drake: What types of projects have been impacted most?
Bowman: Like I said, it started for us three years ago. The first two years of the downturn it was primarily residential. We’ve seen over the last year the commercial get affected. Certainly over the last six months, since the stock market crashed, that’s just chilled the market totally, every aspect of the market.
Burke: We’ve definitely seen the same with private land development. In Montana it’s been interesting because commercial development has still stayed strong. We’re seeing that a lot of projects that were either already on the board or had already obtained financing during 2007 or before are still moving ahead. They still see positive business growth in some of these developments. The private subdivision work definitely has dropped off. One of the causes is a huge inventory of empty lots. Some [developers] invested in utilities just at the wrong time and some got a preliminary plat and then stopped. But in a sense, they’ve gotten into the project; they’ve invested the money and now it sits. So, we are hopeful that commercial will remain strong, and also public. But, there’s a little bit of concern because even for commercial to continue, new lots would have to come online and we’re not seeing that.
We’re seeing planning departments that have cut staff [and] engineering and public works offices that have cut staff. It’s this balancing act, and we seem to be tipping the wrong direction because we’re not prepared for a turnaround.
Pereira: Just to add to that, locally in the Los Angeles region, I’m hearing about [a firm] making significant shifts of staff that were normally dealing with land development projects and [now] working with a skeleton crew and moving staff, in order to avoid layoffs, into other divisions where there is still ongoing activity related to a lot of regulatory permits that just need to be taken care of regardless of the economic state.
Uitvlugt: For us, residential obviously was an area. It started first in single-family developments. Condominiums — single-family, multi-family, both site condominium and regular condominium — seemed to go on a little bit longer. That’s slowed. In our area, the commercial has continued quite well. However, right now we’re noticing a little bit of a slowdown there. There’s some uncertainty. Probably the main areas of focus are education and health care. That seems to be going pretty well in our area at this point.
Nixon: We’re doing more focus on education and also public agencies.
Drake: How have each of your firms responded to these market changes? What have you done to survive?
Bowman: Diversify as much as possible. We’ve picked up some large national clients that we didn’t have before — national retailers that are still going strong. We’ve picked up government clients, a lot of K-12 [schools], a lot of municipal clients. And we were not in that space before, so we were able to get into that space through the duration of the recession. A lot of relationship with design-build general contractors. We’re doing a lot of work on military bases. We have a presence on probably every major military base in the D.C.-Baltimore area. So, those things are helping us.
Hasn’t really made a difference yet, but we have a strong initiative in geothermal energy. We [established] the geothermal energy design-build section more as a strategic move for the future. But, I think it’s going to gain enough momentum that if this continues for the foreseeable future, I think our geothermal energy division will contribute to the bottom line and help us out also.
We didn’t really do that in reaction to the recession. We just did that as a long-term strategic move. It may be a coping mechanism for us through the recession.
Burke: Similarly, we’re getting more into markets that either were only maybe 20 percent of our revenue before or that were zero — getting into completely new markets. What we’ve tried to do is emphasize more some of our public works projects. Water and wastewater treatment is a big deal in Montana.
Another thing we’re looking at, which actually occurred conveniently before the stimulus money, was to get in with smaller communities that need state and federal grant money to improve water and wastewater systems. The challenge there is that we are another little fish along with half a dozen other firms that are trying to do the same thing and we’re up against one or two firms that have been doing it for 20 or 25 years. So, it’s been a challenge, not just geographically but scope-of-services-wise, to expand what we do, meet new clients, and make up for the good times when land development would come in the door without any marketing. That’s the challenge: to enter that new arena with new skills and talents.
Pereira: What we’ve done essentially is to reinforce our relationships with a lot of our municipal clients and just try to find other opportunities with those folks that we have been working with and have good relationships with and try to present to them different solutions for some of their nagging issues. We have found that to be somewhat successful. However, on the grant side, because we do quite a few different grant projects, we’ve had some setbacks there where here in the state of California grant monies were frozen. So a number of projects stopped all work. And now, there is some discussion that that is going to be hopefully starting up here around July. Our scenario is a little bit different out here in California, especially because of the state budget issues.
Nixon: Although we’ve also experienced a slowdown, our company’s leadership in sustainability has helped us remain competitive, even in this environment. There’s a big opportunity in Los Angeles that we’re moving into for watershed management.
Uitvlugt: We’re looking at first being aware of what’s going on around us. What are the opportunities that maybe we didn’t look at before and how can we, out of those things we are aware of, build those opportunities? From that, [build] relationships. We are working very hard to keep connected with our client base and also develop new relationships. And from that we’re developing partnering. Sometimes partnering with what we used to think was a competitor. Doing things where professions get together and try to develop a partnership team to deal with a particular project and then kind of capping that with target marketing. When we think of marketing the general public, there might be 10,000 people who drive by a billboard and maybe five or 10 might actually need [our services]. So, we’re trying to find those five or 10 and say, “Here’s what we have to offer.”
Bowman: I think the question was, “What have we done to cope?” One major thing I left out was cut expenses and significant cuts in staff.
Uitvlugt: That’s the thing we all don’t really want to say, but [for] most companies I’m familiar with, cutting staff is a big item.
Drake: Percentage-wise, what staff cuts have you had on the professional engineering side?
Bowman: We cut about 50 percent. We did a good job staying ahead of it the first couple of years. We’ve gone from about 300 to 160 people. So we’ve cut about 150 people: 75 of those were in the first 30 months of this recession, and the other 75 have been just in the past three or four months.
We saw a steady decline in the markets and then it got ahead of us — this cliff that happened in January and February . I’ve heard that from most of my competitors and peers. Everybody experienced that same cliff.
Uitvlugt: We’re down about a third, and we had two periods of layoffs — one was a couple years ago and then in the last six months. For us, it kind of mirrors what’s going on in the housing market. If that’s down about a third, we seem to be paralleling that pretty much because that obviously is where our focus was.
Burke: We lost one through voluntary and four through layoff, so five out of about 30 people. And on top of that, we’ve had to cut payroll and other expenses to get down to about half of our past expenses.
Pereira: We’ve maintained pretty steady at this point. We’re actually looking to hire possibly two people in the next couple months.
Drake: What do you attribute that to?
Pereira: Probably the sector that we’re in. It’s not so heavily focused on land development so we do have a little more flexibility. Some of these regulations really aren’t going away, but they’re tied to land development. They have slowed down, but there are other aspects of that work that isn’t solely focused on land development.
Nixon: Our company in Americas region lost about 12 percent. But the infrastructure group has done pretty well. I don’t think we lost our proportion of that.
Drake: Do you see any opportunities in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for in any way making up for some of that or helping in the land development realm or in affiliated or adjacent markets?
Bowman: We see a few areas. We see some of the military base work being accelerated through stimulus money. Transportation is an area we’re not in, but the transportation money, at least in Virginia, is just going to maintenance and repaving and fixing bridges. That hasn’t really generated much design work. Maybe a bit in the education [sector], but it’s a small amount. It’s not making a noticeable difference; it’s not saving us. It’s not the lifeline that’s pulling us out of it.
Uitvlugt: As it relates to residential, at this point there’s nothing that’s really impacted it with the exception of some of the effort to provide upfront credit for home buying. That’s having a slight impact at this point. It remains to be seen to what depth that would go. The other thing is that companies are starting to plan for stimulus things. A lot of municipalities are planning ahead just so when the opportunity’s there they can say, “I have this project.” Where that all unfolds is still uncertain.
Burke: It that sense, it might provide an actual stimulus to a firm like ours. Unfortunately, a lot of the communities we talk to are way behind the curve to begin with. They’re not ready to actually get money for anything. It’s still five or more years down the road. So, it’s an opportunity for us to come in and introduce ourselves and introduce some of these funding mechanisms, but it’s really not going to be anything that is for a project that they have, even if they have one a little way down the design path. It definitely isn’t going to provide any revenue to us in the short term.
When we started hearing all this, we said, “We need to look at where this money is going to start to go.” Every week that went by, it looked like it was headed into construction, which for us, is after were involved, generally. We do some construction services for inspection and surveying, but it’s not our core. We’re not too optimistic. We’re not definitely counting on it by any means.
Pereira: We’ve experienced a similar situation where a lot the stimulus money is going for activities that would happen after we would be done with design. And similarly, we do have some inspection services related to construction activities. But the stimulus money, especially here in California, a lot of it is really focused in Northern California. In Southern California, you’re not seeing a whole lot, at least not yet. We’re keeping our eyes open, but we’re not too hopeful at this point.
Burke: Is that because of the sectors it’s targeted toward?
Pereira: I think it’s Nancy Pelosi. She’s from San Francisco, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s trying to keep some of the money up in her area. I’ve heard of some politicians down here managing earmarks for some money to come to this area, but not a whole lot of it, and it is very construction heavy.
Nixon: We’re getting involved in opportunities in transportation. We’re on the California high-speed rail design team.
Bowman: I was going to mention a part of the stimulus package: the $8,000 [first-time home buyer] tax credit. We haven’t seen anything yet. I’m hopeful that along with the lower mortgage rates it’s going to stimulate housing and may stimulate a bit of a recovery in that segment.
Having been so concentrated in that, it’s such a small part of what we do right now that we feel that sector doesn’t have to recover a whole lot to really boost our top line. We’re positioned when it does come back. Somebody described it like waiting for the tooth fairy. We can’t be waiting for the tooth fairy in our business planning, but when it comes, it’s sure going to be nice.
Drake: What do you look for as the first signs that markets might be in the initial stages of recovering? What will the recovery look like?
Uitvlugt: I think, especially in the land development area, people will try to be ahead of the curve a little bit: “We want to plan so when things do occur we’re ready.” However, in our area, one of the issues we’re faced with is inventory. There’s a lot of vacant lots on the market. So, probably the first sign will be when that inventory really starts to be used up by home buyers. Then I think the developers will come to us and say, “We see this coming now; prepare us for the next phase of whatever plat.” Inventory is a big deal, but the timing of developers coming back will be ahead of the curve a little bit.
Burke: In a very narrow piece of the market, for a lot of these projects, they’ve already invested some money but haven’t done all of the infrastructure. Developers [need to] take some initiative and maybe even swallow the bitter pill of the sunk costs that they’ve already put into it. Go back to the drawing board and say, “These quarter-acre, or whatever they have to be, single-family lots aren’t going to be the product we want, but we think we can turn it into something else. Take some of what we’ve done, perhaps, and re-engineer this into a multi-generational community, or some other mixed-use environment.”
As we start to see more of that, I think there will be greater support for such a project. I think we’re seeing a lot of political discouragement of continued sprawl and continued loss of agricultural land. As developers start to recognize that and actually invest and make a real move in that direction, I think there will be a better demand. And probably some of that stimulus money — first-time home buyer money — that’s the kind of project that could be supported by that.
Uitvlugt: We’ve experienced some developers buying land from other developers — that decided for whatever reason not to continue — so they can get value on that land. Some of those developers are saying, “We’re going to redesign the very land that we bought.”
We have projects with an entire site laid out and the purchaser said, “We want to revisit that with a different concept.” They’re doing that because they can get value on the land, planning for one or two years out, I would say.
Bowman: The markets we’re in, it’s going to be led by recovery in residential. We’re already seeing some of it. People [are] repositioning what’s already been titled on paper — repositioning for the new market because it’s going to be different than the market that tailed off on the last cycle.
Drake: Do you see any continued or any interest in sustainable designs? Does LEED certification play any role in how people are looking either at projects they are continuing or projects they might be looking at down the road?
Nixon: I think there’s going to be more emphasis on mixed use than there used to be. That’s a huge factor in sustainable design.
Uitvlugt: We’re finding that whether it’s nonresidential, schools, to art museums — Grand Rapids has one that’s completely green, the first in the world — whether it’s residential or nonresidential, there really seems to be an interest in going into that area. [For] residential, the jury is a little bit out because it hasn’t come back fully. But the people who do design, that’s really what they’re promoting, and I feel there is a market once the residential picks up.
Burke: I think the LEED emphasis on individual buildings has been a good start, but my gut feeling is that it definitely advances those goals with the community development program that they’re just starting right now. I think it’s only been going a few months. They’re looking at expanding that building process large scale into a community-wide effort.
Several of our engineers got LEED AP certification for that reason — to get in and become familiar. Even if we don’t do building engineering and construction, [they] become familiar with types of tools and also the attitudes that you’re going to approach the project with. I do think that there should be greater emphasis on that, if not from government entities, at least from some of the public and the final end users — the consumers of the houses or public buildings that are going to be constructed.
Pereira: Here in Southern California, specifically in the Los Angeles area, there’s been a very strong push for doing a lot of green building. The county of Los Angeles recently passed an ordinance where it is a requirement for all new development and redevelopment projects to incorporate a lot of the low-impact development techniques and principles, which include hydro-modification-type issues where peak discharge off of the site is not going to exceed the predevelopment condition, incorporating cisterns, trying to mimic predevelopment conditions where you’re keeping the water on site, infiltrating it back into the groundwater table. In addition to that, the city of Los Angeles has recently been pushing some green building initiatives as well. Their community redevelopment agency requires the developers they work with to sit through a consultation for sustainable development. It’s semi-required at this point. I think they’re trying to encourage some folks and give them the tools that they need to do that. Just educate them, but eventually, that is the road that they’re heading down.
Nixon: The great thing about LEED is that it makes for an easy formula for green design. And because it makes it so easy, I think it’s going to make green design a lot more widespread than it would otherwise be. They now have a category called New Development, which will affect land development as well.
Uitvlugt: One of changes we’ve seen is urban LEED versus what I call more rural. The younger generation really wants to be in the core city. To do that, they’re looking for something that is unique and fits in with green-type residential. So, we’re really experiencing a renewal of our core city with a lot of people moving there. They want to be able to walk to things. It’s almost all centered around green and sustainability.
Drake: No one really knows where we’re going economically, when the recovery will be, but what do you expect the land development market to look like a year from now and five years down the road?
Bowman: I’m hopeful that the residential will be well on its way to recovery a year from now. Where we are, and I imagine the same where you are, the entitlement process is so complex that the upfront time to get entitlements creates such a long lead. So we have to be hired well in advance of when a builder is going to be delivering a house. There’s a lot of signals in the larger economy that residential will be back in 2010 or 2011. If somebody wants to be poised for 2010, they have to be hiring us now. We’re starting to see that. So, six months from now, people will be hiring us to hit the market in 2011. So, I think a year from now we’ll see, relatively speaking, a much more robust residential market.
I know for our firm, and I think this is the normal evolution of a lot of firms that start in land development, what the land development market will look like five years from now, we’re not so concerned about that. It will still be a major part of what we do, as opposed to 95 percent of what we did going into the last cycle, it will be more on the order of a third to half of what we do. We’re already getting a lot more balanced. I think firms just learn these lessons. You know it intellectually going into it, you know it can happen, but you have to experience it to really get everybody to follow and do what you have to do to diversify.
I’m sure that we will [retain the diversification.] Five years ago, we knew that overreliance on the residential market was unhealthy. It was like an addiction. The work was coming in; it was so easy. Now that we as a group have suffered through this, it will be much easier for me as a leader to lead our group into continuing to diversify.
Burke: It will be interesting to see how the demographic shifts in the country affect land development. That’s the main driver. We’re building places for people to live and work and play. For instance, all other things being equal, if the population declines, you will need fewer places to live. What becomes of the places where we don’t live anymore? What’s needed as immigration rates rise and fall? Is the global economy going to affect some of the projections from a year ago that said the U.S. birthrate will decline but immigration will go up. The population will still increase. That demographic is obviously different than our internal growth rate.
So what does it look like? I think it does take into account a lot of the LEED goals and visions with a lot more pressure to condense and have people live in mixed use developments and take advantage of land that’s already been developed, even if it has to be redeveloped or brownfields developed. And, I think a greater recognition of the need to preserve working agricultural land and not use it up permanently. Whereas agriculture is a sustainable practice generally, once you pave it, you’re stuck with it.
I think we will head more in that direction. The rates of that urban boundary increasing are going to decline and we’re going to see more redevelopment, which we’re already seeing now.
Pereira: Just speaking for Southern California locally, look at the Inland Empire, look at Riverside and San Bernadino Counties, they’ve probably been impacted the hardest. You hear about the unemployment rates and they are consistently way above the state average. A lot of the land development activities out here have been happening in that particular area. Until some of those unemployment rates start to go down, and housing costs — housing costs are still really high out here in California — I don’t think you’re going to see a recovery that quickly. I think it’s going to stretch out a little bit longer out here. Things just seem really shaky in California still.
The state still has a budget issue that still hasn’t been quite resolved. After hearing this morning’s keynote speaker, it sounds like we have another cliff coming, which is kind of scary to hear about. Who knows what is in store for us, but I do think that some of the initiatives that some public agencies are pushing such as the green building efforts will help stimulate some other parts of the economy to help the land development sector.
Nixon: I agree that the recovery is going to be slow and there is going to be less emphasis on urban sprawl, like taking fresh land and developing it. It’s going to be more about urban redevelopment and mixed-use redevelopment. That will affect the economy because the market’s going to be for walkable development and the businesses that support that.
Uitvlugt: “How long?” is the question that if we all had the right answer we could plan accordingly. We’re finding two things. Diversification… we’re saying, “What can we learn from what we’re going through right now?” How is that going to affect us as a company going into the future?” What we’re doing now, we don’t want to lose. We want to be able to carry that into the future along with some of the things that will be coming back.
I feel that consumer confidence is going to be what’s going to really start things going. Whether that happens in a year or not, I can’t quite answer that, but I feel there are a lot of buyers out there waiting. Once that momentum starts to build, whether that’s a year or more, I’m not certain, but I feel sometime next year we’re going to start to see consumers, especially with some of the tax breaks, say, “Ok, now it’s time.” People do want to move into their own place, or move into another place, but they just don’t feel now is the time to do it.
Pereira: I think the credit market also definitely needs to change in order for some of this to really happen. Friends of mine have a lot of equity in their home and they’re just trying to refinance to take advantage of the lower interest rates and, for whatever reason, the banks will just not move on it. They both have steady jobs, very high-paying jobs, and they can’t get it refinanced. The credit markets are really tight still.
Burke: We see that too. We see bankers who touted how conservative they had been: “We’re fine. We never gave any of these shaky loans so we’re happy to lend to you. Come see us.” But we know there’s some banks out there that are on the other end of the spectrum. Overall, the prices here are still high. That’s another bitter pill that people are having to swallow is the fact that they’re either upside down on their loan or for whatever reason need to move and can’t get the price that they want. Something eventually will have to happen and those prices are going to ratchet down. The tax credits are part of that, from the other side, enabling more people to pay what’s being asked. Ultimately, it’s existing owners that have to loosen their psychological grip on the price that they need to get out of their house, or want to get out of their house, and let it go, if they need to let it go, or take it off the market.
Uitvlugt: Consumers are starting to say, “I can do with less. I don’t need what I thought I needed before, or what I wanted before.” That’s going to affect the housing also. They’re going to want something different — more value — whether that means more urban, or what that means. How [do you] catch that understanding and then be prepared to deal with that? But, consumers, I don’t think, are going to go back into the market for a long time like they were four or five years ago, with the same mindset.
Periera: I’ve read some articles to that effect recently. People want much less than what they wanted previously.
Uitvlugt: We’re finding that as we go through this, the people who were in the land development business still want to do that. But, they’re not ready yet because obviously you want to develop to sell. When the time changes, I think these people are going to start saying, “Let’s do something creative; let’s do something unique.” I feel, they’re just waiting, and the question is when are they ready. I think it’s going to be when the consumer says, “I have a sense that now’s the time.”
Burke: In a sense, they’re going through the same thing engineering firms are going through and everyone else. Everyone did really well, so a lot of guys got into the game: “It’s easy money. I’m going to go buy some land and sell some houses or sell some lots.” Now those guys are getting out to find easier money somewhere else. What’s left, generally, is developers who are able to see a little bit better vision and a little more sustainable future for their industry, which obviously benefits us. That’s who’s going to survive in this industry and that’s who’s going to survive in that industry are people who can see a longer view and see a more sustainable future and a way to achieve that.
Drake: Do you think that will bring a greater emphasis on design and more complexity in design as they look for more creative ways to develop?
Uitvlugt: I think it will add more value to design. If you do a community, how can you either streamline or make it match what the residents want. Something is going to be different. That’s the challenge we face as engineering firms. We can’t reinvent who we are beyond a certain point, but we can recognize that there are changes and do our very best to say, “What can we do to help those changes move ahead?” There’s going to be something a little bit different than business as usual. I’m not quite certain what that is yet.
Pereira: I think you’re going to start seeing multiple uses a little bit more. In this area, you’re seeing a lot of mixed-use redevelopment-type projects. I think you’re going to start seeing a little bit more of that where communities are going to become more integrated, more multi-use, multi-functional. We’re seeing a little bit of that down in Orange County where the old El Toro airbase used to be. They’re doing this Great Parks community, which is something out of this world. I think you’re going to start seeing a shift in that direction.
Nixon: Maybe higher densities in some areas and then shared green space in other areas.
Uitvlugt: A challenge that the land development people face is determining what the buyer really wants. I’ve seen some developers say this is what we think the buyer wants and they move forward and then find out that’s not really what the buyer wants. Regionally, it varies. If you’re in Washington or L.A. or Montana or Michigan, the market is different. So to recognize that and to do what works for your area, that’s the challenge. And that’s unfolding as we go through this slowdown.
Bowman: From an engineering business point of view, in spite of what our firm has been through and what I’ve personally been through the past couple years, it’s still a great business to be in. When times are good — they don’t have to be on fire — as much as in any aspect of the civil engineering business, you have the opportunity to differentiate yourself. In a regular market, time is so valuable to the client. If you can show you can save the client time, you can almost name your fee — provide good service and save the client time.
People have to recognize that you have to keep a good solid balance sheet because it is a cyclical business — always has been and always will be. You have to retain earnings in the business. And you have to accept the fact that there’s going to be cycles and you have to look forward and be prepared to cut your firm back, cut your expenses back. But, I’m still committed to it. I think it’s a great business to be in.
Gary Bowman, P.E., principal, Bowman Consulting, Chantilly, Va.
Jason D. Burke, P.E., project manager, Billings, Mont., formerly with Allied Engineering Services, Inc.
Cherie Nixon, P.E., LEED AP, senior engineer, ARUP, Los Angeles
Jason Pereira, P.E., principal, California Watershed Engineering, Anaheim, Calif.
Eric P. Uitvlugt, P.S., CEO, exxel engineering, inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.