Many engineering firms aren't simply waiting for the economy to rebound. Instead, they are becoming more focused on sustainable engineering and new technologies.

PORTLAND — For Portland engineers, 2010 can't come soon enough. Facing the realities of dwindling commercial and residential projects, Art Johnson, vice president of KPFF Consulting Engineers, found that the hardest thing about the past year has been keeping his people busy, and in some cases, employed. In February his firm had to lay off 10 percent of its staff.

"I've been through several recessions in the last 30 years," Johnson said. "I recall every one as feeling like it (would) never end."

But many engineering firms aren't simply waiting for the economy to rebound. Instead, they are becoming more focused on sustainable engineering and new technologies, like Building Information Modeling, to gain a competitive edge. BIM is a 3-D modeling software that lets engineers see digital representations of how all aspects of a building will interact.

"This year we worked to build our technology base," said Ed Dean, vice president of Nishkian Dean. "We are looking to be more efficient by using BIM to work with the design team and builders early on in the project."

Despite suffering from layoffs in the past year, Portland engineering firms are in good position to handle new, green projects, said James Thompson, vice president and principal at Glumac.

"Most of the projects that are left to bid on emphasize sustainable design," Thompson said. "Our firms are well positioned to do work on those projects. Most all of the projects we did this year were LEED certified."

Dean said it's important for engineers to keep up with advances in BIM and other technologies because those skills will be used for energy modeling and other work related to sustainable design.

"Either people will adopt BIM or they won't," Dean said. "But if they don't, I don't think they will be viable as a firm. This is the way engineering and architecture will be done in the future."

Alison Davis, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Oregon, said that her organization's educational programs have been well attended this year and that engineers are taking advantage of opportunities to attend workshops and to network.

"During these hard times, our members value the networking aspects of ACEC," Davis said. "People aren't working as much and may have more time to devote to training."

With little work coming in, many engineering firms have been forced to cut their staffs.

"We've laid off about 20 percent of our staff here in Portland," Thompson said. "Before the recession, about 30 percent of our work was in commercial buildings. Now, commercial is nonexistent."

Though stimulus funding arrived this year, the money that did flow into the state went to smaller engineering firms, according to Johnson.

"A lot of the stimulus work went to small businesses, and we are not one," Johnson said. "There are some projects we would have gotten under normal conditions that we did not."

But as a result, some smaller firms, like Catena Consulting Engineers, did not need to lay off personnel.

"We received a stimulus contract for an intermodal transit facility in Hillsboro," said Chris Johnson, Catena principal. "That contract was the equivalent of the cost of one and a half staff members."

There is light at the end of the 2009 tunnel, according to Dean.

He said there has been more proposal activity recently, and he hopes it will ramp up even more in 2010 when the Legislature's $300 million a year transportation package begins funding projects.

"Our workload has picked up a bit in quarter four," Dean said. "I have reason to believe more work is coming."