Volume 26, Issue 5 - September/October 2012

Beyond Borders
Experts Discuss Architectural Differences Around the World
by Ellen Rogers

Take a look at the architectural features around the globe and you’ll find many differences. Double-glazed facades are common in Europe while Asian buildings often are designed with a declarative statement. In North America, it’s probably safe to say our architectural style is a bit more conservative compared to others around the world. Aside from the geographical differences in design styles and concepts, the overall experience of working internationally can be intimidating. From language barriers to time-zone challenges to taking into the account the cultural and climate differences, international projects can be intimidating.

Some U.S.-based architectural firms, however, have embraced working abroad and come to recognize and understand the ins and outs of what can make an international architectural glazing project one of great success.

Working Globally
The architectural firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) has offices all around the world. Five are in the United States. It is from SOM’s San Francisco office that Keith Boswell carries out his duties as the firm’s technical director. He says the balance of the San Francisco office’s projects over the last year to two has been 50-60 percent North America/50-40 percent overseas. Boswell says the international projects in which the firm’s U.S. offices are involved are heavily in Asia, with some in Europe and some in the Middle East.

“A healthier [percentage] is 60 percent U.S. and 40 percent overseas,” says Boswell. “That’s where we’ve found a sweet spot and it helps keep a consistent work flow for our office size.”

Architectural firm Gensler also has offices all around the world.

“We have 42 offices around the world, so a significant part of our work is outside of North America,” says Benedict Tranel, senior associate and firm-wide technical director based out of the San Francisco office. “Personally I have worked on all three continents [where we have offices].”

Here and There
For architects working globally, there are a number of differences compared to domestic projects. Boswell says most of his international experience has been on projects in Asia, and there most clients want the resulting structure to make a statement. Making that statement, Boswell points out, is the reason they reach out to international firms.

“They are illustrating through the buildings they have arrived,” he says. “While they get good services from the local design institutes, there are opportunities to bring an international viewpoint to the work.”

Another difference, according to Boswell, is often in the designs themselves.

“The domestic client typically seems much more conservative and internationally they want buildings to be more exuberant,” he says. “We went through a similar period here in the 1980s to early 1990s where building owners were trying to one-up the competition and we got some good and some not so good buildings out of that.”

“The main differences among clients are their outlook and expectations,” adds Tranel. “Culturally things are done differently in every country, and sometimes even within regions of a country. Being attuned to what is expected can make all the difference.”

Tranel continues, “In Asia, and specifically China, the cost of labor, manufacturing and materials makes certain designs possible that would not be financially practical elsewhere,” he says. “On the flipside, the overwhelming drive for speed in emerging markets can make it difficult to achieve the quality that can be possible in more developed markets.”

Specific to glass, the needs of international clients are also different compared to those of the domestic market.

“[The international client] is looking for the architect to bring design value, technological know-how and how to get it done,” says Boswell. “I’ve found the glass companies in Asia have fantastic facilities that are brand new and state-of-the-art, but there is not the depth of technical know-how embedded in fabrication there.

“Tying that back to the owners wanting to be cutting edge, it means we’re not working with just a standard-size window. They’re always doing something that’s really new. They expect wow images and a high level of how-to,” says Boswell. “Domestic clients think that, too, but they have many resources here (consultants, etc.).”

Tranel adds that the use of glass and glazing around the world continues to be popular.

“[It] has shown little sign of abating, with all-glass buildings still a popular expression, even with increasing attention to energy efficiency,” he says. “However, we have been able to explore more energy-efficient applications, such as double-facade technology, which achieves all glass aesthetics but with much better energy performance.”

Breaking Boundaries
Designing a project to meet the design needs, styles and aesthetics for clients around the world is just a start. Once the project is a go there are still challenges that architects here have to consider. The language barrier may first come to mind, but for some this is just a small matter. Many international firms have employees who speak different languages fluently.

“But sometimes it does take longer to get through reviews, meetings, etc., because you’re speaking two languages,” says Boswell, adding that the big challenge is finding a way to take what you do best and make it work in someone else’s backyard, so to speak.

“There are commonalities, but you have to learn to speak the local language or you’re doomed to failure. There are details that are particular to each city (i.e., the climate); you also need to find out what resources are available. What’s the local talent base?” he says. “We can design/draw and detail the coolest things in the world but if we can’t get them implemented there’s a problem. You want to build a relationship base.”

It’s also important to stay involved throughout the project. Boswell likens achieving high-quality architecture to a football game.

“If there are a lot of handoffs there’s more chance of a fumble,” he says.

Taking into account the differences in cultural geography is also important. Architects should understand the core values and the culture of not just the client, but also the region in which the project will be built.

“Respond to the local culture and nature,” Boswell says. “Building in the North is different than in the South. Especially when working with glass it’s about the local climate.”

And Tranel points out that another challenge of working internationally is keeping abreast of local developments.

“This includes both in the capabilities of contractors, product availability, precedents, evolving code requirements, etc.,” he says. “Once you become familiar with different approaches, it is easier to see more similarities at a conceptual level, even if the details are different, and at a certain point you reach a fluency allowing you to apply the best of global knowledge to a specific local situation.”

Ellen Rogers is editor of the Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @AGGmagazine and like AGG magazine on Facebook to receive updates.

Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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