SSOE Group

Working Internationally

Q&A - Working InternationallyWhat your translator can’t tell you.
Q. What major differences have you encountered in executing design or construction projects internationally?

A. To start, metric standards rule and domestic building codes don’t. Be prepared to learn and comply with codes that are very different from those you know. Availability of materials dictates what buildings are made of, so we see wide variations from country to country. Using concrete in applications where the US uses steel is one example. Availability of materials also affects the construction process itself. The US considers plywood a building basic, but in some countries, plywood is scarce so other materials fill that role.

Expect that safety codes for both building construction and protocols will vary by country. In some cases they will be stricter than your home country; in others, more lax. Often countries have varying views on how literally the construction schedule is interpreted.

Q. How do cultural and language differences

A. Culture has a big impact on business communications. We discovered that many times in Asia “yes” can be a polite, default response. In Japan, a nod of the head could mean, “I hear you.” Neither response necessarily indicates agreement which can lead Westerners to many false assumptions. In India, we’ve noticed the need for formal meetings with detailed meeting notes rather than short “touching base” conversations among team members. We’ve experienced the other extreme working with a Korean firm on a US-based project. Rather than operating under the explicit language of contracts and change orders, the firm we worked with reached agreements by handshake.

A few years ago, we toured an Alzheimer’s unit in Japan and were surprised to find four patients to a room. We were told that the management wanted to keep that configuration in the new facility. We later found out the reason for this set up. They wanted to create a sense of community, or family, among the patients but still respect their privacy.
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Language differences require documents and drawings to be bilingual. We feel it is very important to use technical translators, since even more subtle language differences, such as Canadian French and French, can be the source of misinterpretation.

Q. What sustainability and conservation efforts have you noticed in other countries?

A. Many countries place a great emphasis on energy conservation. Water-saving two-button toilets are very common outside the US, as are motion sensors that turn lights on and off when you enter or leave a room. Buildings are designed to afford more access to natural light. Germany, for instance, uses translucent roof panels. Since more people use motorcycles, bicycles and buses to get around in the cities, less space is used for parking lots for automobiles.

Q. What advice do you have for companies who are considering international projects?

A.1. Learn all you can about the cultural differences at an early point in your relationship with a company in a country outside your own. There are International Business Councils and similar types of organizations that offer training in language and customs.

A.2. Make sure that someone on your team (it may require several people) is familiar with codes, and the many protocols you will need to follow in the course of the project.
A.3. Identify what essential materials require long lead times in the location of your project – it may be different than your home country. Find out about the logistics for obtaining materials.

A.4. Plan to have an owner representative on-site. Frequently, SSOE serves this role for our clients.

A.5. Make certain that your consultants have had international experience and “know the ropes” wherever your project is located. SSOE has completed projects all over the world. If there is country-specific information we may not already know from past experience, we learn about it in advance of starting the project.

A.6. Use an experienced international travel resource to handle and manage all the details of foreign travel, accommodations and communications. They can assist with on-site travel, security and unanticipated needs such as medical care for illness or injury, obtaining medications and involvement with the country’s legal community.

A.7. Hire a top-notch translator.

A.8. Be open to the ideas and input of your counterparts from other countries. Show respect for their culture. Visitors to a country can sometimes come across as though their way is the better way and that attitude can tarnish the rapport you need to establish to work together effectively.

For a list of resources on topics related to working internationally, go to: SSOE Group international resources.

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