Architecture feature photo

The Architecture of Services Trade

Building Trade Connections

If we think of components, parts, factories, workers, and robotics as the building materials, services are the buttresses holding up the edifice of international trade.

This is the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, perhaps the 20th century’s most influential school of architecture, art and design, which presents the perfect opportunity to take a “high-rise” look at trade in architectural services and the policy issues affecting the broader building economy.

Though the Bauhaus school only lasted from 1919-1933, the architectural contributions of German architects including Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, and Mendelsohn lasted far longer. In 1930, Harvard University hosted the first Bauhaus exhibition in the United States, and later became an unofficial U.S. Bauhaus center when founding director Walter Gropius joined Harvard’s department of architecture in 1937.

Matt Noblett is a partner at Behnisch Architekten, a Boston-based firm that is tied to one of the most prominent names in contemporary German architecture. Noblett thinks that social, economic, and cultural factors can impact a client’s choice of architectural firm in an overseas market. The German reputation for engineering, for example, may lead potential clients to see a German firm as a potentially more expensive and complex design partner.

Best Designed Plans

Style and skill don’t always win the day when competing in overseas markets for services, however. The government might not allow foreign ownership of an architectural firm or recognize the credentials of a foreign architect. Governments may impose other barriers such as nationality or residency requirements to practice, disallowing or limiting firms from transferring employees temporarily for a project. Other impediments to market access include restrictions against foreign firms bidding on public projects.

Scaffolding Protecting Local Professionals

Licensure: One of the biggest obstacles to offering architectural services in another country is the regulations around licensure to operate as a commercial architect within that country’s borders. Individual country requirements generally include education, experience, and some form of examination.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) maintains a Services Trade Restrictiveness Index to measure the restrictiveness of such regulations. Portugal’s score, for example, is high – meaning very restrictive. First, you must be a citizen of a country in the European Economic Area or a country that has signed a reciprocal agreement with Portugal. In addition, you must have a commercial presence – you can’t fly in to provide architectural or engineering services. And, foreign architects wanting to practice in Portugal must re-do their university degree, unless their home country has a bilateral agreement with Portugal.

The United States is no different with regard to licensure. German-educated architect Brigitte Steines, who co-leads architectural firm InkStone Architects, LLC in Concord, Massachusetts, describes the process of applying for a U.S. license as a German citizen who had studied at an accredited architecture school in Germany. “The state of California recognized my degree, and I completed eight written exams and one oral exam to secure my license.”

Several years later, when Steines moved to Massachusetts, local licensing authorities gave her credit for the California license, but discounted her eight years of English study through high school and mandated college-level English study, which was neither required nor offered in her architecture program in Germany. She had to pass the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) English exam and produce a transcript of a degree she had earned roughly two decades earlier.

In the United States, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) establishes model regulations for the field. Foreign architects can pursue an NCARB Certificate by completing the organization’s experience and examination requirements. While the certificate does not establish the ability to practice architecture in the United States, most jurisdictions accept the NCARB Certificate to meet the requirements for reciprocal licensure. Once certified, the foreign architect can use the credential to earn a license in an individual jurisdiction. Citizens of Australia, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand may be able to pursue a license in the United States through mutual recognition arrangements, though not all U.S. jurisdictions accept them.

Harvard_Yard_RenderIn line with Harvard’s historic ties to German architecture, Behnisch Architekten designed Harvard’s science & engineering complex on its Allston Campus, an almost 500,000 square-foot, six-story state-of-the-art facility expected to be completed in 2020. Some of the fabric on the façade comes from southern Germany.

Visa Policy: A license only gets you so far. If you are not a citizen of the country in which you wish to perform architectural services, you’ll need a “temporary entry” category work visa. In the United States, an employment-based petition can only include the title “architect” if the applicant is licensed, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services won’t grant approval unless the person has earned the license by the date of application.

The most common visa for architects may be the H-1B specialty occupation visa, though with numerical caps on this type of visa that are met quickly, it can be very difficult to secure. This visa type also requires the architect to receive the actual or prevailing wage of the occupation, which firms may not pay younger architects.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the TN nonimmigrant classification allows qualified Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the United States to engage in business activities, including the architecture profession. Australia, Chile, and Singapore also have country-specific visa opportunities.

If an overseas-based architectural firm wants to transfer architects to work in its U.S. branch, an L-1 visa is a possibility. To qualify as an L-1A transfer, architects must have worked abroad and be coming to work in the United States as managers or executives. For an L-1B, architects must have advanced knowledge of a company’s practices. Architects from a country that has a treaty of commerce and navigation with the United States may pursue an E visa, with E-2 treaty investor visas designated for those coming to invest substantial capital into a U.S.-based business. An architect might petition for an O-1 visa if they have a claim to distinction in the arts. Finally, a J-1 visa allows graduates or current students from foreign universities to temporarily intern or train at a U.S. architectural firm.

Market Access: There are also firm-level barriers to entry. Some countries limit ownership of architectural firms to locally qualified architects or impose minimum capital requirements as a barrier to foreign entry. Ownership restrictions may be coupled with requirements that the majority of board members (or equity partners in the case of partnerships) and manager of architectural firms must be locally qualified.

Standards: Firms operating outside their home country need to meet the host country’s state and municipal business codes and related technical standards. In the United States, building codes vary by jurisdiction, and incorporate by reference a range of standards covering everything from fire protection to concrete to steel construction. Many building codes are based on the International Building Code but, since not all countries use it, an overseas architect must learn and meet the standards of whatever building code is adopted in a given state or city. Standards can serve as a non-tariff barrier to trade when country-specific standards are designed to make it difficult for foreign firms to meet.

Support Beams Strengthening Trade in Services

Digital Trade: Advances in technology allow architects to create digital design simulations using Computer Aided Design (CAD) or Revit and other Building Information Modeling (BIM) programs. The rapidly growing 3D visualization market has allowed online firms in places like China and Eastern Europe to offer low-cost renderings they can transfer or export through digital means. Newer provisions in trade agreements regarding e-signatures, cross-border data flows, and harmonization of digital standards create an important infrastructure that can facilitate architectural services trade.

Services and Goods Joints: The cost of construction affects demand for architecture and engineering services. Trade in goods, and the ability to source building materials globally, thus impacts services trade as well. Architecture- and engineering-related services drive purchasing decisions around everything from HVAC systems to building materials, to plumbing, insulation and lighting products produced all around the world.

Bauhaus and Borders

The world recently lost a revered architect who traveled the world to create iconic forms tailored to place. Chinese-American I.M. Pei worked mainly in the United States but may be best remembered for his work on France’s Louvre Museum, the first foreign architect in the museum’s long history. Pei studied at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where he worked under Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius, a microcosm of the global story of architecture itself.

Architectural firms operating outside their home markets, staffed by architects holding passports from around the world, generate design that represents a fusion of cultural sensibilities. But sometimes the rendering doesn’t match reality. Architectural firms doing business outside (and inside) their home markets must navigate a host of government policy requirements.

The Bauhaus architecture style combined artistic, practical, and social dimensions. Similarly, policies around architectural services trade must uphold professional standards, while enabling global talent to build the vibrant cityscapes of today and tomorrow.