IIDA Notes: International Design: Holding the Key to a Changing Economy

Sept. 1, 2008

As the U.S. economy remains in a state of flux, some A&D professionals are finding greater job stability overseas.

By Mitchell E. Sawasy, FIIDA

Offshore work was once a dirty word. A few years ago it meant strategically allocating your labor costs to a foreign land in order to be more competitive in the market here in the United States or Canada. But now, working on projects overseas could mean survival to many firms and individuals.

The U.S. economy is not only stagnate, but wallowing in the quagmire of overzealous lenders, speculators and developers, sky-high energy costs, and a declining dollar. The AIA is reporting that the "Work on the Boards" survey continues to show a decline in new work and recently indicated that the volume of work was 40 percent less than a year ago with projects taking longer to complete.

As U.S. companies continue to lay off employees-shuttering their facilities and putting the burden of survival on the individual—every type of project that architects and designers work on is affected as there's less volume of work. How do we survive? This could be the time for bold moves on your part.

Those of us who have been through the "official recessions" of the past and are still here to talk about it know how painful it was for many of our colleagues. Today, the U.S. economy is one of the slowest growing economies in the world. Notably, only 26 percent of the world's construction market is in North America, with 30 percent in Europe and 32 percent in Asia.

Some of our IIDA members are doing work globally and are in a position to keep the flow of work going by tapping into the overseas markets. The "big" firms that we all know are continuing to access projects abroad as many
organizations continue to struggle with talent shortages overseas. These are opportunities for our colleagues who find they are looking at a doubtful future.

Many foreign-based or U.S.-based firms with overseas offices look at the talent from the West as an asset. Many regions like Asia want a "Western" style of design and seek out firms with that expertise. In the last two years of international business travel, I have met designers from every corner of the globe working throughout Asia and living an international life. They range from young, single freshmen to seasoned, married pros. But opportunities abound
if you have a sense of adventure and want to experience the world.

For owners of firms who wish to cultivate new business abroad, the challenge is a little greater, and may contain more risks, but the rewards can be very uplifting.

The four largest markets projected for economic growth in order are: Asia, Europe, Mexico/South America, and North America.

If working overseas or doing work globally is of interest to you, I suggest the following four guidelines to assist you in being successful:

  1. Wherever you go, this is not America. Do not expect anything to be like America, except of course the local Starbucks-but even then, the Chinese Starbucks is a little different.
  2. They work differently than we do—the hours, the pace and the schedules—which is not necessarily a bad thing.
  3. They do business differently than we do. Yes, they also want successful projects, but they want them in a different way.
  4. Go with a sense of adventure. The sights, the food and the smells will all be different.

The world isn't smaller today, but it is accessible to many more opportunities than during the last three recessions. If you are frustrated and discouraged, I suggest you dust off your passport, or go get one, and head overseas for an adventure that will forever change you.

IIDA is aligned with members and associations worldwide. Contact us if you need sources or industry information about international work.

You can go to work every day or you can live an adventure. Be bold.

Mitchell E. Sawasy, FIIDA, AIA, is the 2008-2009 president of IIDA and principal for RSA in Los Angeles. IIDA's LEED-Gold certified headquarters is in The Merchandise Mart, Chicago. IIDA can be reached at (888) 799-4432; www.iida.org; or [email protected].

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