Are We Overbuilt? Belt-Tightening Coming?

With Lightfair in Vegas at the end of the month and NFPA's World Safety Conference in Orlando the following week, a recent story noting Chicago has slipped to No. 3 as convention host behind these two cities noted above, comes as no surprise. Last year I was in Vegas or Orlando four times and I'll be back again in each city before the end of the year.

05/01/2006


With Lightfair in Vegas at the end of the month and NFPA's World Safety Conference in Orlando the following week, a recent story noting Chicago has slipped to No. 3 as convention host behind these two cities noted above, comes as no surprise. Last year I was in Vegas or Orlando four times and I'll be back again in each city before the end of the year. I'm not trying to impress you with my frequent-flyer miles, but rather emphasizing how, the sunshine and entertainment power of these two communities is having a major impact on what other municipalities are doing to attract business. The Windy City certainly remains undaunted, adding another huge western addition to already massive McCormick Place complex. The Big Apple is also putting a whole new face on the Javits Center. And from some of the projects we're reporting in this issue, including expansions in Phoenix and San Francisco, it seems the nation's other major metropolises aren't giving up either. In the short term, this is great for engineers in this market. It's even better that many of the suburbs of these major cities are building smaller, but more airport-centric facilities.

But putting on my city planner hat, I wonder if all this construction is justified. More and more I find that many readers whom I regularly try to keep in contact with at these shows and conferences are not flying out. Obviously, engineers are only a small slice of the convention game, but in general, it seems that trade show audiences are not growing, and if anything, these cities are really stealing from each other.

This brings up the whole issue of whether we should build something simply because we can. In suburbia, where I live and work, it irks me to see strip mall after strip mall—and gas stations—go up only to leave another abandoned on the other side of the street. Competition and fear of lost clients are powerful drivers, and I certainly understand why these cities are expanding their facilities. But I also read a disturbing report from AIA's chief economist Kermit Baker: Architectural billings stalled in March, despite a seemingly improving economy, and in fact, were only incrementally better than February's less-than-impressive numbers. More disconcerting was the index for new project inquiries, which Baker reported hit its lowest level since May 2004. He cautions designers to keep an eye on this index to see if we are indeed are entering a slowdown. Soaring gas prices and inflation, particularly for construction materials, he said, are the major culprits.

So where does this leave the M/E design community? The successful engineering firms that I've encountered have picked up on a lesson that runs through a lot of building types today, including convention centers: flexibility. It may be time to limber up and re-evaluate some projects in the pipeline as a sea change may be coming.





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