1. The best way to get international work is through a personal relationship.
If there's one thing internationally active U.S. architects can agree on, it's that cross-border personal relationships—whether with potential clients or fellow designers—are indispensable. WWCOT, a firm based in California, got a toehold in Shanghai several years ago by sending principal Harry Lu to explore opportunities there; Lu had trained as an architect and taught in China before coming to the States, so was able to reconnect with plenty of contacts in his home country.
Similarly, John Reed, principal of John Reed Architecture in New York, has landed projects in Korea with the help of a Korean architect, Jae Lee, who had known Reed's brother in college and became aware of Reed's work when talking with a mutual acquaintance. Mary-Ann Ray of Studio Works, a small Los Angeles practice, tells a similar story. In 2003, she says, "a [Chinese] friend of ours, a non-architect, called us out of the blue and said, 'You need to come to China, now.' " Ray and her partner, Robert Mangurian, couldn't get there immediately, but the call led to consulting work and, within a few years, they had set up BASE (Beijing Architecture Studio Enterprise), an independent design laboratory with faculty from U.S. and Chinese institutions.
"The key thing is relationships," observes Callum MacBean, principal and managing director of Gensler's Shanghai and Beijing offices. "Make sure you have someone who knows people, knows the process and how to get things built and how to get paid." If you don't, he warns, "you'll be eaten alive."
2. If work dries up at home, it's smart to shift your focus to international projects
It seems like a no-brainer: With the American economy in the doldrums and the Middle and Far East booming, what could be a better strategy than shifting your focus overseas? But this approach is fraught with risk, cautions Bradford Perkins, founder of Perkins Eastman Architects and author of the handbook International Practice for Architects, published by Wiley earlier this year. Perkins says that even amid a difficult economic spell, firms should think hard before going abroad. "There are plenty of cases of firms where the key people went running off overseas and lost track of why people back home were hiring them. If you lose your base while chasing international work, it can be extremely hurtful." In his book, Perkins cites The Architects' Collaborative (TAC), a Boston firm founded by Walter Gropius that had to close in 1995 due to financial problems, including a commitment in the Middle East that became a major liability after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Smaller firms can be particularly hobbled when senior staffers are halfway around the world for weeks or months at a time, but large firms aren't immune from difficulties either. Perkins himself admits that when he was spending 100 days a year in China to build up that practice, "it was a problem" and overburdened his partner, Mary Jane Eastman. He spends about 50 days a year in China now.
Adrian Cohen, managing partner of WWCOT, says that for an architect to run to China in times of domestic trouble would be a "big mistake." For one thing, "fees [there] are not at the same level you'll receive for the same kind of work in the U.S.," he points out. (A small handful of starchitect firms like OMA and Herzog & de Meuron may be exempt from this consideration.) WWCOT combines U.S. and local labor to make the financials work, but its leaders don't view Shanghai as a profit center. "The office in China is profitable, but not to the level that our [U.S.] offices are," Cohen says.
3. A small, lesser known practice can never land a major overseas project
John Reed's practice couldn't be smaller: "The office is essentially me and whoever I need to work on certain projects," he says. Yet the architect has done a master plan for the redevelopment of Seoul's Sewoon District 4 and just finished schematic design for an office building there; he is also working in India. How does he manage? By being aware of his limitations and forging productive alliances (with Koetter | Kim & Associates, for instance, his collaborators on both Sewoon projects). "We just talk together day by day, so we're always on the same page," explains Reed, who travels to South Korea four or five times a year.
David Jameson, principal of a small firm in Alexandria, Va., has designed mainly single-family homes around the Washington, D.C., area and in California, but recently took on three projects in the United Arab Emirates and a possible project in China. For the latter, Jameson is "basically trying to ally [himself] with a landscape firm in Beijing" and generate work from that. The projects in the UAE, which are houses in the range of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, fell into his lap: The client saw his work featured in an international publication. Now Jameson is talking to a client about doing larger-scale multifamily work in the Middle East.
Being a small firm allows you to remain agile, Jameson says. Outsourcing can help you work fast, a prerequisite of international work: "You can look at 3-D renderings in the morning after they do them overnight." It can also be something of an equalizer. "We can have the same people that [Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] uses [for its] renderings do stuff for us," he notes.