Whitney Sherman

“In my 36 years of life, I’ve never seen property values go down,” says Arjun Mande, AIA, a third-generation architect and native of India who still works in his homeland.

The last time architects heard this type of optimism, the speculative real estate bubble that exploded in deserts from the Middle East to Phoenix was still expanding. But for architects looking to grow their practice beyond the deflated American building sector, there is good reason to look to India. Its growing economic power is based on the strength of the Indian consumer, not speculative real estate. The nation of 1.2 billion is at a unique crossroads, where development needs match the spending power to achieve them. In the next 20 years, a quarter billion more people will live in Indian cities, requiring an additional 7.5 to 9.7 billion square feet of commercial and residential spaces—the equivalent of building a new Chicago every year. During the same time, the Indian middle class will more than quadruple.

What’s more, they’re short about half a million architects, according to India’s Council of Architecture.

“We think that in the next generation the entire infrastructure of the country is going to be rebuilt for about a fifth of the world population,” says Mark Erdly, AIA, of Cannon Design. His firm’s 300,000-square-foot, $42 million Tata Medical Center Cancer Hospital in Kolkata is currently under construction.

Erdly recently moved to India to head Cannon Design’s operations there, but for architects looking to enter the market, having an office isn’t a strict requirement. It can take six months to a year to properly incorporate a new foreign business in India. However, establishing a project office with a native firm or a field liaison office can significantly reduce that time.

Only 1 percent of AIA member–owned firms worked in Southeast Asia (including India) from 2006 to 2009, according to the AIA’s latest firm survey. Most of the American firms working in India are medium to large in size, including many global design giants with deep international portfolios. But clients aren’t looking for size. They’re interested in design brand. Top-tier clients, such as Reliance and Tata, have developed a competitive taste for American talent. According to Mande, who lives in Boston and works for Goody Clancy, these clients pay a premium for American firms—to the consternation of some Indian architects who are bemoaning this outsourcing to non-native firms.

“Many Indian firms are seeing that aligning themselves with American architects greatly increases their chance to compete for the best opportunities,” says Todd DeGarmo, FAIA, LEED AP, whose firm, Studios Architecture, is establishing an office in India. An American firm with a client and a project will find native firms eager to partner up. Local architects can help Americans navigate India’s complex bureaucracy and shepherd projects through challenging construction phases.

Beyond design credibility, Indian clients are looking to American architects to learn the process for executing world-class contemporary buildings. India’s slow-moving bureaucracy can hold projects back, but once the green light flashes, Indian clients expect architects to move fast. The huge potential for development has also led DeGarmo to warn that, in India, “There are a lot of fly-by-night characters. If you get a call from somebody, take the time to check it out.”

India is experiencing a broad need for all building types, but corporate campuses, education, housing, infrastructure, and master-planning efforts are the most active development sectors. Geographically, building activity is equally dispersed. There’s no reason to restrict a firm’s business development to one region.

Firms looking to make connections in India can reach out to the AIA International Committee for additional insights. Firms that have already landed a project there can use the AIA’s family of International Contract Documents. In either case, establishing a practice in India or any new market is a long-term process. Erdly says that it can take two years to build up, a prospect made less intimidating by India’s long-term growth.

In a country with double-digit economic expansion, India is bound to pull architects into its borders from every corner of the globe. “This is big,” says Mande. “I don’t think people have even scratched the surface.”