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Exporting your architectural expertise overseas

Seeking new opportunities abroad.

14 September 2017

A session at this year’s RIBA Smart Practice Conference on proactive approaches to business development is dedicated to ‘Seeking New Opportunities Abroad’.

With prospects in home markets continuing to look uncertain, exporting architectural services overseas can be more than opportune, providing a potential life line. They can, for instance, offer an important means of retaining work in a sector that is drying up in the home market.

Chris Knight, an International Trade Adviser at the Department for International Trade (DIT) is opening the session at the event in Bristol with clear guidance on working internationally. The key starting point is identifying what your business does that is different and what specialism you have to offer. This does not require practices necessarily being at the leading edge of design or digital expertise, as he points out:

‘Some overseas markets may not be ready for cutting-edge practice, but they might be looking for something else that you can offer from your experience.’

Practices should always remember that the UK is an incredibly competitive marketplace, much more so than many overseas markets, so firms that have managed to succeed here should not underestimate their ability to sell their services abroad.

The government support available from the DIT (formerly UK Trade & Industry) is all too often associated with trade missions. In fact, though, these trade missions are just a small part of what the DIT does to help exporters. While larger practices may be attracted to the high-profile missions, small practices can access tailored support through regional DIT offices, such as Bristol, where Knight is based. As he outlines:

‘Many people do not realise that they can sit down with an International Trade Adviser and work through their options and try to identify what it is they do that they can export. At a regional level, most of our time is spent talking to small businesses.’

BEaM has just won a replacement bridge project in Washington DC, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. The US has an estimated 70,000 bridge structures in need of replacement. CGI © DDOT and AECOM

The UK has commercial teams around the world, in every embassy, whose job it is to support UK exports and help firms make contacts. This may extend to looking for potential partner practices with matching skills and making direct approaches.

And while the DIT cannot offer specialist legal or contract support to firms entering new markets, it can point practices in the direction of appropriate professional services firms.

Practices with an established specialism, though, have a head start. The three directors at BEaM – Keith Brownlie, Christian Ernst and James Marks – all are established experts in international architecture and bridge design and know their target markets well. Before co-founding BEaM in Bridport, Dorset, in 2012, Brownlie was a Director at Wilkinson Eyre Architects in London.

‘Every market is different, with different sensibilities and issues that require different approaches,’ says Keith Brownlie, who will also be presenting at Smart Practice.

‘Operating anywhere requires either mature experience of the market or mature experience of the typology; clients have no incentive to take a risk on both counts.

‘We do not have the cultural or business resources to invest in every market so we trade on specific expertise and experience in our particular field. In many markets these attributes count for significantly more than in the box-ticking culture of the UK which values size over substance.’

The global market for infrastructure and bridge design is huge. It is estimated that there are 70,000 existing structures in the US alone deemed to be structurally obsolete and in need of near-term replacement.

This market is serviced by relatively few specialist architects with the ability to provide applicable skills wherever they occur. BEaM operates globally, but chooses to focus mostly on Northern Europe, North America and Australasia rather than ‘difficult’ markets that need longer term investment.

‘Almost without exception our clients are engineers or contractors, not ultimate owners or users to whom we have an obvious obligation but no direct contractual relationship, therefore our relationships with industry are critical. Very often we work with parties that we have successfully collaborated with in the past, which makes it important to properly maintain those relationships,’ says Brownlie.

‘Inevitably we need to make new relationships to service projects where they occur, which usually involves a two-way process of education and cultural navigation. Success is often achieved by backing the right horse for the particular race, not riding the one you are most comfortable with.’

Designing for sustainability is one of the strengths of the UK profession that is widely recognised around the world, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) is a leader in the field, represented by Peter Clegg at Smart Practice.

When Peter Clegg co-founded FCBS in 1978, teaching and research provided a significant springboard for establishing their credentials at home and abroad. After publishing his Masters’ thesis from Yale on low-energy design, he returned to the US to teach for six months on the West Coast, which helped build North American contacts. Ten years ago, he consolidated his US profile by giving a short lecture tour for the US Green Building Council, which resulted in the practice picking up two major projects. The practice’s burgeoning reputation in low-energy design also enabled them to secure a housing project in Madrid.

FCBS has also applied this approach to the higher education sector. When in 2012, they ‘published a serious book about the relationship of university buildings to their urban settings Education, Architecture, Urbanism: Three University Projects’. They ‘sent copies of it to about 30 universities in North America and it resulted in one competition where we came second, and established our credentials as serious university architects’, says Clegg.

Repute also travels of its own accord. When FCBS were approached by the Aga Kahn Academies to undertake a school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, ‘they came to us because of our reputation with the UK Academies programme.’

Smart Practice Conference 2017: New Opportunities. This year’s conference takes place at M Shed, Princes Wharf, Bristol on 3 October 2017.

Thanks to Chris Knight, International Trade Adviser, Department for International Trade; Keith Brownlie, Director, Brownlie Ernst and Marks (BEaM); Peter Clegg, Senior Partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for Practice News:

Posted on 14 September 2017.

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