"I'm one of those boring kind of guys. I've only had one job in my entire life," says Paul F. Jacob III, the chairman of RTKL, a firm of 1,200 that has offices in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Jacob, 59, started out working for RTKL while studying architecture at Carnegie Mellon in the 1970s. During the next three decades, he helped the firm expand beyond its Baltimore base, establishing a Los Angeles office in 1986 and a large presence in China in the 1990s. He was elected chairman in 2003. Last year, RTKL was purchased by the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis, a move that Jacob explained as a way of funding further expansion. In terms of building types, "we cover the spectrum," he says. "Our portfolio is about 50 percent commercial, 25 percent healthcare, 20 percent corporate workplace, and 5 percent everything else."

A firm the size of RTKL doesn't depend on outsourcing the way a boutique practice might. Still, with an eye on growth and so much activity overseas, RTKL has found it smart to take advantage of some opportunities to hand off work. Other opportunities, Jacob says, aren't necessarily worth pursuing.

Outsource model building and renderings ...

In the last five years, RTKL has outsourced much of its model building and rendering to Asia (China, Vietnam, and the Philippines) and to Eastern Europe (Russia and the Czech Republic), "where we can get the quality we want," says Jacob. "There is talent all over." Saving money is only one goal. The firm likes to find rendering styles to fit particular projects and clients. Outsourcing "gives us access to [a range of] talent that wouldn't be efficient for us to keep in-house," Jacob says.

Tapping into external talent is a good reason to outsource, says RTKL's Paul Jacob, but be wary of losing control, and don't neglect the young architects in your own firm.

Tapping into external talent is a good reason to outsource, says RTKL's Paul Jacob, but be wary of losing control, and don't neglect the young architects in your own firm.

Credit: Mike Morgan

... only if you're in control.

"For us, the key is having foreign offices, which means having somebody close by, to monitor the work," says Jacob. Especially in the case of drawings, he notes, "there are decisions that need to be made every day." Even renderings done for presentation purposes (not as design studies) can be vital to your business: "The client could say, 'I don't like this. Go back to square one.' "

But don't use your foreign offices merely as liaisons.

RTKL's overseas offices are busy doing projects of their own, for local as well as international clients. For the firm to be successful, each office should be self-sufficient, Jacob says.

And don't outsource important design work.

"For work that is integral to the design of a building, it's hard to outsource successfully," says Jacob. "Even with production work?such as construction documents? we've found that there's hardly any savings at all, and sometimes there's a loss in quality," he says. True, some firms are going overseas for the bulk of their drafting, Jacob acknowledges. "We've tried that on occasion. But you're literally sending information overseas, getting drawings, checking the drawings, sending them back. ... We've found that the quality goes down. It isn't worth it," he concludes.

Besides, BIM reduces opportunities to outsource.

"The thing that's changing everything, and which we're very strongly into, is building information modeling," says Jacob. "It's a whole new way of designing, not just a new form of CAD. With BIM, you're really not drafting anymore. You're creating a database of information?a job that is almost impossible to outsource. And then you ask the software to produce the drawings. So as BIM becomes more prevalent in our profession, I think you'll see fewer and fewer firms that outsource drafting."

Consider the effects of outsourcing on staff development.

A firm that outsources too much of its work may find it difficult to nurture and keep employees. Says Jacob: "We really try to hire people out of school and facilitate their career development. The key for them is to be able to experience a project through all the phases, from conception through production. For that reason alone, we'd be reluctant to outsource more of our work."