Take Five: Opportunities Overseas

Taken from AIA Architect

By Robert Ivy, FAIA

Robert Ivy, FAIA Photography by Noah KalinaThe AIA is leading the way for firms doing work abroad. Might your firm be next?

The world is shrinking. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell us that a combination of factors has metaphorically compressed the globe. Consider these developments from the late 20th and early 21st centuries: satellite and digital communications, video technologies, accessible international jet transportation, and, for Western trade and commerce, the omnipresence of the English language. We can literally go wherever the work is.

American architects, and members of the American Institute of Architects, have been at the forefront of these developing trends, finding new commissions in a far-flung constellation of cities and countries, and racking up the frequent-flyer miles. Led initially by large firms, who can smell out new work, the profile of the typical firm practicing abroad has expanded to include some medium-sized and smaller firms as well. In fact, approximately 2,500 AIA members both permanently live and work outside the continental United States or are billeted there.

These members have clustered in five international chapters, and constitute one of our strongest areas of growth and development. For more than a decade, the AIA has counted Continental Europe, the UK, and Hong Kong as its international outposts (joined by Japan in 2005), with strong programs, networking, and many of the services that domestic members seek. Recently, the Middle East joined the list and now, very quickly, counts 228 active members.

More overseas chapters are on the way. Currently, the AIA member-architects in China have expressed interest in forming an AIA component, and discussions are underway. AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, and I will travel to two cities in China in August to advance these conversations.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with me? While you personally may not be working overseas, you probably know someone who is, including those who work for a number of U.S. firms that have weathered the recession by expanding their work in China. Or perhaps you met or worked with an international architect in school, or in a former office. A developing AIA constituency includes foreign nationals who were trained in the United States but have returned to their native countries, where the AIA credential represents the gold standard, including those AIA members who were educated at MIT or Kansas State or Clemson in the United States, and licensed here. Increasingly, American architecture schools are admitting students from abroad, many of whom choose to become full-fledged, licensed professionals. They deserve our support, just as you do.

At our recent National Convention in Washington, D.C., members agreed that international development deserves full recognition and, consequently, voted for a change to our bylaws allowing the AIA National Board of Directors to establish an international region to more completely speak for all internationally based members, whether currently in a chapter or not. Represented by an International Director (currently Thomas V. Vonier, FAIA), the disparate group now can rely on an organizational underpinning. Vonier, an active advocate for architects working abroad, also serves as a Vice President of the International Union of Architects, Region III, a valuable forum that aggregates architectural societies from around the world. He is joined by two other AIA volunteer leaders: former International Committee Advisory Group Chair Rick Lincicome, AIA, and former AIA President Kate Schwennsen, FAIA, who serve as co-directors of the UIA commissions on professional practice and education, respectively.

Through leadership and programming, the AIA supports our members who live or work abroad, or would like to. Currently, we offer resources to help architects who want to expand their knowledge and succeed in unfamiliar markets through forums like the Small Firm Roundtable or through continuing education. On a more ambitious note, with the U.S. Department of Commerce we are participating in a trade mission to another expanding market--India--in October. Brazil may be the site of a subsequent trade mission.

For many of us, including those in small firms tied to a specific geographic location with a dedicated clientele, the best advice may be to stick close to home. International work comes with its own costs, including an array of international laws, procurement customs, ethics, and the vagaries of copyright protection and payment protection. For an increasing number of America’s architects, however, opportunities have expanded as the world has shrunk, and while the experience seems daunting, the rewards may prove well worth the effort.