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Four AEC professionals navigate the rewards and challenges of international work.

Attaining the coveted title of architect requires a game of strategy played across years and sometimes decades of work. It is exhilarating yet terrifying, and uncertainty is elemental to the gameplay. Each movement on the board reveals unforeseen opportunities and foreshadowed consequences not only for the players but also for economic centers driving construction. The pandemic changed the rules, creating a hybrid and remote landscape that has had lasting effects on urban centers. With commerce decentralizing, international separatism rising, and wages stagnating, what move do architects have? Near-infinite choices balance precariously between the “what ifs” of a dynamically changing future and the wild card of reality.

Stephanie Mason was at the precipice of an important decision as she prepared to graduate from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. “I was offered a job at a firm in Atlanta, and I thought to myself, what if I did something different?” Hungry to see more of the world, she enrolled in the Master of Arts program at the Architectural Association in London, focusing on housing and urbanism. Much like in the United States, if you didn’t study in the UK, an architecture graduate would need to convert their degree to equivalents. Part 1 loosely aligns to an undergraduate degree; Part 2 is similar to a graduate degree; and Part 3 is a class followed by an exam and registration. Prior to Brexit if you were an architect in the European Union, you could come to the UK and translate your degree by submitting documentation to the Architects Registration Board (ARB) to become a licensed architect. Armed with her master of architecture from the US, master of arts from the UK, and five years of practice in the profession, Mason submitted her information, paying the hefty £1,800 fee—equivalent to $2,750 in US dollars at the time—confident that she had followed all the requirements and would soon be on the path she had gambled on six years prior. 

“They called me and said, ‘You have only passed four out of the 40 criteria.’ I was 29 years old at the time, and it floored me. I was thinking this would set my whole career back.” They offered her a course for an additional £100 on how to pass the equivalency. In the class, there were people from Jordan, Australia, and many other countries, including a man 10 years her senior. He asked the question on all their minds: if they spent years studying, taking exams, and practicing in the field of architecture and still were not able to translate their equivalency to the UK, at what point was the effort not worth the endeavor? 

In April 2023, the US’s National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) signed a mutual recognition agreement (MRA) with the UK’s ARB claiming to streamline the process for registered architects from both nations to practice more freely with their license. Closer scrutiny reveals their bright optimism belies a darker truth. Despite exorbitant fees, interviews, additional assessments, and lengthy guidelines, neither board can grant the right to work in their respective countries. While the MRA does expedite one part of the puzzle, it doesn’t address the remaining bureaucratic mess of working abroad. 

Before the MRA passed, if Mason wanted to reapply for licensure in the UK, she would need an employer to sponsor her skilled worker visa, and the same is true today. Christian Ducker, a founder and principal of Gundry + Ducker, an architecture and interior design practice in London, is familiar with the tightrope walk necessary to hire international employees. “[As] a small firm, we don’t have an HR department, so it’s difficult to sponsor someone. It’s a lot of paperwork, which puts us off.” Typically, Ducker hires people who don’t have their full qualifications yet. “We’ve never employed anyone who was prequalified. I don’t think the clients really know who in the practice is fully qualified.” It seems that for Ducker’s clients, as long as the director of the project is a qualified architect, they feel secure knowing their project is in good hands. The takeaway for an architect using the MRA to translate their license to the UK is that despite the freedom to work, there may be a limit on the size of the firm that can handle the paperwork necessary for them to do so.  

For three months after Mason’s initial rejection, she fought feelings of inadequacy. Her mind hopscotched through all the available options before she decided what to do next. “I’m really good at my job. If I couldn’t progress my skillset in being an architect in title, I would get an interior design degree in the UK. I added that to my roster of skills and became an associate.” Having now worked for an architect/developer, a medium-sized firm, and the decidedly large practice Foster + Partners, her pivot paid off. In 2017 she began working at OPEN architecture in London, taking it over in 2019 with her business partner Glyn Friend. Together with architect Paul Morrish, they lead a team of 10 bright minds that Mason cultivates using her own experience. “If anyone wanted to make the transition to work in the UK, they should start with a smaller practice like ours to learn quickly and grow their knowledgebase. Despite the fact that we are small, we have a very diverse group here with quite a few nationalities. The ratio of foreign to British employees we have here is higher than average.”

Stephanie Mason is the director of the London-based firm OPEN architecture and champion of the interiors sector. – photo courtesy Stephanie Mason

Deansfield is a residential renovation in Ide Hill, in the Sevenoaks District of Kent, England, led by Stephanie Mason. – photo by Mikey Reed

The new wildflower green roof addition overlooks the reconfigured pool. – photo by Mikey Reed

On a different trajectory, British-Nigerian architect Nkiru Gelles, AIA, completed her Part 1 at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture before traversing the Atlantic Ocean to Houston, where she earned a master of architecture from Rice University. After graduation, she faced the choice of returning to the UK for work or starting an architectural journey few could imagine. Her verve inspired an international career that took her from Lagos to London and New York to Hong Kong. “The reason I went to Hong Kong to work with 10 Design was because I was given the opportunity to design an entire university campus from scratch. I designed the master plan and individual buildings for a new university on a green field.” China’s economic boom correlates to the privatization of state-owned companies in the mid-to-late ’90s. Workers flocked to urban centers. By 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy, with 45 percent of its population residing in cities. Firms from across the globe were opening outpost offices throughout Asia. Years later with a powerful portfolio in hand, Gelles returned to Texas, where she worked with Michael Hsu Office of Architecture before becoming a licensed architect at Low Design Office. Now with two children, she hopes one day to give them the experience of living a multinational life the way she did. Before the MRA, it seemed impossible to transfer her license despite her UK citizenship. Gelles is exactly the type of candidate that the MRA is projected to help. 

Nkiru Gelles, AIA, is an associate with the Austin-based Low Design Office (LowDO). – photo courtesy Nkiru Gelles, AIA

Gelles cut her teeth with 10 Design on projects with tremendous responsibility and creative freedom. – photo courtesy Nkiru Gelles, AIA

The 550,000-sm Fujian Professional Photonic Technical College in South East China, designed by 10 Design. – image courtesy Nkiru Gelles, AIA

Licensure aside, with the multitude of code, climate, and cultural differences across the world, and even just within Texas, there are unique benefits and challenges to hiring a non-local architect. The developer and director of POST Houston, Kirby Liu of Lovett Commercial, felt the shockwave of working long-distance when their architect, New York-based OMA, was suddenly grounded during the global pandemic. “We went straight to virtual meetings. We did site visits over Facetime, but OMA was often in the dark about what was being built on-site. We have our own architecture team at Lovett with very talented people and architects on our staff, and OMA had to rely on us to be their eyes and ears.” Adaptive reuse projects like POST Houston, which saw the reimagining of a 500,000-sf concrete post office warehouse into a commercial and civic icon, are inherently full of surprises and difficulties. Liu says that he and his team had to make value judgments about whether questions that came up would affect essential features of OMA’s design or were something Lovett could deal with internally. 

Liu studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and had a previous career in investment banking that gave him a unique vantage point in real estate development. When the pandemic gave rise to remote work, he saw a shift that threatened the premise of his POST Houston venture. “I always ask myself and others: What do you think the city looks like if all the office towers default and the urban centers that we’ve invested in become these hollow shells of what they used to be? How terrible would our experience of restaurants be if we didn’t have these places to go and experience hospitality?” 

Kirby Liu is a developer with Lovett Commercial and director of POST Houston.photo courtesy Kirby Liu
Aerial view of POST Houston’s expansive roof looking south across Houston’s downtown. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

Data show that from 2019 to 2021, remote work in the U.S. more than tripled, from 5.7 percent (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9 percent (27.6 million people), according to the 2021 American Community Survey. The AIA Compensation & Benefits Report for 2023 shows that 59 percent of architects are working in a hybrid setting while 27 percent are still fully remote. Liu is candid in his discussion about the collapse of brick-and-mortar shopping and how online ordering has devastating societal consequences. “With everything being ordered online, it has flattened the excitement of being in a city or a mall. There are only two types of stores in malls now—luxury brands or H&M or Zara. It creates these extremes that flatten the landscape so there is nothing but corporate behemoths left.” POST Houston is fighting a numbers game in a sprawling urban metropolis, relying on nearly 50 programs a month to draw crowds. 

Haute Industrial becomes urban set design for multitudes of programs at POST Houston. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

More than 50 programs per month enliven the revived post office building at the edge of Houston’s downtown theater district. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

The process of working with Jason Long, AIA, who leads OMA’s New York office, was gratifying for Liu despite the distance. “In some ways, it’s beneficial to work with someone who isn’t as familiar with the way we typically do things here,” Liu explains. “Their international and out-of-state experience and visibility over a wide variety of projects gave us a better toolkit to work with. On the other hand, there were instances where we misfired and spent time and money investigating materials that will not pass fire code here and wasted time spinning our wheels.” 

One of three monumental staircases, each of which leads visitors to the landscaped roof with views of downtown Houston. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

Construction of the three distinct stairs utilized different character, structure, and materials. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

713 Music Hall is a 5,000-person capacity concert venue located in the eastern wing of POST Houston. – photo courtesy Lovett Commercial

Ducker agrees. Outside the UK, his firm has worked in Dubai, Colombia, Thailand, and France. “We did a job in Paris where I would often go myself. Even if I understood French, I wouldn’t have known how things were done. Their codes are different, so if you work abroad, we know nothing about the way other countries approach things. We always need someone local to understand how things are done.” On their project in Thailand, they needed to approach the design from the position of understanding their own lack of knowledge about climate, materials, and methods. “You can’t go and stick a ‘London’ building in rural Thailand. It’s rather mad, really. You must understand the history and the culture, as well as the climate and materials.”

Christian Ducker is a founder and principal of Gundry + Ducker, an architecture and interior design practice in London. – photo courtesy Gundry + Ducker

Common Villa Wimbledon, by Gundry + Ducker, transforms an early 2000s detached house in a London suburb into a “country house in miniature.” – photo by Andrew Meredith

Wood stairs sweep around stone and plaster walls creating spatial drama on a human scale. – photo by Andrew Meredith

Differences in the method or quality of tradespeople is another variable for architects working in unfamiliar locations. In London, many of the tradespeople working in construction are from Portugal, creating language barriers and miscommunication. “For bigger projects, they tend to be project manager-driven. The architect in that position has a lot less power,” Ducker explains. “It’s only on smaller projects that an architect has traditional power instead of being a consultant.” Trust is paramount and often gained through the hard work of doing a project together. Liu’s experience with POST Houston underscores this point. “Working with OMA was very positive, and we are trying to work with them on another project right now. We built a lot of trust. Once that relationship is built, it’s hard to try to risk hiring another architecture group because buildings are expensive. I hope that our relationship lasts long into the future.”

What these stories reveal is how uncertainty shapes careers. In 2020, NCARB reported the number of licensure candidates and certificate holders outside the US had not shifted much over the prior few years, with Canada at 739 and the UK at 102 individuals. This represented the top end of the spectrum, which was still a far cry from the 116,242 licensed architects recorded by NCARB by the Numbers that same year. Their 2023 report shows only a three percent increase in licensed architects in the US and doesn’t address international reciprocity beyond vague statements on the value of an NCARB certificate in the face of an increasingly global world. 

Reports and statistics only scratch the surface of what it takes to stay in the game long enough to see more seismic changes. Mason’s decision to dig in and blaze her own path to work in the field she loves led to a thriving and fulfilling practice. Gelles’s international experience gave her an enviable breadth of knowledge and has opened her  world in more ways than one. Liu, Lovett Commercial, and OMA are bringing global perspectives to Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and Ducker is happy to continue building his practice into a transnational powerhouse. Individual stories like these show us what it takes to win, no matter who is dealing the cards. 

Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect and writer in Austin. 

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