Viewpoint (December 01, 2004)

During the past three years, China has accounted for one-third of global economic growth, twice as much as the US, which now places it as the world’s second largest economy. As a result, China’s demand for commodities drove up world prices. In 2003, it consumed 40% of the world’s output of cement, one-third of the growth in global oil consumption, 90% of the growth in world steel demand, and was the major cause for an increase in the demand for copper. Economic growth is also putting pressure on China’s infrastructure, hospitals, schools and internal labour markets, causing labour shortages in some areas of the country, which in turn is affecting construction schedules.

A decade ago, China was an untapped market for architects. A handful of firms were trailblazers and some of them continue to maintain permanent offices in Shanghai or Beijing, while others have been bankrupted as the result of the speculative frenzy.

Today, the architecture being produced by Canadian firms in China is surpassing the necessity of “building.” The latest generation of projects are increasingly sophisticated with respect to business and contractual agreements, design, and methods of construction delivery. With increasing finesse, firms are addressing issues of sustainability, health care and education design–areas of concern typically overshadowed by the needs of commercial and high-end residential markets. Yet, despite the belief that the architecture in China is becoming more sophisticated, there are many examples of projects which do not support this argument. Chinese regulations allow foreign firms to design buildings and provide quasi-construction drawings, but until recently, only designated state-owned design institutes could sign off on construction drawings. The requirement to work with these design institutes is part of the reason why fees in China are at least 50% less than in other parts of the world.

So, do you still want to work in China? There are several issues that you may want to consider. Attend trade fairs and make contacts with local government officials. Know who your client is and what they want. You might be surprised to discover that what you thought was going to be a five-year commitment may only involve schematic designs and a few months of work. Having a local office in China may not be the answer either. As foreign firms increase their responsibilities and exposure in China, their liability increases too. Make sure that your liability coverage program is adequate. Hire a good lawyer. Credit insurance is a good idea to protect yourself for non-payment of architectural fees. There are many private companies offering this service now that China has joined the World Trade Organization. And finally, develop a strategy to protect your intellectual property. As for guidance from your provincial authority? Unfortunately, as of yet, there have been no formal partnerships established with any Canadian licensing body or national organization to make it simpler for architects to pursue work in China. However, last April, the American Institute of Architects and the Architectural Society of China signed a new and revised Accord on Professionalism in Architecture in Beijing, extending an earlier accord signed in 1993. Why is there not a similar accord between Canadian and Chinese architects?

Canadian architects are internationally recognized for their high level of expertise. Our experience in sustainable design, health care, educational facilities and our sensitivity to community are but a few of the strengths that we have to offer. As Rem Koolhaas quipped in his 1995 book S,M,L,XL: “Two billion people won’t be wrong.”