With some of the Southwest's larger design firms experiencing flat or slight growth in 2012, several mid-size firms found an opening to expand dramatically. But both groups, in responding to this year's top design firms survey, are hopeful that economic conditions will continue to improve in 2013 and beyond.

"The commercial lending market seems more willing to put their liquidity to work, which in turn has spurred construction projects which would not have been considered a couple of years ago," says Jason Bush, principal of Phoenix-based Kraemer Consulting Engineers.

Overall, the 63 firms participating in the survey earned $656 million in design work in the Southwest during 2012. While this was down from the previous year's total of $818 million, the two top firms that year—HDR and CH2M Hill—did not participate in this year's survey. Their combined revenue in last year's ranking was $228 million.

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Mid-size firms saw the biggest increase in revenue during 2012. Albuquerque firm Molzen Corbin experienced a 39% rise. Phoenix-based firms Carollo Engineers and Orcutt | Winslow saw their annual revenue go up 35% and 17%, respectively. DLR Group's Phoenix office had an increase of 55%.

"2012 was a banner year for Orcutt | Winslow," says Kristine Mower, director of business development. "We won several key projects within our core competencies in 2011/2012, which allowed us to enter into the post-recession in a strong position."

As work increases, so does the need for qualified staff. "We are anticipating a busier year ahead with a projected 10 to 20% growth in our total number of people," says Robert Jernigan, managing principal of Gensler's Los Angeles office.

Some employees are returning to their previous firms after a hiatus. For example, Albuquerque-based Van H. Gilbert Architect PC recently hired back two former employees.

Many New Mexico firms, such as Van Gilbert, have been buoyed by the passage of Albuquerque's $200-million school construction bond in February. "Those bonds helped put several of our campus projects back on line, and just last week 36 architectural firms responded to the Albuquerque Public Schools' request for proposals for 15 projects," says Van H. Gilbert, president.

Others say there is still a critical need for more public sector investment in infrastructure improvements.