9 Things Every Architect Should Know about International Practice

International clients hire U.S.-based architects because we are experts in leading areas of the built environment. When working on international projects always keep in mind the type of expertise that you are bringing to a project for your client – expertise in a particular building typology, such as healthcare; expertise in sustainability and building science; or expertise in architectural design and construction.

Before responding to an RFP or design competition for an international project, do as much background research as you can on the client and project. Researching and vetting potential clients before engaging on an international project is an important step to understanding if a project is likely to go beyond a competition, if you are likely to get paid and if the project is likely to be built. Larger institutional clients or competitions that follow international guidelines like those administered by the Union of International Architects International Competitions Commission are more likely to fairly compensate architects and complete projects.

The ability to communicate in a common language with your client and design partners eases the design process. Perhaps even more important, however, is coming to a common understanding and being specific about the language in your contract. Many parts of the world base design contracts on the FIDIC Contract system which is often unfamiliar to U.S.-based architects. Regardless of the contract form used on an international project, architects should leverage their agreement with the client to set out clear expectations for scope, partner relationships and responsibilities, and make sure that any translation of contract documents is completed by someone who is familiar with both languages and vocabulary specific to architecture.

The earlier you can engage local design partners the easier the design process will be. Local design partners are invaluable resources for understanding the culture of a community, site and client; requirements for local codes; the availability of building materials and systems; and the capabilities of the local construction workforce. While an international client may be hiring you for your architectural expertise, an engaged and collaborative relationship with a local design partner will significantly increase the success of a completed building project.

A key advantage of having a strong local design partner is to better understand how buildings are typically designed and constructed in a particular locality. International clients often hire U.S.-based architects because they are looking for design of building systems and architectural detailing that is more technically advanced than is typical for the local building industry. Ultimately local contractors and tradespeople will construct your project and it is important to learn about local construction materials and practices in order to merge these with your design intent.

One of the most fascinating aspects of international work is learning how spaces are used differently in different cultures. Particularly in healthcare projects, it has been fascinating to learn how people in different parts of the world use the types of spaces we design for them – who they bring with them to the hospital, how long they expect to stay, what their attitudes are toward public and private spaces. Clients and design partners can be invaluable resources in quickly learning the basics of how people can be expected to use the space you are designing. If possible, giving yourself the time to observe how local people use spaces in the project’s locale and at the project site can provide unique and invaluable insights into a local culture and their relationship to space.

International projects give U.S.-based architects the opportunity to influence the built environment on a large scale. International clients often look to U.S.-based architects as leaders in sustainable and resilient design strategies. Architects have both the opportunity and responsibility to push for sustainable design practices in all projects, regardless of the site location. An added advantage to international projects is the opportunity to design using architectural sustainable strategies that respond to climates that are often different than those found in the U.S. With international projects, there are also more opportunities to explore natural ventilation in patient rooms unlike hospitals in the US. 

Technology drives the production of architectural documentation on all projects, and on international projects it plays a key role in the ability to communicate and deliver design across time zones and firewalls. However facile technology allows us to be in communication with clients and partners, there is still no substitute for in person visits and meetings to explore the building site and context, understand the needs of the client and users, and communicate design ideas.

Although challenging in many aspects, the opportunity to influence people and places around the world through architecture is a unique and thrilling experience that is not to be missed!

If you would like to know more about practicing architecture internationally, we will be at A’18 AIA Conference on Architecture 2018 leading sessions on International Practice for Small Firms, International Project Delivery in a Changing World, and Resiliency Design Case Studies in the Developing World.

Related:
Payette Contributes to AIA Global Practice Primer
Payette Contributes to AIA Global Practice Primer, Part II

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