Slump forces Atlanta architects overseas

Firms leave mark on foreign skylines as domestic work lags

When the U.S. building industry imploded, Ryan Taylor went to Kenya, Bill Griffin discovered Qatar and Ellis Katz set his sights on Brazil.

Taylor, Griffin and Katz — Atlanta-based architects who’ve designed everything from upscale homes to basketball arenas to sky-scraping hotels — upped their international presence as the recession sundered the domestic market. Nearly four years since the onset of the economic morass, architects of every scale and expertise continue to travel the world in search of new business.

“In this economy, unless you’ve got a lot of government work, doing business in the United States is not healthy,” said Katz, the executive vice president with John Portman & Associates, a prominent architectural firm with a long history overseas. “It’s a global economy and the more you can reach that global client base the better off you will be.”

While Katz, Griffin and Taylor had earlier foreign experience, they ratcheted up international work post-2008. China, India, the Middle East and Brazil remained relatively immune from the economic downturn. Construction sprees in those countries — houses, schools, apartments, shopping centers, office towers, utilities, hotels — afforded U.S. architects enough work to survive, if not necessarily thrive, the last four years.

In 2008, the American Institute of Architects reported that international projects accounted for 7 percent, or $3 billion, of billings for the association’s 80,000 members. Kermit Baker, the institute’s chief economist, said the amount of overseas work continues to grow. That has helped cushion the blow of the U.S. housing and development slowdown, which has forced layoffs at firms large and small.

“I’ve heard more reports recently of firms trying to take advantage of international opportunities because the domestic market is so weak,” he said. “Firms are leaving no stone unturned given the downturn of the economy. They’re trying to pick up the slack anywhere they can.”

Baker said the big guys, firms with 50-plus members, take best advantage of the global marketplace. Portman, renowned for the AmericasMart and the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta, entered the Chinese market 30 years ago and today operates two offices with 15 employees in China.

“We’re so well branded and so well known in China that works comes to us,” Katz said.

Communist China, prior to the recession, represented 60 percent of Portman & Associates’ portfolio. Today, it’s 80 percent, Katz said, in large part due to the lousy U.S. economy.

Portman focuses on big, mixed-use, multiple-building projects — its smallest is 1 million square feet — in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and beyond. India, another long-time Portman market, and Brazil, a newcomer, top Portman’s global wish list.

“These markets are ever-evolving, so you have to be able to understand how they’re changing,” Katz said. “We’ve yet to close a project in Brazil, but we’re very keen on it. Thank goodness we’re busy. I can’t say that, though, for all firms.”

Griffin’s firm, Rosser International, tallied a dozen international projects in various stages of design or construction prior to the recession’s onslaught in late 2007.

“Only one is still going — an entirely new military base in northern Italy for the U.S. government,” said John Wyle, a vice president at Rosser, which has worked on Atlanta landmarks such as Turner Field, the Fox Theatre and the Arena at Gwinnett Center. “We have dabbled in the international arena a good long time. We keep thinking we’ll find some big things out there, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

The international, as well as domestic, downturn cost Rosser and other firms projects, revenues and jobs. Rosser, for example, employed 180 people in Atlanta, Abu Dhabi and Cairo before the recession. Today, 85 people work for the firm, Wyle said.

Rosser recently completed projects for a medical school on St. Kitts and a utility in Trinidad and Tobago. It also worked on the huge Yas Island theme park in Abu Dhabi.

Rosser opened an office in Abu Dhabi during the boom time 2000s and recently established a presence in Qatar. Deep-pocketed Emiratis hired Rosser in 2008 to design and engineer a 120-acre office, residential and sports complex in Minsk, Belarus. Financing, though, dried up when the global economy went south.

“There are opportunities out there,” said Griffin, the Rosser CEO. “But when you pursue a project globally there are literally people from all over the world responding to the RFP.”

Taylor, who runs a one-man architectural firm from his Smyrna home, first caught the international bug five years ago when an Atlanta plastic surgeon wanted a hurricane-resistant home built in the Bahamas. Taylor continues to design homes across the Southeast, but work overseas occupies about half his time these days.

The Divine Providence Training Center, in Matasia, Kenya, is his latest labor of love. Taylor serves as technical conduit, and design consultant, between Roswell United Methodist Church, the local sponsor, and the training center for pastors. He eyes Belize and Costa Rica as future markets.

“There are only a couple of countries in African and Central America that I want to work in,” said Taylor, 37. “I’m trying to be selective. I’m not really trying to take over the world.”