Economic crisis and what it means for us

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Economic crisis and what it means for us

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    Claudia Chalfa

    Great advice, Eric, thank you. 🙂

    Claudia Chalfa

    It varies from state to state, Noah. SC is, I believe, 2 years, and NC is three. I am not sure about GA.

    John Black

    Claudia, you sound passionate enough to make just about anything happen, and I doubt I could dash cold water on your zeal even if I wanted to. BUT (sorry, you felt it coming), having founded a nonprofit once upon a time, I feel you may be underestimating both the process and the power of such an agency. You said:

    >>Non-profit organizations are tax-exempt and able to charge much less for services, and are also able to accept grants and donations

    Don’t be fooled by the words “tax exempt.” Functionally, the only difference between a non-profit and a for-profit is that the non-profit serves a broad base, i.e. your work benefits the general public as opposed to a private interest, so the (U.S.) government gives your corporation a nod in terms of tax relief. But that means “accepting” grants and donations isn’t optional; it’s the heart of your non-profit status, and seeking those grants, in sufficient number and diversity, will be your consuming endeavor.

    There is plenty of grant money out there, but identifying it and making your case to the grantors season after season will take at least as much effort as your true mission. It’s work best done by a specialist, who will be expensive — as will your staff, their benefits, office space, computers, travel, insurance, insurance, insurance… and where does that money come from? For us, fundraising (especially at startup) was an unforgiving furnace that had to be fed constantly to keep the agency going, draining vital resources away from our “real” work. And unfortunately, if you start bidding for the lucrative private projects — which probably are more interesting/fulfilling anyhow — you jeopardize your nonprofit status because the government may just decide you don’t serve the public so you don’t need that tax break after all.

    I’m a year behind you on the career trajectory, so I’m hardly in a position to give you job advice. But I do know that in tough economic times, some for-profit firms actually increase their pro bono work to (a) keep staff busy and (b) polish their portfolios. I wonder whether you would be happier finding a firm with a strong pro bono record and selling yourself in as a talented, passionate, affordable resource? Not that it’s that easy, but starting a non-profit might just be harder. Good luck!

    Claudia Chalfa

    Thanks for your dose of reality, John. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am really just brainstorming here and trying to create a “plan B” scenario in the event that I don’t have a job this coming May. I am a very optimistic person. I think the economy will make a turn by then, and I am hopeful that I will have a job with a firm and that will be the end of this discussion. I am not in any shape to start any sort of firm right now – I have to be licensed first, and have some experience under my belt. But if there are non-profit firms already out there, or other interested parties that might want to create some sort of co-op or non-profit venture that I can be a part of (assuming I don’t have the anticipated job with a firm by then) I am very interested in exploring my other options. I do understand what you are saying, and maybe it is possible that the non-profit status could be a temporary measure, until the economy improves. I know that the non-profit I worked for in the UK does some great community work and is the largest employer of landscape architects in the UK. However, I also know that they don’t make as much money and do more site-design work rather than master planning, etc. Plus, the UK is a different country with different laws and ways of doing things.

    I am not trying to say I have all (or any) of the answers. I am just trying to get everyone to think outside of the box. I want those of us who love this profession and don’t want to have to compromise our careers to have some other options to examine if we either lose our current jobs or graduate and can’t find an entry-level job.

    Claudia Chalfa

    I am really hoping that our new President will arrive in office with an economic package that includes lots of public works projects for all of us to work on. Then we will be in demand again almost immediately.

    Nada Abdel Khalek

    HI Claudia,
    Have you considered working abroad such as the Middle East which is still booming (relatively though). Many landscape architecture practices from the US, Europe, and Australia are opening offices in the region.
    Let me know if I can help you in any way.

    Claudia Chalfa

    I really wanted this thread to turn into a brainstorming session about how we can ride out this current economic crisis, and the non-profit idea has sort of taken control of the conversation. Please, everyone, feel free to present other ideas for us to discuss. I’d like to think that this discipline ‘takes care of its own’ and doesn’t allow talented people to drift away into other fields because of lack of work. Look at the arts community as a model – they always take care of each other and support each other because the community at large isn’t always supportive of the arts. I think we need to be the same way. Many people don’t understand what we do, and don’t know how much we can actually help with economic, social and environmental problem-solving through our design and facilitating work.

    Claudia Chalfa

    Yes, I would love to go back to Egypt and work, I have so many friends there and the cost of living is so much lower than here. However, I have a personal situation that prevents me from doing so right now. It would only work if I stayed here in the US and perhaps took trips over there to do site analysis. Nothing would make me happier than to find that sort of work!

    Matt Sprouse

    First, let me say that I think your discussion here is a timely one that is one every designer’s mind – architects, landscape architect, engineers, and the like. I’ve been thinking about your comments regarding your situation and licensure as well as the non-profit firm idea – here is my opinion:
    As for licensure, it is definitely a goal of any LA that devotes their career to the profession. It is a status identity in many cases, as it one of the few things we have that validates our professionals. It also gives us something to use as a marketing tools to differentiate ourselves from planners and designers. IN many cases, it gives us an opportunity to charge more for services, because the license carries with it a heavy liability. Once you stamp a plan, you are the accountable party for what gets constructed.
    With that stamp comes a whole other level of liability, insurance, annual fees, and continuing education that has to be maintained. I am currently licensed in 3 states and also have my CLARB certification to ease the reciprocity process in states I may need to acquire licensure. Even in a firm of 4 licensed LA’s, I am the only one who stamps plans. I would imagine that, regardless of licensure, most design firms limit who stamps plans.
    I guess what I’m getting at is – licensure is important DEPENDING on the direction you want to take your career. I know plenty of LA’s that are not licensed and work on incredibly complex projects and enjoy greater compensation for it. You will no doubt get your license, eventually.

    As for the non-profit, I’m still on the fence. I work with a number of non-profits as clients, but the private, for-profit, firm owner in me sees a non-profit design firm as unfair competition. I can definitely see the benefit of a non-profit group helping to facilitate the design process with organizations such as affordable housing developers, land owners, or government agencies. It could function as an advocate for the owner in the design process. You may get more of a consensus if the for-profit design professionals don’t see it as a threat to their livelihood.

    Claudia, I also just realized looking at your profile and photo that you sat in the presentation I gave to Prof. Chanse’s class on Monday. Good luck with final presentations and the end of semester. Great questions and discussions happening on this site. I hope you encourage your classmates to participate as well.

    Claudia Chalfa

    Hi Matt! Thanks for your input. I wish I could have stayed longer for the after-lecture discussion, but as you knew, we had final presentations Monday. Your work was impressive and made me all the more ready to get out there!

    I definitely see your point with regards to unfair competition against for-profit firms. As for the licensure issue, I am very goal-oriented and I want to be able to call myself a landscape architect, so I will get licensed because of that. Whether I am the one stamping the plans in the end is less important to me, although I will accept that responsibility if it is given to me.

    Matt Sprouse

    i completely agree with Eric’s comments about unadvertised jobs. It is, in every instance, who you know and the contacts you’ve made. That goes for obtaining work. In this economic environment, it is more important than ever.

    Claudia Chalfa

    The arts community does, in fact, take care of its own. Whenever you go to a gallery opening, theater production, poetry reading, etc…you can bet that a large number of the people there are artists themselves, out to support their friends so the same will be true when it is their turn to perform or show their work. Artists also trade work with each other and build each other up a lot more than other professions. Sure, there is competition, but the successful artists know how hard it was before they became successful, and most of them try to pull their friends up the ladder along with them. Having been involved intimately in the arts community my entire life, I can promise you that it is a very supportive environment.

    I have joint custody of my children with my ex-husband, so I have almost no mobility options at this point in my life. I wouldn’t even be having this discussion if that weren’t the case: I have jobs waiting for me now in both Northern Ireland and Egypt, but I can’t take them because of my family situation.

    As for pro-bono work, I will be very happy to do that sort of work, on the side, when I have a job. Working for free doesn’t feed my family.

    Rico Flor

    Hi Claudia.

    Just a thought: ever explore possibilities in the UN-Habitat? More consultancy work and stuff that’s a bit withdrawn from actual nuts and bolts design though. No personal experience, but I have seen professors and family members at similar jobs. Or maybe Habitat for Humanity?

    On the other hand, your background on health care, was it? Could surely help if you make your own niche on hospital landscapes, or therapeutic garden design.

    Last resort, the UAE. But that takes out altruism in the equation since most projects here are market-driven. Plus, I think the economic downturn is starting to make itself felt…things are slowing down. (But, lay you in on a secret, some are still hiring as far as I know).

    If you do make successful inroads towards that benevolent direction, do send a heads-up. I’m interested myself in the role of landscape architecture in settlement/habitat development in the economic/self-empowering point of view.

    Good luck and congratulations to your coming graduation.

    PS. My wife got her graduate degree in Clemson too, though in Food Science. Wanted to take a graduate degree there too but they didn’t have any such program back in ’91.

    Jack Sprat

    Claudia, it is good to see you are exploring your options in regard to your pending May graduation. This has to be the most difficult time ever for graduating landscape architects. As a Landscape Architect practicing in the Upstate I have seen first hand the slow down in new work. Just about every firm I am aware of in the Greenville / Clemson market has been forced to let go of some very talented people in order to stay afloat. And this is not just Landscape Architecture firms, it is happening to all design disciplines.

    I say this not to be the bearer of doom and gloom but to remind you to network, network, network. It’s important for you to get out there and meet people while you are still a student, as it sounds as if you are going to be tied to the Upstate upon graduation. If the economy does pick up as we all hope in the spring and summer and firms have the ability to hire new staff, you are going to want you name to be at the top of the list. There are a lot of people looking for work in our field, and that list grows daily as firms lay off and students graduate. The days of having your pick of job offerings has vanished for the time being.

    As someone mentioned earlier, get out there and shake those trees. Attend an Upstate Landscape Architects meeting, visit all the different firms, and meet the City Planners for all the towns in our area. Build those contacts now, they will pay off in the future.

    Claudia Chalfa

    Thanks, Jeff. Do you know when the next upstate LA meeting is? And Rico, I’m going to look up UN-habitat right now. I had already considered HFH but wasn’t sure if they hired LA’s. I guess it never hurts to ask, though!


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