How do you take the San Antonio Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas, an iconic landmark that has developed over decades and is visited by tens of millions of people a year, and build it in China? The answer is…You don’t. However, what you can do successfully is take its best attributes, combine them with those attributes of other great water cities around the world, and then design a unique version that is strategic, contextual, beautiful and authentic in its own right.
Even with a clear plan, the challenges of working abroad are compounded by cultural differences, language barriers, contractual challenges, technology compatibility, and of course a 13-hour time difference. In other words, you have a complex mix to manage.
At Overland Partners, we have honed our design process over the last 32 years. It serves as the foundation for our projects whether we are working in San Antonio, Florida, the Middle East or China. Like all construction, certain techniques and procedures do not translate directly. Over the last 10 years of working in China, we have learned lessons on each project. These can be summarized into three main areas, listed below.
At first, we could not believe the speed of development. What we were used to seeing on a schedule in months, were shown in weeks. Many of the projects were akin to what we know as public-private partnerships (P3). With delivery being the No. 1 priority, packaging of the civil and building designs was broken into dozens of contracts. We found ourselves meeting and coordinating with not only the client’s stakeholders, but also the contractors, sub-contractors and utility providers.
As we produced our concept design, the civil engineers would quickly move into construction documents and begin releasing packages to the contractor for excavation and utility upgrading. We quickly learned to be very careful with what we sketched out, and realized that we needed to have our own internal design reviews and be certain that the solutions were viable before laying them on the table. On a recent visit to Nanjing to present the design for a 5-mile river walk project, we were asked if we could add a slight curve in the design. We were quickly shown drone footage of the completed section of the civil work and the extent of the ongoing construction—the river in that area remained straight.
We have been using BIM for 10 years, and quickly realized that this was both a valuable and challenging technology for these projects. At first, we simple saved files as AutoCAD, but recently it has become a requirement and, in fact, a selling point for our services.
During the design of a museum, the client passed on a request from the local architect, “Can you please share your BIM model with the design team?” Our contract did not cover this opportunity and the model did include complex geometric forms (shell-like volumes that housed exhibit galleries) we created.
We agreed to share the model with the local architect during the design development phase. Collaborating on a series of markups and details would have been very difficult without BIM.
In our last project presentation, we used our portable virtual reality (VR) laptop with a headset to allow the client and contractor to walk along the river to get a more immersive experience. We are finding that 3D models and VR quickly breakdown the language barriers so that everyone can see easily appreciate the design intent offer more informed feedback.
I remember receiving my first fax from China in 1994. As the thermal paper slowly rolled out of the facsimile, I was mesmerized. This was coming live from Beijing! Today, conference calls, text and email with our clients in China are as commonplace as is Blue Beam, Newforma, Teams and more. However, our biggest communication challenges were language and the culture of negotiation and contracting. Taking the approach of “Fail fast and learn quickly,” we have learned that partnering with other international groups, such as Arup, continues to help us navigate the non-design side of our profession.
Today, we have five architects fluent in Chinese in our office that help with design, contracting, scheduling and communication. We have learned to adapt to what works for everyone.
One of the most common questions I get about working in China is, “Why?” At first, it was about the challenge and the opportunity to learn about a 4,000-year-old culture. Today we share our experience and lessons learned and explain how working in China has improved our design process and broadened our problem-solving ability. We learn from them, and they learn from us. We have made many friends in China and are invited to participate in projects that will impact millions.
In a world where we can become embroiled in the day-to-day challenges of schedules, contracts and requests for information (RFIs), we can forget why we love the construction industry. Whether it is laying sewer pipes or building new elementary schools, we are doing it to build a better community for our families and friends around the world.