Aided by technological advancements and stimulated by evolving economic conditions, North American design firms are increasingly working overseas. The projects and collaborations can be highly invigorating, but also unusually challenging, so they require careful consideration. From my experience as a principal for Perkins Eastman and managing director of the firm’s Mumbai office, I offer some key lessons for practicing abroad.
An iterative design process
For many architecture and design firms in the United States, the design process is a linear progression, but many other cultures globally are accustomed to working more iteratively.
In the United States, most design teams are led by a single discipline—oftentimes architecture or interior design—and other consultants such as engineering disciplines follow their lead. But in many countries, the consulting teams work more independently and at different stages, making coordination a struggle. In my firm’s experience, we have learned that it is important to confirm that your local design partners understand the level of detailing they will be required to provide, or be prepared to provide supplemental detailed drawings to fill these gaps. If you wish to have your designs completed as conceived, you must budget time for proper detailed drawings accordingly.
For one of our recent projects, Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China (a building for Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University, shown on this page), our designers wanted to implement a terracotta rain-screen system—a relatively innovative way to use a common material. During design development, we learned of another project in China that was implementing the same idea. But upon visiting that site with our client, we discovered that the construction company had purchased a mere few pieces of tile and a proprietary hanging system from Europe and manufactured a copy of the system. The construction company had no idea how the system worked or how to install it. Ultimately, we were able to rescue our design—and our client’s confidence—by carefully working with the European manufacturers to ensure that they could produce, ship, and oversee installation. When our design was built, we used the actual products as specified with great supervision to produce fantastic results.
Consultants you trust
In many parts of the world, clients are neither accustomed to, nor think it important to, retain specialty consultants. Rather, retaining vendors to provide “free” design for their project can often be a normal practice. To keep the integrity of your design, as architects or designers working on a project in another country, you should be prepared to retain specialty consultants as part of your fee.
Materials and methods
Conducting and completing upfront research on the local building materials and practices in the country you are designing in is fundamental. In areas of the world where there is an abundance of inexpensive labor, much of the work is done in the field by a labor force that is abundant but not necessarily highly skilled. Your design needs to align with the craftsmanship and tolerances that can be achieved.
Understanding which materials or products must be proprietary and what can be substituted is important. In Asia, it is very common for clients to find manufacturers to “knock off” furniture, interior finishes, and building materials, but the life expectancy and performance of those furnishings and finishes often do not match the specified product. For instance, for the custom frit pattern on the glass enclosure of the Chongqing Library in Chongqing, China, we visited the suppliers’ factories to understand the manufacturing processes and capabilities of the product and we designed accordingly. On other projects, we research local craft techniques to better understand what is possible and how we can design buildings that both meet our standards and utilize the skills of these craftspeople.
Understanding cultural norms, climate, context
When taking on a project in another country, research whether there are customs or underlying cultural principles that will inform your design. We recently worked with a client in Mumbai who, only after design development was complete, consulted his Vastu advisor. The advisor determined that the core location for the building did not comply with his interpretation of Vastu principles, and we were subsequently asked to significantly redesign the building. This situation could have been avoided had the client appointed the consultant from the start of the design. Our lesson was this: Avoid costly design changes by asking the client upfront if there are traditional principles or customs that should be considered for the project.
In India, we quickly learned how to design for the rains of the monsoon season. It isn’t limited to handling large amounts of rain. We learned to ask: Which direction is the wind, and therefore rain, coming from? How many inches of rain typically fall in a short period of time? How do different materials behave in these conditions? How will the finished products be maintained?
In completing projects overseas, it is important to listen and learn from professionals in the country you are designing in, and remember that the American way is not always perceived to be the best or most appropriate way to complete a project. Take the best practices from home and abroad and meld them into an achievable and sustainable solution.
Aaron Schwarz, FAIA, is a principal and executive director of Perkins Eastman, and is the managing director of the firm’s practice in Mumbai, India. Schwarz is also the firm’s practice area leader for higher education while overseeing the firm’s marketing, communications, and branding initiatives.