Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, has designed buildings in nine countries, but the most memorable, by far, was a library in Egypt that took 11 years to finish. Its progress, and the lack of it, coincided with the political upheavals of the late 1970s and early '80s, and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. In 1979, when the building's second floor was going up, it was firebombed and burned to the ground. “We had put up a sign saying that this library was a gift to the youth of Egypt from the people of the U.S., and signed AID [U.S. Agency for International Development],” says Jacobsen, of Washington, D.C. “They read it as CIA, and we had six firebombs the next day. So we didn't put up any more signs.”

By contrast, his subsequent projects have unfolded in such picturesque destinations as Greece, Italy, the Dominican Republic, and the South of France. Perhaps that's why he's so sanguine about working overseas. “It's surprisingly easy, because the language of architecture is drawing. You're talking about three things—gravity, water, and money—and it's all totally understandable with a pencil,” says Jacobsen, whose gift for abstracting architectural forms crosses over to topics of conversation.

Doing architecture abroad raises many issues, though, only one of which is the spoken language. Will the architectural terms translate? How about the building technology? Local builders often use a completely different set of materials and construction techniques, and you don't want them learning something new on your project. For that matter, where will you find a reputable contractor? And how do you safeguard the design when you're 4,000 miles from a construction site? Most important, how will you arrive at a fee that covers all the logistical uncertainties of working in a different culture?

Working globally is certainly easier than it used to be, and some architects are undaunted by long-distance deals. “I found working in Barbados far easier than building in Georgetown [D.C.],” Jacobsen says. “When you're nearby, you've laid out the building and the contractor isn't responsible. But when you're abroad, they work around problems until you get there.” To find local builders he can count on, Jacobsen gets a short list from in-country colleagues and calls building suppliers to find out whether the contractors have paid their bills. “It's a marvelous international fraternity we have,” he says.

local conditions

When it comes to professional contacts, popular vacation destinations may be the easiest places in which to build, because contractors come recommended by Americans who've spent time there. Architects working in the classic south-of-the-border hot spots, in particular, revel in the rich local materials and plentiful supply of gifted craftspeople. That was the case when Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, San Francisco, was asked to design a house near the tip of the Baja Peninsula, an hour north of Cabo San Lucas. Because of the community's small size and the fair amount of construction under way in that part of Baja, connections were made by word of mouth.

The firm's portfolio includes commercial projects, so it knew how to bring out the best qualities of concrete—a construction staple in Mexico. “The builders did beautiful work on an exposed exterior concrete stair, and on thin concrete shelves for storage on the interior,” says Marsha Maytum, FAIA. “It's very difficult to find craftsmen up here in California who can do that so easily.” Because material selection was limited on Baja, the design team traveled to Guadalajara for tile and stone, and commissioned custom-made tables, sofas, and chairs, abstractions of traditional Mexican furniture. San Diego was a convenient source for super-energy-efficient lighting fixtures, which were crucial since the building was off the power grid and relied on photovoltaic arrays to generate electricity.

During the nine months of construction, “just keeping track of the contractor was the hardest part, making sure he was following through,” Maytum says. The design team flew down after each phase was completed. Toward the end of the project, when they ran into difficulties with the contractor, one of the clients—Maytum's good friend and former college roommate—stepped in to make sure the design intent was being followed. It helped too that one of the firm's senior associates, a native of Mexico City, could translate the language and the business culture.

Indeed, when it's time to get a project built, a country's cultural traditions are just as important to keep in mind as its construction methods. Steven and Cathi House, House + House Architects, also in San Francisco, built two homes for themselves in Mexico before taking on client commissions and are now working on their sixth house there, in addition to an ongoing resort project in Honduras. With their interest in highly crafted materials, saturated colors, and bold, abstract forms, Mexico's aesthetic landscape is a natural fit. But there were other cultural hurdles to clear.

“Business dealings in the U.S. are fairly direct,” explains Steven House, AIA. “If there's a problem, we'd say it wasn't built right and needs to be corrected. But Mexicans are polite and formal. If there's a problem, you turn it back on yourself: ‘There may have been something unclear in my drawings.' You never want a builder to feel he has to save face. Confrontation is something they try to avoid at all costs. It takes some practice, and we've worked hard at it.”

Before the couple began working in Mexico, they visited homes under construction and talked to local tradespeople and building inspectors to establish structural details. After years of designing projects outside the U.S., those details seem second nature now, as does using the metric system on construction specs. And by following a protocol, they've never been left in the lurch financially. “It's always very important to get a retainer up front, a little larger than usual,” House says. “We pay closer attention to being on top of invoices, because when you're dealing long-distance it's harder to recover if there's a problem.” During the job, the firm insists on having a phone and fax on site, so that questions can be resolved on the spot. Since the architects can't be at the jobsite to approve payouts, they review the work via photos that the clients e-mail weekly. “Jobs take a little longer because they don't have quite the resources in Mexico that we have here,” House says. “It's mostly post and beam construction and poured-in-place concrete or adobe. Craftsmen often don't use electricity; everything is literally done by hand.”

quantum leap

Switzerland, a country run with crisp efficiency, could not be more different from most Latin cultures in its building technology and business practices. Unit masonry, concrete, stucco, and steel predominate in Switzerland. But its wood technology is far more advanced than what's typically used for U.S. residential projects, says Fred Stelle, AIA, of Stelle Architects, Bridgehampton, N.Y. He was tapped for a project in Zurich after the American client, internationally known in performance arts circles, learned of Stelle's Watermill Center in Bridgehampton. The client asked Stelle to design Seeschau, an expressive arts therapy center with housing. “He came to me because he thought Americans were conversant in wood construction, and he wanted to build a wood building,” Stelle says. That project was followed by the Guggerstrasse, a house renovation and expansion for a Swiss client with whom Stelle had worked in the U.S.

Both commissions left him in awe of a way of building that, while costly, adheres to an impeccable standard of quality. “The Swiss are much more used to investing in their houses, and the technology they bring trickles down farther into the building trades than it does here,” Stelle says. He found himself using panelized engineered-wood systems for entire floor and ceiling structures, with integrated headers and girders.

In Switzerland, three different kinds of architects are recognized: interior, technical, and design. At Guggerstrasse, a 4,800-square-foot renovation and 900-square-foot addition to a 1920s stucco house, Stelle presented 50 pages of design drawings to a local technical architect, who then executed working documents, ordered materials, hired the builders, and oversaw the construction. (Both architects received a 10 percent fee.) One of the design triumphs was an exquisite, custom-made glass curtain wall with invisible framing and panels that open on hidden hinges.

Stelle says the fact that carpentry is well paid and requires a craftsman's degree contributes to successful outcomes. “In the Swiss system, they're building for the centuries and expect things to last,” he says. “The level of construction, even at the lower- and middle-class level, is higher than our highest expectations. As a consequence, it's not an inexpensive place to live, but the experience is very satisfying. That's my big mission—to figure out how we can market what it is we do over there.”

global expansion

For Meek + Partners, in Houston and Newport Beach, Calif., the entrée into global markets was a result of good timing and the ability to fill a professional gap. In the late 1980s, in anticipation of an economic boom sparked by the 1992 Olympics, an American developer brought the firm to Barcelona to design Olympic and resort housing. Serendipitously, the opportunity arose in the midst of an American recession, when the firm was looking for work. And its training in the market-driven aspects of resort and multifamily housing gave it a clear advantage over most Spanish firms. “European architects were still in the framework that marketing wasn't part of the program,” says Don Meek, AIA. “They knew how to make the floor plan work, but not how to make the project sizzle and sell.”

Meek formed alliances with Spanish firms and opened an office in southern Spain that has since closed. But once they had established a European presence, more American clients came along, introducing them to projects in Moscow as development opportunities opened up in the new Russia. “We had gotten out of Texas and California in the '70s and '80s and did work in every state,” Meek says. “But when we went overseas we saw how important it was to diversify globally. We set up our methodology to work with mostly American clients in other countries.” Now with 70 employees, the firm has projects under way in Russia, Panama, India, China, and the Dominican Republic.

Working beyond one's borders can also be the fast track to exploring a new market niche. JBZ Architecture, Irvine, Calif., went to China to add mixed-use projects to its portfolio. The client had found JBZ through a Web search of Atlanta and Southern California firms that did both architecture and residential planning, and invited the firm to present a design concept for a 118-acre master-planned community and retail center. “The Chinese are more open to new ways of doing things than clients are here,” says Don Jacobs, AIA. “The town center was not our area of expertise, so we would have had a hard time being retained to do the job here. But once we established credibility by our design efforts, they didn't hesitate to give us that opportunity.”

In addition to having two people from mainline China on staff, unusual circumstances created another alliance that helps JBZ connect the dots. The developer had hired a local Chinese architect to manage the project. As it happens, the architect's wife is working on a doctorate in architecture at Georgia Tech. Fluent in English, she facilitated the project and has since become part of JBZ's China office, a relationship that has led to other commissions in Asia.

intercontinental control

Such large-scale commissions open up more possibilities for management and communication errors, and a lot of money is at stake. In a dispute, architecture firms have little recourse, since they can't sue foreign clients through U.S. courts. “The only way we can be sure of getting paid is to get the money up front,” Jacobs says. “Most foreign firms understand that and will pay in phases.” During the job, JBZ's FTP site keeps team members on both continents in the loop. Still, countless conditions conspire to make these jobs exceed time and budget. Foreign developers typically don't understand the concept of additional services, so architects must do a thorough job of estimating and planning for contingencies. JBZ plumbs the experience of colleagues to help it determine such issues as the number of hours needed for translation services. And Don Meek spends more time structuring contracts, ensuring, for example, that they include a provision that the developer will absorb up to a 10 percent fluctuation in currency exchange rates. “Even if a client is American, in a lot of cases they're required to set up a local office and do local banking,” Meek says.

Hazard pay is a cost of working in a politically unstable environment. Several years ago, when an American was shot in a downtown Moscow hotel, Meek had a harder time convincing staff to travel there. In undesirable locations, the firm factors in more money for people to fly and stay first class, or to pay them more per diem.

Architects traveling to China for project checkups can expect to be at it 24/7, Jacobs says. His foreign business partners think nothing of scheduling an hour-and-a-half meeting for 10:30 at night, then being back at work by 8 a.m. But he savors the friendships he's formed. “They want to not only work with you, but share their culture and entertain you,” Jacobs says. “We feel strongly that the best way we can exist with other cultures globally is to understand them better, and there's no better way of doing that than working with them.”

sidebar: diplomatic design

cheryl weber is a contributing writer in severna park, md.