Engineering Abroad

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett Contributing Editor June 10, 2005

Although an M/E firm may be doing well here in the U.S., success in the domestic market doesn’t necessarily translate overseas, say some engineers. At the same time, by understanding a number of key principles, designers can learn how to effectively bring their consulting services overseas.

“You’ve got to know your territory. You cannot export management, rules and regulations, and impose that on a country,” cautions Michal Gilzenrat, vice president, international operations, Lockwood Greene, Atlanta.

Similarly, Randolph W. Tucker, P.E., executive vice president, The RJA Group, Houston, states, “I’ve seen many people go into a country not understanding the culture or respecting how they’re doing business. You can’t force your opinions and views.”

Instead, engineers must put time and energy into learning the accepted business practices and etiquette of each particular country. Naturally, a potential client will be much more open to an American design firm offering its design expertise if there is a feeling of mutual respect.

In addition, it’s important to be aware of the simple reality that things are done differently in different places.

For example, David Stillman, P.E., managing director, Flack+Kurtz, U.K., explains, “An air duct in Germany is the same as an air duct in France, but each have their own criteria. Comfort in a building is a cultural thing; some like to feel air movement, others do not.”

In a similar vein, Nick Bilotti, Turner Construction International, New York, points out that construction practices may vary significantly in different regions of the world. For instance, bamboo scaffolding is commonly employed in Asia, and in Latin America, it isn’t unusual to see laborers manually lugging buckets of concrete up five stories.

Besides varying construction methods, the legal, economical, cultural and political climate of a foreign country can easily add to the time and complexity involved in a project.

“The biggest lesson is patience,” says Bilotti. I’ve had projects that took three years to design abroad, which domestically would have taken nine months.”