They think it's all over
After almost five decades of seemingly irrepressible growth, the powerhouse of Germany's building industry – by far the biggest in Europe – is expected to contract 2.5% this year. The sector has been shrinking steadily since the reunification building boom in the early 1990s, and the global economic downturn and the events of 11 September have taken their toll. Last month, Hochtief, Germany's biggest construction group, reported a net loss of £37m – sounding alarm bells through the sector. Experts predict that employment in construction – the country's largest single employer – will dip below one million for the first time since the Second World War.

The statistics are gloomy, but David Lawrence, regional managing partner for Europe at consultant EC Harris, says there is still a lot of work for competitive players in a sector worth 10% of the nation's GDP. "The volume of construction work taking place is still massive, and our Berlin office is busy as ever, but there is less renovation work in east Germany, and less investment for new build, as banks have had smaller returns than expected on the projects they were involved with in the early 1990s."

But there are still opportunities for British companies to find space in the German market, and engineers are especially welcome; both Arup and Buro Happold report full order books for their German offices.

Jorg Schlaich, director at German structural engineer Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, says the downturn is not being felt equally across the regions. The Stuttgart-based company is working on a steel-framed roof for Berlin's new main railway station, the Lehrter Bahnhof – part of a £3bn project to turn Berlin into an international rail centre.

Germany on the UK
The longer you are in Britain, the more you get the impression that building in Britain is expensive and not very good quality. Some of the big contractors don’t seem to have any experience of actually building, only mana

Wolfgang Frese, Alsop Architects

As a result, Schlaich says his office has more work than it can cope with. "The industry does have problems, but we don't all need to panic," he says. "Germans complain too much."

In contrast to working practices in the UK, the architects are usually responsible for running these projects. Nicholas Hirsch, partner at Wandel Hoefer Lorch & Hirsch, says that designers still have a central role in the construction process. "Contractors are beginning to take more of a managing role, but architects still have a big part to play – the rules are good for us," he says.

Hirsch considers Germany's experiments with PFI projects unsuccessful. "Germany has used PFI on a few occasions, but the results have been disappointing. Public buildings are seen as cultural products rather than economic ones, and the parameters between the public and private sectors' responsibilities are difficult to draw," he says. "PFI will have a difficult future in Germany."