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This surprising industry added 670,000 jobs last year

Architecture is usually hit hard by economic downturns, but a new report shows it’s faring better than many other creative fields.

[Source photo: nadla/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

When a recession hits, architects often take it in the gut. The design sector has traditionally been one of the losers of a market downturn, with big real estate developments being put on hold and the need for architectural design services kicked down the road. But during the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, architecture has been surprisingly robust.

Of five different creative industries in California—including entertainment, fashion, and the arts—architecture and its related services was the most resilient. Between 2019 and 2020, the industry saw only a 2.2% decrease in employment, and even that appears to have been a temporary lull.

Nationwide, the industry added 670,000 jobs in 2021, the largest number since before the global financial crisis. From 2019 to April 2021, the number of businesses within the sector even grew, increasing by about 8%. Architecture, often a canary in the coal mine for recessions, seems to be a bellwether of a pandemic recovery.

These numbers come from the 2022 Otis College Report on the Creative Economy. Issued annually by Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, the report tracks the economic health of creative industries in California, focusing specifically on five sectors: architecture; creative goods and products; entertainment and digital media; fashion; and fine arts and performing arts. These industries add up to nearly 12% of the state’s gross domestic product, with a heavy concentration of jobs and economic activity in the greater Los Angeles area. Architecture and related fields like landscape architecture, civil and building engineering, drafting, and interior design represent a nearly $30 billion industry in California.

This year’s rosy picture of the architecture sector has a few key causes, according to economist Adam Fowler, a partner at CVL Economics, which authored the report.

Mainly, there’s just a lot of demand for architectural design in cities across California and around the country.

“There’s such a backlog in supply of both commercial and residential space in a lot of our larger metro areas that have had robust job growth for so long,” Fowler says, noting that demand is especially high for affordable housing and smaller projects like accessory dwelling units. “We are so behind . . . with the price points now for residential in California, I’m constantly asked if it’s a new bubble. No, it’s not. Tragically no. This is just actual demand.”

The industry’s resilience has been evident around the country during the pandemic, which led many homeowners and businesses to think differently about their indoor and outdoor real estate. Architects and designers have stepped in to assist.

“There was a lot of spending on space. People who were running a school, running an office, doing a lot of work out of their primary residence, there was a lot of investment in making those spaces more workable, more livable,” Fowler says. “It may not be the new concert hall opening, but it was work, especially in the landscape architecture space, that may have filled in some gaps.”

New York state, the other main center of architectural employment in the U.S., was hit harder during the pandemic, with architecture and related fields seeing a 7.1% decline in employment in New York City. But those numbers reflect a California-like temporary dip in an otherwise upward trend. Architecture-related jobs overall have been rising there as well. Between 2007 and 2020, they rose 5.9% across the state and 11.4% in New York City.

Of course, architects in California and New York aren’t doing projects only in those places. Fowler says the uptick in architectural work around the country could lead to continued growth for the industry, especially as more places reckon with the backlog of development and the need for more affordable housing. “This sector,” he says, “is helped by localities that can build things.”

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