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Too Many Employees? Perhaps You Could Loan Out A Few

OPB | Aug. 26, 2013 4 p.m. | Updated: Aug. 27, 2013 2:39 p.m. | Portland

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If you’re having trouble making ends meet, there’s no shortage of creative ways to earn some extra cash these days.  

You can rent out an extra room in your house on Airbnb or lend your car on Get-Around. But what if you run a company, and business is slow?

Could you lend your employees to another firm just until you’re out of the red? That’s what many architecture firms do – and nowhere is the practice more common than in Portland.

Jordana Gustafson reports on a little-known twist on the sharing economy.


Nick Mira is principal project designer at Propel Studio Architecture. He and his partners opened their firm just a few months ago.  Today he’s visiting one of their first construction sites.

Nick Mira (front) of Propel Studio Architecture meets on site with a contractor to review construction progress on a new apartment building in NW Portland.

Nick Mira (front) of Propel Studio Architecture meets on site with a contractor to review construction progress on a new apartment building in NW Portland.

“Pretty simple, but after going out on my own, I have to just do any small projects that I can to get the name of the company out and to have a little bit of income,” Mira says, as workers build first and second-floor decks on a house.

For years, Mira worked for large firms, but not anymore. Propel Studio is the result of his long-time dream to own his own firm.  But it’s also the result of something every Portland architect has heard of – what they call being “loaned out.”

The architecture business, like many, is tied to the economy. It’s also tied to a firm’s ability to win work. A sluggish economy, or not winning enough bids, can put a company in the red. In most industries, this spells layoffs.

But for years, many architecture firms have resorted to another option: lending employees to other firms. In this arrangement, the borrowing firm writes a check to the lending firm, and the employee keeps salary and benefits.

“It’s not a way to make money; it’s a way to basically tread water,” says Nels Hall, a principal at Yost Grube Hall Architecture. He’s borrowed employees, and he, himself, was loaned out in the ‘80s.

He says lending allows firms to keep their talent on staff even when business is slow.

“We want to hold onto the best people that we have. If we come to a downtime, it’s really an advantage to be able to say, ‘If you’re willing to go, we want you back, and this is why we’re doing this,’” says Hall.

Designer and blogger Lucas Gray works for Opsis Architecture in Portland. Two years ago, he was loaned to another firm.  "It's a very strange thing," says Gray. "They didn't fire me. I still had benefits. But you don't know if they're going to call you back, and that's the scary part."Here, he draws a plan for a Center for Reconciliation, a collaborative project as part of the Glenn Murcutt Masters Class. Gray writes the blog Talkitect.

Designer and blogger Lucas Gray works for Opsis Architecture in Portland. Two years ago, he was loaned to another firm.  "It's a very strange thing," says Gray. "They didn't fire me. I still had benefits. But you don't know if they're going to call you back, and that's the scary part."
Here, he draws a plan for a Center for Reconciliation, a collaborative project as part of the Glenn Murcutt Masters Class. Gray writes the blog Talkitect.

Principals like Hall say that loaning out employees is a win-win-win — the home firm wins, the borrowing firm wins, and the employee wins.

But some architects say the experience can be uncomfortable.

Lona Rerick works for Hall at YGH. Last year, she was out on loan for six months. She’s grateful to have kept her job, but she says being loaned out made her second-guess herself.

“If I’m able to be loaned out, am I able to be laid off as well? Because it seems like if you’re super vital to the integral operations of the firm, you’re probably not getting loaned out. So yeah, it did make me question how valued I was,” Rerick says.

It’s that discomfort that spurred Nick Mira to strike out on his own.  He says it stung to be loaned out just after finishing a successful project. So when his home firm eventually laid him off, and he was offered a job from the firm that had borrowed him, he turned it down.

I just decided I’m going to do small projects on my own, do whatever it takes. Because if I’m going to like this, it’s going to have to be where I have a little more control of my own future – and design,” Mira says.

No one is sure when or where the practice of lending employees began. It’s not unique to Portland, but architects say it’s more widespread here.

“It is clearly a friendlier and more collegial professional environment than in most other parts of the country on a day-to-day basis,” says Hugh Hochberg, head of the Coxe Group, a management consulting firm.

He works with some 200 architecture firms across the country. He says employee-lending has taken off in Portland, in part, because it has more good architects per capita than any other city in the country.

“That means that there’s a high degree of mutual respect and regard for not only other firms, but the talent in those firms,” Hochberg says.

Even though they’re often bidding on the same projects, firms here like to say they’re competitive, but not competing. And there seems to be little fear of giving away trade secrets.

That makes sense to John Gallup. He’s an economist at Portland State University. A place like Intel has to be obsessed with intellectual property.

“Architecture, to me, seems more towards the creative process where it’s not a matter of learning the trick of how you do something, but creating something that’s beautiful,” says Gallup.

Gallup says lending employees requires a certain culture – and he thinks other industries could build on what architecture firms have started.

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