Top 250 Design Survey 2013 - October 2013

By Darius Helm


This year’s survey reveals clear signs of a strengthening of the commercial market, though it’s not across all sectors, and there’s still a sense that the market is fragile and nervous. But it looks like the low point has been passed, and the A&D community is starting to feel more optimistic about the projects coming down the pipeline.

From the colors and designs on display at this year’s NeoCon show in Chicago to the subtle shift in designers’ priorities, the general impression is that it’s time to stop hunkering down and get back to the business of designing commercial interiors. 

The corporate sector, which accounts for the bulk of commercial billings, has been strengthening for a couple of years, initially through tenant improvement projects and more recently through the owner occupied segment. While the jobs market may still be in limbo, corporate profits are painting a picture of a strengthening U.S. economy. Nevertheless, global factors are a bigger influence than in years past, and there’s still a lot of instability in the European Union and in parts of Asia.

Reports from various commercial sectors and analysis from industry experts suggest that some sectors, like hospitality, healthcare and higher education, should be building momentum, but this year’s surveyed designers don’t appear to be backing that up. Most designers report that education projects are indeed up this year, but K-12 seems to be growing faster than higher education. 

Floor Focus asked designers about their top three projects of the last year, and the results show a 20% increase in large university projects, compared to an 85% increase in K-12 projects. One possible explanation is that publicly funded K-12 projects are known for their long timelines, and on top of that, it’s likely that projects stalled due to funding problems are starting to get on track again. So there may not be many new K-12 projects, but still a lot that were already in the pipeline when the public funding dried up.

This year’s designers, however, do appear to confirm that the owner-occupied corporate segment is doing fairly well, though large Fortune 500 projects are down 25% compared to this time last year. And tenant improvement jobs are down about 45%.

One market that has shown few signs of life in the last few years is retail store planning. Tighter household budgets have reduced disposable incomes, and families have been getting used to doing more with less, so the retail sector has shrunk accordingly. And even though unemployment numbers have fallen modestly, most Americans are not doing much better, so they’re not spending much more either. The last holiday season (December 2012) was lackluster at best, well below expectations, though large retail chains posted gains.

So the retail sector itself is a lot smaller, and there’s less square footage in need of renovation. But there’s only so long retailers can go without updating their looks. And this year, designers report an increase in retail jobs among their top projects, even though, across all projects, retail business is about flat. So it could be that those large retail chains that have made it through the recession, as the smaller independents have crumbled, may indeed be doing some renovations.

There do appear to be reasons for optimism going into this holiday season, with about 5% growth in retail cargo containers compared to this time last year, but these days even the use of the word “optimism” is met with more jaundiced stares than are politician’s promises, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the season brings.

As expected, designers report that government jobs are down, both overall and in large projects—large government projects are down 36% and total government billings are down even more, by about 55%. And with another three years of a lame duck administration, there’s unlikely to be any serious developments in government work.

The big surprise has been the healthcare sector. All of the demographics point to the need for new construction and renovation in healthcare, including hospitals, medical office buildings and clinics, and senior living. Senior living has been such a growth market that Floor Focus now looks at it separately from the acute care side of healthcare. 

However, the designers responding to this year’s survey seem to report that the healthcare sector is not as vibrant as one would expect. In top projects, healthcare is down over 13%, and, in terms of total billings, the rate of acute care business is no better than last year and senior living business is down significantly.

For the complete Design Survey results, see the October 2013 issue of Floor Focus Magazine. 

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus

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