In China—a chaotic, complex, vast, and diverse country whose coastal metropolis, Shanghai, is the fastest growing city in the world—many U.S. architects have found a frontier. While American clients sit on the sidelines, China has an insatiable appetite for architecture. Although the pace of residential development has slowed recently, the long-term trend looks robust. More than 100 million farmers are expected to move from the countryside to the cities by 2020, making China, for better or worse, a giant construction site.

Large North American firms have been there for decades, of course, but as momentum builds, even some small offices are planting staff on the other side of the world. In July, New York–based Obra Architects launched a seven-person office in Beijing. Principals Pablo Castro and Jennifer Lee are no strangers to international work. Two of their 18 employees are in Seoul and one is in London. Still, Castro says, working in China has unique challenges. With developers looking for something “stylistically backward,” inadequate regulation, ferocious bureaucracy, and a fair amount of corruption, “we were lucky to meet the right people, and we’ve been paid.”

The hyper-rapid growth of China’s second- and third-tier cities makes it a land of opportunity, especially in this post-recession era. But for small firms with little international experience, exploiting that project pipeline can be tricky. What follows, then, is a glimpse into what it takes to hopscotch across borders, time zones, language barriers, and foreign contracts to find profitable work.

A Foot in the Door

The world is smaller these days, making possible alliances that were unlikely 10 years ago. Many small firms go global unintentionally as search engines direct foreign companies to their website. Others are found through professional networking, as was the case when the ZH Group, a Chinese mixed-use developer, began looking for American firms to design 78 Zhonghai Seshan Villas near Shanghai.

CBT Architects, Boston, was on the list because a former employee, Jessie Yan, was working for a Chinese company representing the developer. She had left CBT to attend graduate school and then moved to China. When nominations were solicited, she recommended the firm.

“It’s a good lesson in being nice to your employees,” says CBT associate principal Ellen Perko, AIA, LEED AP BD+C. The firm designed 12 houses, some of them takeoffs of traditional Chinese courtyard houses. “We tried to find the best way to do a house that would meet the needs of the Chinese population culturally and aesthetically, while also bringing in some Western elements,” she says.

More often, long-term marketing underpins a China presence. Los Angeles–based architect Richard Landry, AIA, heads up the Landry Design Group, which does 75 percent of its work outside the United States. Five years ago, following the advice of Asian clients in L.A., Landry started sending project photos to Chinese magazines, which subsequently published his work. He also wrote two books about classical design that were translated in Chinese.

“A lot of Chinese architects bought the book to learn more about classical design,” Landry says. He landed his first villa project from a couple who initially had looked for a local architect to design their European-style house. “After five or six interviews where the architects pulled out my book and said, ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ the clients made a cold call,” Landry says. “They flew in, and the first thing we knew we were designing the biggest house we’d ever done.” Now he says the firm is designing a collective 8 million square feet of high-end homes for four Chinese clients. “Different Chinese companies contact us almost every week,” he adds. “Most are looking for production houses, and we don’t really do that. We never felt a slowdown and have been growing since 2008.”

For Silver Spring, Md.–based Torti Gallas and Partners, patient relationship-building was key to landing its first project two years ago: the master plan for an upscale community in a Beijing suburb, including designs for an eight-story condo building, two club houses, and seniors housing. Before that, firm principal Feng Xiao, AIA, had spent five years introducing herself and attending marketing tours while vacationing in her native China.

“We’ve done projects that are similar in scale and detail to what the client was looking for,” she says. “I have friends who work for the developer; they do things formally and can afford us. You have to find your own niche and the value you bring to the table.”

Style and Substance

The question of value—and values—is always at the forefront of architect-client discussions. But in China, which is developing at a faster pace and on a grander scale than other parts of the world, those negotiations are complicated by questions about what it means to be modern without necessarily emulating the West. China’s urbanization drive has generated criticism that too many buildings are eyesores, yet architects face intense pressure to design whatever is commercially expedient.

In his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech in May, Chinese architect Wang Shu noted the demolition of old villages and the loss of what makes China so distinctive. He wondered: “Is it possible to find smarter ways for addressing environmental and ecological challenges by drawing on the wisdom found in traditional architecture and grassroots building activities? Is there a way for us to express our architectural pursuit with stories and feelings without resorting to gigantic, symbolic, and iconic structures?”

Obra Architects experienced similar tensions when a developer commissioned the firm to design a community in Wenzhou in southern China. The client asked for something modeled on high-end American suburban development—essentially large houses that swallow their lots. Castro came back with a scheme for four- and five-story vertical houses connected by bridges, presenting the opportunity for someone to buy two or three to form a compound, while preserving the green areas around them.

“We were not successful,” he says. “They didn’t care about the island or the city. Good architecture requires a somewhat courageous and illuminated attitude on the part of the client. You have to find your client, just like the client has to find their architect.”

But working with culturally sensitive clients can be just as perplexing. In 2008, a developer picked Boston-based Höweler + Yoon Architecture to design a Chinese courtyard house that evolved into the award-winning SkyCourts Exhibition Hall in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. Eric Höweler, AIA, LEED AP, and his wife and partner, Meejin Yoon, struggled for years to find an appropriate architectural response.

“We would show up with an abstract interpretation, and he would say, ‘No, I want a traditional house with more Chinese feeling,’” Höweler recalls. “We tried to figure out what that meant. We’re not interested in attaching historical features to a building. Was it a quality of light? A materials or alignment issue? They’d send us famous poems by a Chinese poet, asking us to interpret the poems in the architecture. No American developer would ask you to do that. It was confounding and strange.”

Höweler says that western China has a different sensibility than the newer eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. People in Chengdu have access to a history that most of China doesn’t have, and their claims to tradition are stronger than on the coast. “Their desire for an architectural vocabulary that recuperates what was lost is stronger,” Höweler explains. “That posed trouble for us; we weren’t comfortable with the idea of redeploying those elements, but in interpreting their traditions.”

He and Yoon finally arrived at a design that surprised them. They devised a series of gallery spaces around seven outdoor courtyards, layering them so that visitors look from inside to outside to inside. Windows are clustered in Cor-Ten panels that break up the traditional Chinese brickwork, and roof planes slope in toward the courtyard voids, evoking an undulating landscape. “We found ways to reappreciate what we were being asked to appreciate,” Höweler says.

Time Change

Whether it’s single-family homes, residential towers, or other project types, China’s building boom offers opportunities for almost any firm with the fortitude to work across cultures. Although the government has made financing more difficult for speculative housing recently, there are new incentives for seniors projects, as the one-child policy has resulted in fewer family caretakers for aging parents, says RTKL vice president Daun St. Amand, AIA, LEED AP, who heads its residential sector in the Los Angeles office.

China commissions are complicated by the time difference, the two days of travel to get there, and the many spoons in the pot: Local firms remain the architect of record. But profits can be higher because there’s less risk. American architects aren’t allowed to stamp drawings and typically aren’t involved in construction.

There’s also, obviously, less control. “We don’t hear from the client for months, and suddenly we see a picture of the project under construction,” Höweler says. “It’s easy for them to attribute changes to code. When you go to see the project, you hope it’s 90 percent of what you designed.”

CBT’s Perko recalls spending 10 days in China going over working drawings with the local firms assigned to the Sheshan Villas. But they changed the beam size on one house, which affected the clerestory. “They told us they’d fix it, but when we saw the pictures, it wasn’t done,” Perko says. “The project was totally worth doing, but you have to be realistic about expectations.”

Nearly every architect has such a story. On one RTKL project, the local architects ignored the specs for a particular glass color. “The time change is a big part of the difficulty,” St. Amand says. “We have a full-time Chinese-national translator on staff here in Los Angeles. But our clients can’t pick up the phone and say, ‘We’re going to pick glass today.’ They’re in a hurry and just do it.”

The construction pace is astonishing. Three months after Torti Gallas presented schematic designs for its current project, the concrete framing was finished on the first 31,000-square-foot building, Xiao says.

The breakneck speed makes identifying and correcting construction mistakes difficult, agrees Weiqing Feng, LEED AP, who directs the design studio in the Beijing office of Hostetler Zhang Studer (HZS), based in Atlanta. Her staff is designing high-end multifamily housing and large villas for speculative developers. “Controlling the quality of the detailing becomes more difficult, especially since there are not many Chinese architects who understand classical detailing,” she says.

Keeping up means coordinating efforts virtually around the clock. At Cincinnati-based GBBN Architects, a handful of stateside employees are teamed with 45 staff in Beijing. “They’re working seven days a week, doing design concepts for a million square feet in a matter of weeks,” says CEO Matthew Schottelkotte, AIA, LEED AP.

One reason for the haste is that land costs in China represent more than half the cost of developing a project, compared with 5 percent of development costs in the U.S., so the sooner developers can build, the sooner they can recoup their investment, says Jervy Zhu, AIA, who runs GBBN’s Beijing office. “Once you have land, you’re substantially in debt, and the core and shell must be completed before you can obtain a license for selling the units. There’s tremendous incentive to speed it up.”

Due Vigilance

In any case, architects say that China projects are at least as profitable as domestic work, assuming you’ve done your homework. RTKL looks for clients who’ve already built the kind of project they’re asking for, rather than trying to move, say, from mid-priced to high-end products.

The fee structure is considerably different. “Adjusting your fee to the scope and the schedule has become a great art in China, and managing client expectations is a full-time job,” says HZS’ Feng. To expeditiously navigate the bureaucracy of government-approved payments, billings usually are broken into small phase-related chunks—say, three payments for the schematic phase, Landry says. He asks for 20 percent up front and issues all the invoices at once so that paperwork is processed apace. By all accounts, that’s an unusual arrangement, and one of the benefits of working with repeat clients.

When San Francisco architect Ian Glidden, AIA, coordinated construction of the Seshan Villas, he accelerated the payment schedule—12 payments for 13 months of work. “You have to understand your value on the job. It’s part of the business culture that once you’re no longer needed, you’re no longer paid,” he says, adding: “They’ll often tell you what you want to hear rather than the truth. It’s not different from Western culture, but maybe more prevalent. But I’d go back in a heartbeat. The people were very friendly and receiving.”

Architecture is a mechanism that demonstrates China’s arrival on the global scene, and the government feels it has an incredible amount of catching up to do. For North American architects, especially young, nomadic firms who find it hard to get a ground-up project built here, the prospects are tantalizing.

“Our clients are fantastic and they’re also our friends at this point,” Castro says. “It’s hard for Chinese entrepreneurs to work independently of the system, and they do the best they can with the conditions that exist. We’re not relying on China too much, but we intend to grow our business there.” Feng, too, believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in a unique period in China. “It’s not perfect by any means,” she says, “but the opportunities are limitless.”