International projects provide perspective, lessons learned for Portland design firms

Portland's expertise in architecture, engineering and urban planning is in high demand overseas, and the global market is providing some valuable learning opportunities for local design and planning professionals as well as their counterparts abroad.

Glen Bolen, AICP, a senior planner at Otak Inc., recently returned from a three-week visit to the country of Georgia, bordering Turkey, where he participated in a series of focus groups in three distinct regions to help municipal leaders define their needs and assets. The regional leaders will use that information to prioritize projects that develop infrastructure and create economic opportunities, and apply for low-interest loans from the Asia Development Bank to fund those projects.

"The primary drive for the sorting of these projects is the three Es — environment, equity and economics — or what we call here the triple bottom line," Bolen said.SUBMITTED: PROPEL STUDIO - Propel Studio has been working with PLACE Studio in Aridagawa, Japan to have a series of workshops and create a design to convert a former city-owned nursery school building into a community center and business incubator for young women entrepreneurs. Clockwise from left: ONe of the design renderings for the community center, participants in one of the design workshops present their work and workshop participants at a rice field in Aridagawa.

Noting that Georgia is a first-world country with third-world regions, particularly in rural areas, Bolen said his visit made him realize how much he and other Oregonians take things like sustainable wastewater treatment systems and strict air and water quality standards for granted. He met with developers who had created master plans for various cities in Georgia and, while the master plans were sure to be adopted, they don't carry the legal weight of those in the United States.

"It's a pretty easy place to be a developer because it's a little like the wild west right now and they are very hungry for investment, which means it's also a great opportunity," he said.

Jim Hamann, Otak's CEO and president, has lived in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and Otak has developed several projects in the Middle East. However, legal issues are among the reasons the firm is scaling back from its work there.

"In the U.S. we have a very mature market and our clients are mature, so we develop all of the contracts and our clients follow those contracts. Once in a great while, we'll get into a dispute," he said. "In the Middle East and some other areas, the development of those contracts is not nearly as mature so contracts aren't always followed to the letter of the law, and that can be quite problematic."

In addition, payment from clients can often be slow and corruption is an issue in several countries. "Government projects in some of these countries can be quite messy and we have very strict standards, so we just don't participate," Hamann said.

"The risk profiles in international business are quite a bit different, depending on where you are working, and it makes it risky to work internationally for firms of our size, to say the least," he added. "Despite our many years of experience in the Middle East, and we've done lots of great projects, we're going to wind our work down there."

Otak is now focused on partnering with the Asia Development Bank, which provides a more stable means of doing projects in developing countries while providing international architecture, engineering and planning experience for Otak's employees. The firm is working on a proposal to design and develop a medical university in Vietnam and it recently finished a project in the Solomon Islands. Otak's work overseas primarily includes infrastructure systems and health and education projects, Hamann said.

"I think it brings a more global vision to the projects we do in the U.S.," he said.

Propel Studio is expanding its geographic reach, partly because one of its partners, Tuan Vu, is from Vietnam and is working to establish more business there. The firm also works with clients in Japan and several staff members recently returned from a visit there.

Lucas Gray, Assoc. AIA, the firm's director of business development and a designer, said Japanese clients want to learn more about Portland's expertise in the design process and especially the community engagement component. That was a key priority of Propel Studio's work in Aridagawa, Japan, where it partnered with PLACE Studio to lead a series of community workshops and design charrettes to convert a former city-owned nursery school building into a community center and business incubator for young women entrepreneurs.

"One of the interesting things about that project is they were looking to hire us specifically as a design team to kind of break the cultural norms for the way things are done there," Gray said. "In general, we've been told that Japanese society is very top-down and hierarchical in making decisions, and they don't typically ask local residents what they want. We were there to show how to run these design workshops and ask the community to give us feedback, and then present the design concepts based on that."

The Aridagawa renovation effort ranges from seismic upgrades to reclaiming a path that leads to a nearby shrine elders recalled being the center of community ceremonies. Gray, who has lived in Thailand, Shanghai, China and Berlin, Germany, said the staff who participated in the three-week visit share a common love of travel and experiencing other cultures, both professionally and personally.

"I think it's a really fun aspect of our job and something we want to do more of," he said.

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