Managing the divide

Anticipating and understanding cultural differences is the key to successfully managing expectations of overseas clients.

By David M. Simon, PE, LEED AP, R.G. Vanderweil Engineers LLP, Boston January 16, 2009

Although an international project team may all be nodding their heads in consent during important design decisions, that doesn’t necessarily mean all are on the same page–especially when a cultural divide exists .

For starters, Western designers may face an altered work week, differences in design approach, and different construction and manufacturing standards. With such major differences, North American firms must do their homework and be proactive by asking foreign clients questions to best navigate the project delivery process. None of these differences are insurmountable, as long as the team fosters an environment of open communication throughout the process.

This article outlines lessons learned from working with a prominent Middle Eastern client on an ongoing multi-billion dollar project. In short, the overlying theme has been the age-old cliche: there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Working together

One of the major cultural differences encountered early on the project: the client’s Saturday through Wednesday work week . Because it wasn’t practical for the international team to only communicate directly on three out of seven days, the United States team found itself communicating seven days a week to keep up with the flow of information.

Perhaps better accommodations for overlapping work days could have been negotiated had the issue been addressed at the onset. For example, one side could have conformed to the other’s work week for the duration of the project. However, this arrangement puts a burden on one team for a protracted length of time, depending on a project’s size and duration. A possible compromise would be to split the work week within each team, so that there is at least minimal coverage from both sides each day.

An additional challenge is the time difference when the two parties are in offices on separate continents. It may seem like a simple logistical issue, but it’s important to address this early on in the project. Setting project standards for matters such as times for conference calls and weekly meetings is crucial to stay in contact. Teams also can use the time difference as an advantage; if an issue comes up at the end of the day in the Middle East, the U.S. team will have time to prepare a response and complete it by the time their counterparts return to their office in the morning.

Similarly, it’s important to anticipate the fact that the design team and the client may celebrate different holidays. U.S. businesses slow down for the last week of a calendar year, but the client may expect hard charge to the next deadline during that time. Conversely, when dealing with a Middle Eastern client, it may be challenging to schedule meetings and get timely responses during the month of Ramadan.

Yet another logistical hurdle encountered on the project: it is more complicated for foreigners to enter the United States than it was a decade ago. A number of foreign team members encountered difficulty and delays in procuring U.S. visas . The setback was overcome temporarily by holding initial project meetings in Canada, until U.S. visas could be sorted out.

Differences in project execution

In addition to project team dynamics, many differences can come up in the realm of design and execution. As designers, we need to ask these things upfront. Not asking the right questions for fear of offending a client may prove costly when a design change is required later in the process.

For example, deciding between Eastern versus Western-style bathrooms necessitated lengthy discussions. Often local design requirements arise from cultural needs, rather than codes or standards. Issues like toilets not being allowed to face Mecca may be critical, once again underscoring the need for open client discussions.

Another issue is gray water re-use. While project stakeholders may be on board with many sustainable design ideas and share a desire to have the project U.S. Green Building Council LEED certified, there may be a reluctance to employ any gray water strategies, due to different cultural views.

The issue of codes and standards also deserves a specific discussion early in the design process. Many countries may not have their own codes and standards, or may rely more on local jurisdictions for interpretations of international or U.S. codes. Properly understanding the codes to be used for each discipline will help eliminate confusion during construction.

Another practical difference involves use of metric versus English units. Although it’s likely that the client will require final specification documents to be in metric units, it’s important to determine whether this also applies to an architect/engineer’s calculations. Naturally, it’s easier for U.S. designers to use English units in their calculations and provide a final converted answer in metric units; such an allowance must be clearly delineated at the onset of a project to avoid creating more work down the line.

Contract and procurement issues

Moving on to contractual issues: This is a critical area, during which a common understanding of terms must be established. The contracted team must pin down exactly how design documents will be produced, what they’ll look like, and what level of completeness will be shown at each specific phase of the project. This includes upfront discussions about documentation methods, delivery schedules, and understanding the next step once the drawings are handed over to a construction manager or contractor.

One helpful approach involves showing the client examples of a schematic design package, detailed design package, construction documents, etc. This way, expectations can be established and confusion cleared up before too much time is invested in document production.

A few issues related to the procurement process warrant additional communication in the early stages. One area is the client’s preference to use local suppliers, shipping requirements if overseas delivery is required, and international differences in basic procurement methods.

Design and construction teams should take time to discuss the client’s desire to use locally produced or assembled materials on the job. These discussions need to occur early enough to allow proper investigation of preferred suppliers to aid in understanding their capabilities. Depending on the nature and complexity of the design, the team may find that the local supplier simply cannot meet the designer’s specifications, due to lacking product quality, expertise, or both. It is clearly critical to meeting the project schedule that these items are discovered as early as possible–ideally before any design decisions are made regarding the use of a particular manufacturer or supplier.

The need for international shipping (specifically for large items that must be shipped by sea) also should be researched before equipment is selected and included in the design. It is important to consider what the maximum size of a component can be based on the dimensions of a standard shipping container. Failure to account for this in the design of large equipment may require costly re-assembly in the field of items that were expected to be factory installed and tested.

In terms of the overall procurement process, North American designers should be prepared if the client uses a Bill of Quantities approach to procurement. On this project, the U.S. team spent time putting notes for clarification of scope into their documents, but the subcontractors who ultimately bid on the project never even saw these notes; the Bill of Quantities process calls upon a third party to take these documents and turn them into a spreadsheet-style list of materials. Looking at such a list of raw numbers, without the greater context of the design and the notes included for clarification, there is often less questioning of the scope, which can sometimes affect bid accuracy.

The design team needs to clearly understand the means and methods that will be used during procurement so the design documents can be tailored to give the most information to those who will be responsible for pricing the scope of work.


Although overseas projects can be exciting and beneficial for a North American firm’s growth and reputation, such endeavors don’t come without challenges. As mentioned, strong communication, anticipating professional and cultural differences, and not being afraid to ask questions up front are critical to a successful project.

There is a tangible benefit that can be seen from engaging one’s overseas client in discussions in regards to a working schedule, cultural design issues, and contract and procurement issues long before they surface on their own. These early discussions will not only pave the way for a smoother project, but will foster an open means of communication that will strengthen one’s overall client-consultant relationship.

Simon is an associate and project manager with R.G. Vanderweil Engineers LLP , in Boston. Simon has more than 10 years of experience in project management, facility design, validation, and commissioning. He has managed the design on a variety of projects within the field of life sciences, including pilot plants, bulk pharmaceutical plants, and both academic and corporate research laboratories.