Architect's Cafe Job Helps Lessen Impact of Being Laid Off


"What do you say to a real estate developer if you run into one at the carwash? Answer: Can you 'Armor-All' the tires please?"

-- Mike Potts, executive director of the Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council

At Cafe Zinc on Ocean Avenue, the joke is not far from reality. Serving up portions of pasta salad and stocking the shelves with expensive foodstuffs is Tim Nicol, 34, a victim of the recession.

Nicol is a licensed architect with 11 years of experience and schooled at UC Berkeley. He was laid off from his $45,000-a-year job at DeRevere Partnership in Irvine almost 20 months ago, when the sky started to fall in the commercial real estate market. He has not gone back to work for DeRevere since.

His landing perhaps has been softer than those experienced by many others thrown out of work during the recession. Yet it has been difficult. Nicol's pay has been cut by almost 80%. Career plans have been on hold, ambitions frustrated, and the savings account exhausted. He might have lost his home if not for the generosity of the co-owner who helped Nicol with his share of the mortgage payment.

"Ironically, I came here (to Orange County) for the stability," Nicol said. "Two years later, just after getting licensed, the recession hit. I'm lucky to have the job at the market, but it gets tiring scooping deli salad after doing architecture. You do whatever you can though."

Since the recession began in July, 1990, a massive shakeout in the construction industry has thrown hundreds of white-collar workers out of their jobs--the first time in recent history a downturn has cut deeply into the local ranks of real estate agents, executives, consultants, architects and planners.

In architecture alone, roughly 200 licensed professionals out of 1,800 in Orange County are unemployed, while still more have been forced into part-time work or private practice. Dianne Hart, executive director of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the recession has hit the profession harder than other slowdowns.

After being laid off from two Bay Area architectural firms, Nicol moved to Orange County just as the real estate industry began two exceptional years of performance. In mid-1990, however, commercial construction was cut in half, and DeRevere Partnership, which employed him in its commercial-industrial department, let him go.

With the help of a friend, Nicol ended up in the gourmet section of Cafe Zinc, a popular breakfast and lunch spot near the center of town. He even helped finish building the place. Now working on the weekend shift, he makes sure the shelves are stocked with such things as granola, expensive basalmic vinegar, freshly baked bread and beeswax candles.

While other unemployed architects have been moving to related careers in design, graphics, photography and sculpture, Nicol has decided to stick with architecture, even if it means working out of an extra room at home on one or two small projects.

"People are talking about doing things completely out of the profession or looking for something more stable," Nicol said. "I want to stick with it and have resigned myself to the fact that this is how it's going to be for a while."

He recently managed to get a part-time job with architect Si Teller in Laguna Beach and landed his first free-lance contracts to remodel three homes after more than a year of trying to drum up business on his own.

Nicol has kept a part-time position at the cafe as a safety net to fall back on, although it means he has to work seven days a week. While his situation is improving, he says, the future looks very uncertain.

"I am holding my own, paying the mortgage again and doing some architecture," Nicol said. "But it feels really unstable right now, like it could all stop again."

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