Scene Report: VT Firms Report Increased Work in 2021

By Sarah O Donnell

Ask almost any architect or builder what the last year has been like for them, and you’re likely to receive answers along the lines of, “busiest we’ve ever been”, and “almost can’t keep up”. The pandemic has brought about some unexpected changes for Vermont’s design-build community, with one of the biggest being a significant uptick in the amount of work available after a slowdown in early 2020. I wanted to try to see if this was true across the board, so I reached out to a variety of members, located in all corners of the state, firms of various sizes, and asked what they’re seeing as we shift into the last quarter of 2021. 

I heard back from firms in central and southern Vermont, employing four to over twenty full-time individuals. When asked to describe the current workload, the answers consistently captured an abundant amount of work. One firm described their year as having more work than any year since 2007. When asked how far into the future projects are scheduled, one firm responded that “financially, the current workload will sustain us for the next 6 to 9 months if nothing else comes in. However, the phone is still ringing with new prospects.” Another firm said their projects are scheduled out to fall of 2023, while another mentioned having a strong backlog of projects. 

While there are many good things to be said for having an abundance of design work, the supply chain issues and labor shortages are posing some significant challenges for project timelines. One firm described the impact on scheduling and bidding, in that projects that are going out to bid now will start next summer at the earliest. Another firm shared that builders won’t commit to fixed costs on anything that’s more than a couple of months out, which is leaving a lot of construction contracts open-ended. “Uncertainty is creating a lot of anxiety for both builders and clients, but they’re still mostly moving ahead.” Deliveries are as much as six months delayed for some items, and firms are trying to work around this by using more local materials when they can. 

While the labor shortage is being felt on the building side, with construction companies looking for new hires, but having trouble finding experienced tradespeople, it’s also being felt within architecture firms. Keeping up with the new workload means many firms are hiring (AIA Vermont’s jobs board currently has 12 positions posted), and while some firms reported receiving only a few qualified applicants, most seem to be able to eventually find additional staff. While the busy working conditions help to provide an optimistic outlook for the future for many firms, the risk of burnout is also a reality. One firm shared that “we somehow manage without working crazy hours –but  we’ll see if that holds up in the next few months.” While we may have initially thought that COVID would be in the past by now, conversations consistently steer towards the fact that most of us have accepted that it has and will likely continue to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Taking time out to exercise, spend time with loved ones, and get away from the computer are all important ways to take care of oneself during this unique time.