The call to Seattle architect Jim Olson, FAIA, in 2004 came out of the blue. It was a Hong Kong businessman wanting to commission a lavish villa for him and his wife. How did they find him? As Olson, founding partner of Olson Kundig Architects, tells it, the couple had spent a year researching architects independently of one another. At the end of that year, both had bookmarked an Olson-designed house in San Francisco. “Publications seem to be a very important part of our getting noticed outside the U.S.,” Olson says. “One was an international magazine, another was a book of architect-designed houses. The other was a Midwest Airlines magazine the husband happened to see on a plane.”

From that project came other Hong Kong commissions, and then Korean clients began calling. One was a large architecture firm asking Olson Kundig to collaborate on a design competition entry, which subsequently won. Among the firm’s current work in Asia are two prototype houses for a high-end residential development, an office building, and a cultural facility. The timing was fortuitous. “Our clients in Korea and Hong Kong were going strong in 2009 and 2010,” Olson says, while the American economy languished.

By plan or by chance, Olson Kundig is among a growing number of small to mid-sized firms whose work in other countries is helping to sustain them as our own economy struggles to its feet. Some are quietly capitalizing on the international relationships they’ve been building for decades. Others are tapping into construction sprees in China, India, and the United Arab Emirates that began in the mid-2000s. Although large offices have long cultivated global relationships, it’s only relatively recently that residential building booms abroad have opened a pipeline of opportunities for smaller U.S. practices—just in time, too.

an open door

“It’s been the thing that saves us through this period; otherwise our staff would be down to bare bones,” says Jeffrey Heller, FAIA, president of San Francisco–based Heller Manus Architects. The firm made its first foray into Asia in 2004, when Heller was invited to give a talk in Seoul, South Korea. After the conference he hopped over to Shanghai and was astounded by what he saw: a vast construction landscape of modern villas and flashy high-rises, fueled by the migration of hundreds of millions of people from farms to cities.

“In 2004, the U.S. economy was going great; we had no reason to go to China, but what was happening was clearly historic, and I was determined we’d get engaged,” says Heller, who, along with CEO and current AIA president Clark D. Manus, FAIA, heads an office of 20 to 30 employees. Heller networked his way to the first commission. A Chinese-American architect he’d known in San Francisco introduced him to the large architecture office in Shanghai that continues to be Heller Manus’ main partner there. Last year, two-thirds of the firm’s work was in China, where it has one full-time employee.

Not only is there plenty of construction in China, but much of it is fast-tracked, compared with the grinding pace of entitlement and financing that plagues U.S. projects. Heller blames bureaucracy as much as the Great Recession for choking off stateside commissions, especially in California. “It takes from three to six years to get projects done here, whereas in China things are accomplished in one-quarter the time,” he says. “That’s having an enormous impact on the profession. In my view, they’ve found a path to success that we’ve lost. They’re where we were in the 1950s and 1960s.”

That’s good news for many out-of-work firms. But why hire foreigners, when the Chinese could do the work quickly and for less money? What clients want, many say, is big-concept, abstract thinking, which they associate with a Western approach. What’s more, often that translates to dream commissions that leave budget issues oddly out of the picture, offering architects an artistic freedom they haven’t experienced since they were students.

One example of how different business dealings in Asia are from the typical American commission is Ehrlich Architects’ work on the Taipei Towers in Taiwan. The Culver City, Calif., firm was asked to design the exteriors of five residential buildings ranging from 12 to 20 stories.

“The client requested a modern, uplifting design for this up-and-coming area,” says Ehrlich principal Takashi Yanai, AIA, “and we wanted to bring our Southern California indoor-outdoor sensibility to the project. It was clear the developers were focused on achieving very high per-square-meter prices rather than just bottom-line goals. Sales targets often entered into the design discussion, but construction costs rarely did.”

That’s because labor is less expensive in that part of the world, and U.S. architects are valued for their creativity, not their project management skills, says David Jameson, FAIA, who runs a small firm in Alexandria, Va. He’s designed three houses in Dubai and is working on a 25,000-square-foot house in Hanoi, Vietnam. “I got the call from Dubai on a Friday afternoon and thought it was a college roommate playing a prank,” he remembers.

For the Hanoi project, Jameson was given a program outline from a local architect hired by the owner, a Vietnamese entrepreneur. He asked for a modern, ideas-driven house but gave no clue as to construction budget. Starting with a blank canvas is “hard, but liberating,” Jameson says. “If you think of architecture as a unique situational aesthetic created through pressures, it becomes harder to pin down a direction. But the lack of constraints means more freedom.”

Still, there were clashing cultural overlays. The first concepts had to be modified to accommodate feng shui principles, such as a secondary entryway behind the front door. And the absence of cost discussions didn’t mean the client wasn’t budget-conscious—disconcertingly so. “You show them the real thing, and they want to find a company in Taiwan to knock it off,” Jameson says. “Their attitude was, whatever you draw, we can make it happen for the number we need.”

Payment can be touch-and-go, too. The Dubai houses weren’t built, and the client still owes Jameson money. “They’ve honored the close-out agreement and continue to send money, but sporadically, and in small increments,” he says. “It’s a bit Wild West-like.”