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Laying the foundations for success overseas

AUSTRALIA’S architectural firms are earning about 30 per cent of their annual turnover in export dollars, according to a national survey conducted by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Countries in South-East Asia, the Middle East and, to a lesser extent India, are keen to import Australian expertise and know-ledge.

Firms that have been successful in securing a firm foothold in overseas markets include Hames Sharley, Cox Howlett and Bailey Woodland, Woods Bagot and Woodhead International BDH.

Hames Sharley was chosen by Indian Railway from an initial field of 250 international architectural firms to prepare the concept for the 116-hectare New Delhi Rail Yard.

Woods Bagot worked on the interior of Emirates Twin Towers in Dubai, the largest current development in the region, and is designing a major inter-national airport terminal in Abu Dhabi.

Woodhead International BDH has worked on numerous developments in China including the Chen Chun Guang Hospital and the Hua Xia Securities Tower.

Cox Howlett and Bailey Woodland’s reputation for excellence in prison design won the firm an invitation to design the Dubai Central Prison. 

Director Greg Howlett said that, from this initial invitation, the firm had secured Oman Prison, a 55-storey mixed use development in Dubai, and a 4500 square metre commercial development in Abu Dhabi.

Mr Howlett said the firm was cautious about entering new markets and only established an office after securing a project.

“Specialised projects certainly get you the entree; once you are on the ground you can go into other projects,” he said.

A similar climate, minimal time difference, shared Indian Ocean rim location and the poorly performing Australian dollar had helped WA architectural firms export to the Middle East, he said.

Royal Australian Institute of Architects WA chapter president Warren Kerr said that, just as there was a proliferation of national firms establishing offices around Australia in the past 10 years, it was expected more and more Australian firms would have a presence overseas.

“One of the reasons local firms have expanded overseas is to avoid the construction boom-bust cycle; the same reason why many of the large firms have established offices nationally,” he said.

“It is already starting to happen, many of the big firms have established offices over-seas.” 

With the advent of e-mail and electronic drawing, architectural firms can operate throughout several countries from strategically placed regional offices.

Mr Kerr said the recently signed Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation architect agreement was indicative of the amount of overseas architectural work that was occurring.

The agreement will allow registered architects from APEC countries to practise in other member countries without being vetted individually or being required to work with local firms.

Mr Kerr said many architects in SE Asia were trained in Australia – 85 per cent of Curtin University architectural students are from that region – and the high standards of Australian registration were well regarded internationally.

Foreign firms are often keen to work with Australian firms that specialise in a particular building type.

“Some West Australian firms have specialised in retail type developments and are working in China and Malaysia because the local architects do not know a lot about that type of development,” Mr Kerr said.

The future export market would be driven by clients who wanted to work with larger firms for their design skills and their signature architects, and by foreign firms that wanted to work with specialist Australian firms, he said.

“Joint ventures with local architects is a good way for local firms to get to learn about a specialised design and an easy way for Australian architects to build up local knowledge,” Mr Kerr said.

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