Owners facing funding constraints have begun to shift their focus to fewer, but larger, alternative delivery projects, Isaak says. "We expect significant growth in public-private partnerships, as they are a real solution to finance and construct projects."

Election Year Jitters

Regulatory clarity, especially involving emissions control requirements and domestic energy policy, are important to the health of key industries such as power and petrochemical, says Scott Duffy, senior vice president with Zachry Holdings Inc.'s San Antonio, Texas, office.

Many designers see uncertainty in the near future due to the partisan nature of the political climate, the looming presidential election and how the outcome will affect public funding for infrastructure projects. Historically a recipient of extensive federal spending, New Mexico especially would face a disproportionate impact if those dollars are reduced, Perich says.

All the more reason for increased state support for the construction industry, says Tom O'Neil, senior principal with DLR Group's Phoenix office. "State legislatures need to consider creative measures to allow the economic engine to begin firing on all cylinders once again," he says.

Some municipalities are creating work in the industry as they look at new ways to fund projects and shed risk—and thereby save money—by hiring integrated companies to design, build and then operate their infrastructure projects. Firms willing to take on that risk will be the ones to find the work, says Greg Fischer, design-build director in the Western region for CH2M-Hill, this year's top-ranked design firm overall. "Entities like us that can do progressive design-build and design-build-operate are going to be the leaders of the market. Those who can't … are going to be left behind," he says.

Despite the generally down market, firms are dealing with a problem normally seen during the boom years. "Ironically, one issue today is the same issue we experienced in 2007: the lack of a good quality, experienced labor force," says Ben Barcon, principal of Tempe, Ariz.-based ADM Group. "It appears the weak economy in Arizona has driven potential employees [out of state] or out of the work force. Finding young enthusiastic workers is still a challenge."