China Express

China Express

As people tuned into the Olympics this past August, they saw buildings like the evocatively nicknamed Bird’s Nest and Water Cube settling into the Beijing landscape. But what wasn’t seen so clearly by Olympic viewers were the challenges of working in this frenetic setting, and the logistics of trading design drawings with clients and colleagues over five thousand miles away. It’s a world where technology plays a central role, increasing in importance and complexity.

Without a doubt, the Chinese economy has been nothing short of miraculous over the last few years, turning a development nobody into one of the hottest markets in the world. Although new signs are ominous—a recent report in The New York Times said that housing sales in big cities this year have dropped by as much as 40 percent, and several firms told AN that commercial construction in the country is way down—China is still the place to be for Western architects, including many of California’s top firms looking for large-scale work. 

Among these entrepreneurial spirits constantly boarding flights that “would drive me nuts if I thought about it,” according to Andy Feola, president of Pasadena-based F + A Architects, technology allows the once time-eating, mundane coordination of cross-continental business to be managed electronically through innovative new data sharing, construction management, and teleconferencing technologies.

“Working on projects in the early ‘90s, we would print up designs, box them up, and then have to schlep stuff over there. People were on the plane every week, information got lost in transportation, and it was prohibitive both in terms of cost and personal life,” said Mehrdad Yazdani, principal of Los Angeles-based Yazdani Studio of Cannon Design, which is now working on a concert hall, a restaurant, and a villa as part of the huge Ordos development that is employing star architects in Inner Mongolia. “My experience now is completely different,” he said. His firm uses the FTP site CuteFTP to share documents of all sizes; it employs Smarttech’s Bridgit software for WebExing—internet conferences in which users can interactively edit the same drawing—and it uses long-distance teleconferencing technology like Skype and the Polycom System (a hardware application linked to an overhead projector, a camera, and a computer image system) to conduct videoconferences with colleagues in China.

Gene Schnair, managing partner of SOM’s San Francisco office—which is working on over 20 projects in China—noted his firm’s use of the Polycom system and GoToMeeting, which enables users in different locations to work on documents simultaneously, for teleconferencing. Morphosis, which is working on ambitious projects in China as well, uses the web-based project management system Aconex, in which the contractor in China posts drawings and images on the website for U.S. architects to review and send back with changes. For videoconferencing, the firm uses the Tandberg system, which like Polycom uses cameras and projectors to link teams over the internet. The firm’s videoconferences are further enhanced through the Cintiq tablet by Wacom, an LCD tablet imbedded in the firm’s conference tables that allows architects to instantaneously share sketches with their overseas counterparts. The firm also employs a software called Gathering Place, which displays architects’ desktops on colleagues’ computers in China.

There are still more work-saving and work-enhancing technologies on the way. A company called iBeam sells to architects and construction managers a handheld camera that beams live video from anywhere on a construction site to any computer screen; it can be shared by multiple remote viewers. And IT companies like Control Group provide comprehensive electronic tracking systems; or firms can do it on their own with software likeMicrosoft’s SharePoint, which allows huge document transfers from a central repository, with version tracking, vaulting, and other tools.

And since wages are significantly lower in China, firms are able to take advantage of a technique that is more controversial: outsourcing to Chinese offices. “Before, when I hired recent graduates of Harvard or Cornell or USC, we had them pick up red marks or do area calculations or color a drawing,” said Yazdani. “Now, we have our team in Shanghai do that, and it frees up our California team to do more of the creative and design work.”

Michael Mann, a principal at Los Angeles firm DMJM Design, also praised the financial benefits of sending some work to China. “Full-on 3D animations can get really expensive here, and they’re a third of the cost in China. It allows us to not only do better visualizations, but also to send work there for our U.S. clients that is otherwise too expensive to be done,” he said. Local companies like Shanghai-based Architectural Management on Demand (AMOD) can produce scale models and renderings within days using existing documents.

Outsourcing is a controversial step in some ways, but one which some feel balances, rather than replaces, the jobs of American architects. “There is a lot of concern about outsourcing,” said Yazdani. “But it’s allowed us to do the work much faster and be more competitive in the marketplace here—as well as allowing us to focus on the things we do well.”

Freeing up creative time can be crucial in a setting that’s often described as one of the most inventive in the world. Tim Christ, a principal at Morphosis, remarked that, “The Chinese are willing to embrace new ideas that you don’t see in the U.S. now, such as really ambitious spatial relationships. There’s a progressive spirit that’s extraordinary.” Morphosis is in the middle of construction of the Giant Group Pharmaceutical Campus just outside of Shanghai. Slated for completion in spring 2009, the 258,000-square-foot campus is a sinuous combination of lifted forms spanning a four-lane highway, a massive green roof, and cantilevered shapes anchoring both ends, one of which projects dynamically over a man-made lake.

“There’s a willingness to push the envelope and explore different opportunities and directions,” agreed principal Robert Mankin, based in the Los Angeles office of NBBJ, whose firm is working on five projects in China, including a large mixed-use project in Dailian and a sports park in Hangzhou.

Still, although most firms find that China embraces innovation and has high levels of technological capability, there is sometimes discordance between how work is approached in China and in the U.S. Some, like SOM’s Schnair, have had limited success with shared platforms, since “what we’re finding is that our Chinese counterparts have AutoCAD as their basic platform. Revit isn’t implemented to the degree that it’s become a commonplace utility.”

Yazdani has had more success sharing complex modeling platforms, and explained that of all his firm’s offices, “our Shanghai office was the first that was completely Revit-ized.” As a result, he said, “we’re able to work and build on the same model simultaneously between both our California and Shanghai office, with daily communication back and forth. We confront more technological challenges when we work on local projects than we do in China.”

Probably the biggest remaining challenge in China rests with the implementation of an actual design. Specifically, there’s still a large gap in construction standards. Although the level of quality is “much, much better; it used to be terrible,” said Jack Bouvrie, design director at Los Angeles–based firm Nadel Architects, there are still some concerns of overall ability with local engineering and construction firms, especially in cities outside Beijing and Shanghai. Because of regulatory limitations, American architects aren’t allowed to produce construction documents or act as architect of record without a local license, so they become consultants during the construction process.

“At SOM, we’re still involved to the extent we can assure ourselves that our design is being carried out in a way that we’ll be satisfied with the outcome. It requires a watchful eye, from reviews of shop drawings to answering questions from contractors, to going out into the field for various visits. If that watchful eye isn’t there, chances are the quality will be problematic,” explained Schnair. Other firms, like DMJM, have purchased architectural engineering firms in China with Class A licenses, thereby ensuring that they’ll be in charge of the projects from beginning to end.

At the same time, projects in China—unbound by public hearings and slow approval processes—happen at accelerated speeds. That means that buildings are completed in China even before the working drawings are finished for most American projects. That much speed can compromise quality, however. As Bouvrie explained, “While I think it’s good that things get done quickly, the expectations are often unrealistic. You have a huge project, and the clients say they want to start construction in three months, and the project isn’t even designed, yet they start digging anyway. It’s really bizarre.” It can drive American architects slightly insane, as vocal clients demand completion of projects based on impatience rather than on realistic (and functional) schedules.

Overall, however, despite any challenges raised, most architects involved in China feel that their work there is worth the effort. “Some view China as an opportunity for exciting design,” said Yazdani. “But for me, the more important reason to be there is that architecture is a global proposition, and if you want to be involved in that dialogue, you need to be in China.”

And so, high-tech tools in hand, California architects continue to amass frequent-flier miles—or just travel electronically—as they pursue the profit in Chinese construction—and the dream of contributing to the next worldwide architectural sensation.