global neighborhood

The world may be getting smaller, but when the economy goes down in one pocket of the globe, it’s thriving in another. And the deeper the emotional ties to a particular place, the more natural the business fit. For San Francisco–based House + House Architects, that bright spot is Mexico, where principals Steven and Cathi House are grateful to find almost half their work these days. Many of those commissions come from another social force: American baby boomers wanting to retire or vacation where the cost of living is low.

For the Houses, who’ve been working in Mexico since the 1990s, marketing consists of little more than making friends during their stays in San Miguel de Allende, where they’ve built two houses for themselves, one a rental. They recently broke ground on a house for a Massachusetts couple they met on the street. Steven House, AIA, recalls, “We overheard this nice couple talking about where to have lunch. We started chatting, and invited them to our house later that afternoon. A few months later, they decided to retire there.” The rental house is a subtle way to attract clients. And their personal home, a fixture on the city’s Sunday house and garden tour, also draws tourists.

By now, the Houses are fully immersed in the local culture. Cathi House, who’s become fluent in Spanish, spent a week interviewing 20 local builders for their first project, and the one she chose has constructed all 19 homes they’ve designed there. Construction drawings are in Spanish, and they’re close friends with blacksmiths, stone masons, carpenters, and the local bank manager. In fact, their deepening interest in the region inspired their latest project: a study abroad program, partnering with American architecture schools including Virginia Tech, where the couple met. The school they’re building beside their home is slated to receive its first students next summer.

Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, traces his international awareness to his Peace Corps work in Morocco in the 1970s. For years, his firm has been developing a philosophy of multicultural modernism. “We’re interested in how one designs a building that’s culturally relevant, yet modern and embracing new technologies and global agendas of sustainability,” he says. And as tantalizing as the so-far-elusive China commission seems, he says he’d turn down work that compromises his design ideals. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked to be in a paid competition in mainline China, and they pick the French chateau from someone else,” he says.

That sounds a lot like the U.S. Working anywhere is a matter of identifying the right fit. Architects who can do it find that the work has value beyond a recessionary strategy. Says Olson, “It’s expanding my neighborhood out into the world. We’re making all kinds of new lifelong friends.”