Building an outlook

William Riffle, executive director of The Builders Exchange of Akron and Vicinity, can tell how the commercial construction industry is doing just by looking at the number of plans in the “plan room” for area projects out for bid.

“How we go in our local counties is how the state goes and how the nation goes,” he says. “We are a pretty good representation of what’s going on across the country.”

Normally, there are 55 plans on an average day for members of the commercial construction industry association to check out. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that dropped to 20, and didn’t improve for six months.

But Riffle says things are definitely looking up in the plan room. In March, the number of plans topped out at 65, the most there have ever been. When he logs onto the association’s online plan room, he finds that 300 projects — half of all those currently out for bid in Ohio — are for $1 million or more.

“What I haven’t seen here in the last six months that I’m seeing now — in the last month, let’s say — are big projects,” confirms Larry Thompson of Munroe Falls-based Thompson Electric Inc., one of the area’s largest electrical contractors.

And according to Donzell Taylor, president and CEO of Fairlawn-based Welty Building Co., one of the area’s largest general contractors and construction managers, there’s a renewed sense of urgency to complete those projects, which is good for business.

“The year before last, when we got about 80 percent of the information we needed, we were being pushed to start and figure the rest of it out later,” he says. “Last year, (customers) wanted all of the i’s dotted, all the t’s crossed, everything completely understood. And even when we got to that point, it was, ‘Well, let’s just think about this a little longer. Let’s just wait and see what’s going to happen.'”

Taylor and Thompson say many of the big projects are for institutions such as universities, hospitals and other health care facilities. Construction of elementary, middle and high schools “is really booming in the area, too, and it’s going to continue to boom for the next couple of years.”

Thompson mentions Medina County, where population growth has made building new public schools a necessity, and the city of Akron, where replacing aging schools is a state-mandated priority.

Riffle says light commercial projects — strip malls, detached stores, offices, fast-food restaurants — are also being built, many in distressed communities making a comeback.

“You need commercial services to support those areas,” he says.

Conversely, Taylor has seen “a very severe drop off” in the construction of industrial facilities and warehouses.

Riffle estimates that 60 percent of new construction is “built for obsolescence,” either in appearance or function. Institutional buildings usually have a longer useful life. But the use of high-end materials such as marble, terrazzo and solid cherry paneling to create landmark interiors is waning. Taylor says new structures also tend to be smaller.

“We are seeing most of our clients looking for a lower first cost on their buildings,” Taylor says. “They want to put less bells and whistles in.”

There are, of course, exceptions, such as an addition to the First Congregational Church of Hudson’s 138-year-old sanctuary that Taylor’s company recently completed. The structure not only matches the original Western Reserve architecture, it is endowed with extras such as 10-foot-high arched doors with large wood casings and detailed brickwork.

Riffle cites a new library to be built in Hudson, a community known for its well-preserved architecture, as an example.

“They are trying to design and build the library so that 300 years from now, not only will it still fit in with the community, but it will not be torn down,” he says.

Structures in other communities are also being designed to complement their architectural surroundings. Riffle says a FirstMerit bank and a McDonald’s restaurant in Barberton were modeled after the remaining barns built by O.C. Barber in the mid-1800s on his vast estate in the city he founded. Buildings in a new commercial area are being built in the same style.

How long will the building boom last?

“Next year, I think, will be better than this past year,” Thompson says, “but I don’t think it’s going to be as good as what we’ve seen in the past.” How to reach: The Builders Exchange of Akron, (330) 434-5165; Thompson Electric Inc., (330) 686-2300; Welty Building Co., (330) 867-2400