Credit: Joe Pugliese

So, is it getting any better? In the third year of the ARCHITECT 50 ranking, signs of a rebound glimmer on the horizon. March was the fifth consecutive month in which the Architecture Billings Index showed positive (albeit very modest) growth, and inquiries to firms regarding new projects are strong. If most U.S. architecture firms are not thriving, at least some of them—25 percent, the AIA estimates—have gotten a boost through projects stemming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The 2011 ARCHITECT 50—based on a composite assessment of a firm’s profitability, sustainable ethos, and design ability—shows that A and A/E firms, large and small, can do well in this economy. By our calculations, the most profitable firms in 2010 include heavyweights such as Fentress Architects, NBBJ, and Gensler, but also Princeton, N.J.’s smaller Ikon.5 Architects. If you still need proof that smart business strategy and careful financial management can make or break any design enterprise, look no further.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this year’s ranking is how many of the top firms are focused on the higher-education market. Aren’t we always hearing about colleges and universities feeling the pinch? Yes, says management consultant Ray Kogan, AIA, but there are other factors at work. Higher-education institutions “are in their own competitive market as they try hard to attract more students to make up for their other revenue shortfalls.”

Ever-tighter public budgets, healthcare reform, and continued sluggishness in commercial construction leave much unclear about the future, so it’s difficult to say which markets might be on the rise. Then again, that means the field is wide open for our 2012 ranking. Wherever you are based, and whatever kind of work you do, why not enter next year?

Click below for more of the Top 50