Weaving international work into your architecture career

International collaboration in Aridagawa, Japan

A collaboration between Portland-based Propel Studio and the city of Aridagawa, Japan, included discussions on how to reuse an abandoned, city-owned nursery school building.

An international designer shares tips on how to get global

Working internationally is often a mystery for practitioners, but it doesn’t have to be. As an attendee of architecture programs in Canada and Australia and a designer who has worked in Thailand, China, Japan, Germany, and the US, I’ve strived to create meaningful architectural work and improve communities worldwide. Keep these simple tips in mind when preparing to practice internationally.

Show up

If you are interested in finding a job abroad, my biggest recommendation is to show up where you want to live. Most firms can’t afford to sponsor visas and move people across the world. Large offices might be able to do this, but not the smaller firms that make up the majority of our profession. Networking is also the single best way to get hired; you need some sort of personal connection, and being based locally is the best way to integrate yourself into the design community.

Tap your network

The first job I had after moving to Berlin was with an architect who went to the University of Oregon and was friends with one of my professors. The world is smaller than you think, and there is a good chance you can develop leads in almost any city in the world through your existing circles.

Although getting hired locally is much easier, it does bring its own challenges. Primarily, it requires that you front the cost of travel and finding accommodations in your new city. If you can get hired at a foreign firm while still living in a different country, often they will facilitate the bureaucracy and financial costs of moving. This can make the transition a lot smoother and affordable.

Bring something to the table

I built my network by starting a blog where I interviewed architects around Berlin and offered to publish their work. This is an easy way to get your foot in the door, and far more beneficial than just asking for something. People are more responsive when they see direct value for their company. During an interview with an architect, he said his friend was looking to hire someone. Three days later, I had a job.

Use your education to your advantage

An American education is well-respected and valued around the world; it opens doors in most countries I’ve lived and worked in, especially in Asia. The firms I worked for in Shanghai hired foreign staff to lead the design efforts while relying on local architects to address the codes, regulations, drafting, and rendering tasks.

It was often very difficult to communicate design ideas across multiple languages, and there are also cultural expectations in regards to design that didn’t always align with my tastes or training.

My opportunities in Asia were exciting and fast paced, exposing me to a wide range of project types. It also made use of the training we actually receive in architectural school: developing schematic design ideas and presenting our concepts with compelling graphics and storytelling. I didn’t have to focus on code issues or the technical aspects of architecture, as we only developed the projects that we won.

Turn challenges into opportunities

Living and working abroad often comes with language and cultural barriers that can make aspects of life difficult, both within an office and outside a firm. It isn’t always easy to make close friends, especially with locals. There are aspects of different cultures that I wasn’t used to and could create tension within a small team of designers. It was often very difficult to communicate design ideas across multiple languages, and there are also cultural expectations in regards to design that didn’t always align with my tastes or training.

Language barriers extended to the legal aspects of moving, living, and working abroad. Navigating the visa requirements, government forms, health care, taxes, banking, and seemingly simple things like setting up phones in foreign countries isn’t easy. I only got through it with a lot of support from friends I made, colleagues at the places I worked, and a strong network of expats who share their experienced.

Even when I returned to the US, there were challenges. My experience is a huge departure from how most people move through architecture, and how it is practiced in most US firms. I never learned how to detail or how to assemble a construction document set according to US standards. Many local firms had trouble understanding my experience and valued me as a recent graduate, rather than as a designer with 5-plus years of experience. The environment was very dissimilar to what I experienced working abroad; it was difficult to end up spending most of my time on Revit developing other people’s ideas. This ultimately led to me starting my own firm with several partners.

Build on previous experience

Running a firm based in the US and looking for work abroad is a different challenge. My firm, Propel Studio, has been lucky to be connected with clients in Japan through a local government agency called the Portland Development Commission. We have also worked with to the US Commercial Service to help identify leads abroad. They have a series of programs in place to help American companies find international clients. The government can be a great ally and open doors to opportunities abroad.

The work we did in Aridagawa, Japan was a result of a program in Portland called We Build Green Cities, where the city is actively helping export local design firms to clients abroad. We built a relationship with one of their key staff members, Mistu Yamasaki, who connects design firms and local developers with clients and investors from Japan. He did much of the leg work, teaming us with the local planning and landscape architecture firm PLACE to run a series of community design workshops focused on creating a new community center and business incubator in the small community.

We are now looking for new opportunities in the Japan market—I’ve even transferred my membership to AIA Japan—and will be returning in October to see progress on our project, give presentations about our work, and find new project leads. Similarly, we are pursuing opportunities in Vietnam and have identified Singapore and Thailand as other target markets. Through my experiences abroad and cultural lessons learned, I’ve been able to incorporate international projects as a key element of my firm’s efforts.

This piece was originally written for Connection, the Young Architects Forum e-magazine. If you are considering the pursuit of projects abroad or are already engaged in international work, download AIA's Global Practice Primer.

Lucas Gray, Assoc. AIA, co-founded Propel Studio, an award-winning firm based in Portland, Oregon. He earned a BS Arch from McGill University, a M.Arch. from the University of Oregon and is a LEED accredited professional.

Image credits

International collaboration in Aridagawa, Japan

Propel Studio

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