The ease of transcontinental travel and communication technology today allows architecture firms of all sizes to operate satellite offices and court more work abroad. Here, practice leaders tell us the good and the bad of staking an IRL (in-real-life) presence in multiple locations.
Choose Your Home Base Wisely
Before establish a global presence, practitioners must decide when and where to plant a headquarters. For Carlos Arnaiz, founder of the 20-person Brooklyn, N.Y.–based CAZA—which has additional offices in Bogota, Colombia; Lima, Peru; Shanghai; and Makati City outside Manila in the Philippines—it was sheer survivalist instinct that led him to strike out on his own in 2009 after the Great Recession had hit and he found himself out of work. “Firms weren’t really hiring at that point, so I just took the leap,” he says.
While he had been working in New York City for a number of years, the choice to stay was anything but default, least of all for the city's notoriously high cost of living. But the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. “I very much believe in New York as a global design capital,” Arnaiz says. “There’s no other place like it with the same level intensity if you want to stay creative, be plugged into all these creative industries, and also be welcomed as a foreigner.” An incredibly dense city benefits small upstart firms, he adds, as the opportunity for pop-up retail spaces, interiors projects, and other smaller-scale projects are plentiful. The city's location on the East Coast also serves as a logistically convenient hub for its proximity to Europe, where CAZA doesn’t have an on-the-ground presence—yet.
Later, when two prized employees announced relocations to Peru and China for personal reasons, Arnaiz took the opportunity to retain talent and widen CAZA’s presence. “We’re an office of immigrants. Many of the people in our office are foreign-born, so there’s this diaspora within our team, and when they leave, that becomes part of the thread of our family story.”
Define Your Workflow
Despite CAZA’s reach across three continents, Arnaiz runs a relatively tight ship. “Until fairly recently, small offices could never compete against the SOMs or KPFs of the world, but I think the tables are turning," he says. "Technology allows small offices to be very agile and punch above their weight.” But this should not come at the expense of in-person interaction with staff, he adds. Arnaiz will often travel to Bogota and Lima on one trip, and Shanghai and Manila on another, typically traveling every other month or so to check in on staff and ongoing projects. Each satellite office is run by a designated leader, he explains. “As for work allocation, most of our design work happens in New York, while local offices are responsible for material research, project management, construction supervision, client relations, and regulatory compliance.”
For Madrid-based Rica Studio founding partners Iñaqui Carnicero and Lorena del Río, an expansion to New York was prompted by teaching commitments at Cornell University. As the move opened new opportunities in the U.S., their main offices and staff remain in Spain, while their own physical presence is more roving. “We have tried to dissociate the production from the physical space since we are not permanently there," Carnicero says. "In some cases, important decisions and production happen when traveling, in airports, hotels, or coffee places.”
Logistically, Rica’s team size will fluctuate based on project needs, while a smaller core staff of four full-time employees—two in each city—and two part-time employees in New York keeps the operation running smoothly. “We have a virtual board where we share the information, and this operates as a virtual desk where all discussions happen,” he adds. “Regardless of the location, everything is automatically updated in the cloud and travels together with us. Even the time difference, with being Madrid six hours ahead, makes the process really efficient. This system expands the daily hours in a very productive way.”
Invest in Your Roots
For PILA founder Ilias Papageorgiou, starting his own solo practice has been a way to bridge the former SO-IL partner’s professional and personal presence across the two places he calls home: New York and Athens, Greece. Despite Greece's recent history of political and financial insecurity, ongoing shifts in the Greek capital’s economic landscape motivated Papageorgiou to invest in his native country. “The city and country are in transition and [transforming], and I would like to be a part of that,” he says. Personal connections have helped ease the transition and have already led to recent wins, including a student housing project.
Similarly, CAZA’s Arnaiz, born in the Philippines to a Spanish-Filipino father and a Colombian mother, has international roots—in Bogota and Manila. His personal connections, compounded with his experience leading projects in Asia at previous jobs, made it somewhat natural for him to open offices in each city. “When you open a local or satellite office, there isn’t any simple formula for it,” Arnaiz says. “It depends on who you are, what your clients are looking for, where your projects are, and who your team is.”