For architects Isaac Campbell  and Michelle LaFoe,  the housing bubble that upended their careers also revitalized them.

It was fall 2010, and the husband-and-wife team parlayed a layoff and their combined expertise into a new company and mindset: Don’t play it safe, be selective and pursue the kind of adventurous work that inspired them to become architects in the first place.

Easier said than done for any company, but all the more so for a newbie in a battered industry in a down economy.

But it worked, and today their startup, Office 52,  has just landed a game-changing project, a $65 million interdisciplinary science building at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  Their scrappy, Southeast Portland-based firm outmanned 16 others from across the country, including the notable Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in Philadelphia. The job is a real coup, given its scale and cost, the university’s prestige and Office 52’s relative anonymity.

“The post-recession has allowed firms like ours to emerge and be competitive on a national scale,” Campbell says. “Why? We’re retooling and rethinking how we work. We may be smaller but we also have the freedom to be more selective.”

For Campbell, LaFoe and many of their peers, the economic downturn that slashed jobs, closed firms and devastated ambitions also forced them to re-evaluate and readjust their priorities.

“In the last decade, a lot of firms added new staff to produce a lot of the new condos,” says Brian Libby,  a Portland blogger who writes about local architecture for The New York Times, Metropolis and Architectural Record. “But architects are also canaries in the coal mine for the real estate and housing economy. When things were going south because of the real estate bubble, architects got laid off.”

Portland architect Stuart Emmons,  for example, had dreamed of running his own firm since age 6. But the recession forced him to close his respected 10-person  shop, which had concentrated on senior citizen housing, government work and luxury homes, by August 2009. Unemployed, he became a local activist for civic architecture before reinventing himself as a solo operator focused mostly on affordable housing.

“This is a time that’s begged soul-searching,” Emmons says. “The recession gave me a chance to go back through my life and explore what was truly important to me and how I could have the most impact.”

“Architects have been down for so long that a lot of them questioned whether architecture was even relevant to them,” says Saundra Stevens,  executive vice president of the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects,  the national trade organization for the profession. “This recession has caused a lot of reflection, and many architects, after getting laid off, just put out the shingle to start their own kind of practice.”

That reflection is understandable given the past few years.

Scott Frank,  spokesman for the American Institute for Architects  in Washington D.C., says the recession shattered the industry, though the exact number of jobs and firms lost to it is hard to track. But the institute’s national billings index, based on regular surveys of firms across the country, offers chilling perspective.

The index reached as high as 60.6  in September 2005, before falling to 34.6  in December 2008. A reading of 50 is considered flat — “you’re breaking even,” Scott says.