James Wright, FAIA
Photography: Carl Bower

James Wright, FAIA, a senior principal at Page in Washington, D.C., is the 2016–17 president of the AIA International Region, which was formed in 2012. In his 37 years of working on projects outside of the United States, he has been responsible for over $3 billion worth of construction in more than 40 countries, including 25 U.S. embassies and consular compounds. “If you’re going to work abroad, you have to do your homework,” he says, “and the metric system is just the beginning.”

One trend I don’t see diminishing is the number of foreign nationals who want to study architecture in the U.S.—and it’s fueling the growth of the AIA International Region. After foreign nationals attend American architecture schools, sometimes they’ll stay to get licensed and sometimes they won’t, but many of them return to their home regions to practice. Their association with the AIA is helpful to them in those regions and as they begin to practice globally—and then, one day, partner with their American counterparts.

Our best contribution at Page, as a U.S.-based firm, is at the front end of the entire process, with services like architectural programming or conceptual thought leadership prior to the design phase. I am a strong advocate of the positive chemistry between U.S. firms and local firms in a given country. It’s not only philosophically important, but it’s critical when it comes to things like fees, for instance. Cash flow can be an issue for projects abroad—since you’re billing at the end of a long phase, instead of on progress or on a monthly calendar cycle, as we do in the U.S.—and a local partner can sometimes help finance you with interim payments. At a minimum, your partnering firm is in a better geographic and cultural position to help you collect. Local partners can also cover the performance bond that foreign projects often require you to post.

The AIA International Committee and International Region have been doing international practice workshops for years, and we’ve seen an increase in international opportunities for American architects, despite the wild swings in the global economy. I’ve seen many cycles in my lifetime when oil is king one year and then bust the next—and petroleum-based economies are hit particularly hard during those down cycles.

American firms have the skillsets to tackle projects that have any degree of complexity— higher-education facilities, research and development facilities, healthcare facilities, and so on. Sure, we have a lot of competition from Europe and Japan, but we have held our own for the last few decades in terms of expertise. I don’t see that diminishing. —As told to William Richards