Working Abroad for Architects: 8 Drawbacks (Before You Decide)

Architects generally understand the benefits of working abroad – exploring new cultures, diverse international building customs, and unique design styles, and various others in personal and professional developments.

Despite the advantages – and the exciting adventure – working abroad does present its drawbacks as a professional who must seek to improve and become the master of the trade.

There is no worthwhile career path you can take that does not require some form of sacrifice, after all. Numerous disadvantages to working abroad might be enough to counteract the temptation of the advantages it can offer.

Architects who fit the criteria below should consider the cons before committing to a move abroad:

  • those seeking to get licensed locally, and
  • those with a well-established professional network.

With everything in mind, if you decide that working abroad is not the optimal move for your architecture career, you should still consider taking vacations abroad from time to time to experience what other countries have to offer architecturally.

That said, let’s get into discussing the drawbacks of working abroad for architects.

drawbacks of working abroad

1. Most Architects Boards Require Relevant, Local Experience for Licensure

In such a vast field with varying factors affecting the practice of architecture, experience in a particular region is not always applicable to another.

Suppose you decided to move to a developing nation to develop new suburban housing for several years – either for the cultural experience or the money – only to return to your home city and apply for a firm designing skyscrapers.

While your time abroad likely provided irreplaceable value and experience within a particular architectural niche, the hiring firm is more likely to give the position back home to an architect who invested that time in the city on urban development projects.

Granted, all types of practical experiences anywhere are equally valuable. Still, the legal and professional frameworks and market conditions within which the architectural field operates can differ significantly from one region to another.

As the introduction of this post alluded to, the main obstacle that working abroad presents is the requirements your local Architects Board imposes for candidates trying to obtain the architect’s license.

According to the Architectural Experience Program (AXP) Guidelines (source) for architects aiming for licensure within the U.S., you have two main ways to go about fulfilling the required 3,740 hours of practical experience:

  • Experience Setting A

This requirement covers the practical experience you obtain while working for an architecture firm in the country or Canadian jurisdiction. You have to earn a minimum of 1,860 hours (no maximum) under the direct supervision of an AXP supervisor who is also a Licensed Architect.

  • Experience Setting O

This requirement enables you to record experience hours under the supervision of a Licensed Architect or a licensed professional in the building construction field – landscape architect, or a civil, structural, mechanical, fire protection, or electrical engineer.

You can only earn up to a maximum of 1,860 hours under this Experience Setting, but with a critical difference – experience gained abroad under the direct supervision of a foreign licensed architect qualifies.

Note that there are maximum hours applicable to other types of opportunities such as design competitions, construction, etc. – all subject to specific qualifying experience areas.

(Do check the AXP Guidelines link provided above for details and updates.)

Suppose you record 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, in the relevant experience areas. The work experience abroad to complete this section of the AXP translates to 46.5 weeks, just under one full year.

This means that additional hours you log beyond one year working abroad do not contribute to the fulfillment of licensure requirements.

Graduate architects based in other countries typically face similar licensure requirements, and for good reasons. The Architects Board in your jurisdiction wants to be sure that you have the relevant experience and qualifications to discharge your duties professionally.

It is good practice always to check and, if necessary, obtain written confirmation from your Architects Board on licensure requirements. You do not want to be caught off guard, wasting valuable time working abroad – if the architect’s license is indeed your goal.

2. Hard to Establish a Professional Network on the Go

In virtually any profession comes the lifelong pursuit of establishing valuable social and professional networks through connections with clients, cohorts, bosses, and other good-to-know people who can help push you forward in your career.

These are the people who can connect you to higher-paying positions and provide recommendations.

Unfortunately, when you spend your career working abroad, being on-the-go frequently means you will inevitably have to do an ample amount of bridge-burning. Even with the prominence of social media and online networking these days, it cannot beat the human connections you build through in-person conversations and meetings.

There is a way around this issue, though, but it requires commitment.

If you decide to work abroad, you will want to deeply ponder which country is in the best position to provide a formative professional experience that can ultimately lead you to your career goals.

Moving abroad for work should feature as a valuable part of your overall career plan.

But, suppose your home country is short of opportunity, and you are not afraid to leave much of it behind, working abroad could be a practical choice.

3. Building Codes and Relevant Laws Differ

While there is good news to be found in the increasing globalization of the architecture field with the advent of the International Building Code in 1997 (source), regional fluctuations in some of the finer details of building and construction laws linger.

Consider the following aspects of building codes, rules, or regulations that are typically jurisdiction-dependent:

  • Land use and development laws
  • Planning requirements
  • Building plans and construction approvals
  • Construction permit
  • Fire safety requirements
  • Architect’s rules of conduct

More liberal nations (even states in the U.S.) tend to have more restrictive energy codes, which means that if you choose to work in these places, you may have to spend more time focusing on energy efficiency and green architecture.

Environmental factors also need to be accounted for, with different regions being susceptible to various kinds of natural disasters such as tsunamis, blizzards, and earthquakes.

Put simply, it can be tough to keep up if you move around a lot.

Prospective employers think twice if they feel your experience and expertise are not a good fit for the types of projects they undertake.

4. Contract Forms Differ

Contract administration is part and parcel of architectural practice.

Unless you are strictly a building designer who plays no part in the administration of the construction, your familiarity with the local contract form plays a huge role in how well you discharge your duties as the contract administrator.

The construction industry in a particular country typically uses the standard contract forms established by their local organization for architects. Those forms are considered architect-friendly.

In the U.S., the contract forms developed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), or even state-specific forms, are widely used. Depending on the types of development – residential, commercial, or industrial – a specific form is preferred and often revised to suit.

Complex and extensive projects do go down the path of negotiating their own contracts – perhaps not surprisingly – adding to the many contract forms that architects in a particular jurisdiction must be familiar with.

Understanding the nitty-gritty of a contract form takes a massive amount of study and consistent implementation for an architect to be an expert at it.

When moving your professional base, you need to contend with the stress of familiarizing yourself with a new contract form – clauses on;

  • performances,
  • payments,
  • costs and quality variations,
  • time extensions,
  • the responsibilities of each contracting party,
  • penalties for non-conformances,
  • dispute resolution and determination.

If you are a Project Architect, your new employer would need extra convincing that you could get up to speed with the new environment and perform to their expectation.

5. Markets Differ

Different countries may have different priorities, even within the same industry. Every economy is a complex system on its own, with variations in demand, consumer tastes, government regulations, and cultural priorities.

For example, an urban agricultural architect’s unique skills, although extraordinary and beneficial to the built environment, may not be readily transferable in another market where architecture and agriculture do not have such a strong relationship – or at least not yet.

On the subject of agriculture + architecture:

While you can choose to work for a firm overseas specializing in more generalized and transferable areas, the perception among employers in your home country may be that your experience is not relevant to the local market.

Housing, too, is subject to different market needs and buyer tastes. In fact, many architects form their expertise based on a place’s particular market demands. It is an expertise that is difficult to build upon for an architect on the go.

Suppose you become comfortable designing suburban houses in a South American country. You will inevitably encounter difficulties upon moving over to a North American metropolis to satisfy the city’s demand for high-rise apartments.

6. Software Standards Differ

Software changes quickly.

Switching between software after spending a few years exclusively on one may feel like you are learning an entirely new program.

Unless you are confident in your proficiency in major software used across the AEC industry, consider the standard software in the place you plan to build your career as a criterion in choosing the destination for your overseas move.

At the time of writing in 2020, Revit is the dominant software in Building Information Modelling and primarily used in most regions worldwide. Notable alternatives to Revit include ArchiCAD and Vectorworks.

Perhaps it is easier to list the countries where a non-Revit software leads the way (the dominant software in brackets):

  • Austria (ArchiCAD)
  • Germany (ArchiCAD and Revit)
  • Hungary (ArchiCAD)
  • Romania (ArchiCAD and Revit)
  • Switzerland (ArchiCAD)

Trends and speed of software adoption differ between regions. Include this as one aspect to research if you plan to work abroad.

7. Taxes Follow You

That ubiquitous Benjamin Franklin quote about the inevitability of death and taxes still holds. As long as you possess a United States citizenship (different countries may vary), you will probably be paying taxes on worldwide income.

Sure, you moved to Italy to fulfill your dreams and not to evade taxes, but the United States government is still trying to keep a loophole patched.

As of 2020, the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Act will keep the first $107,600 you make in a year free from United States income taxes (source).

But if you end up making more than that (which you are probably striving for), any added income will be taxed by the United States government on top of the taxes you pay to your country of residence.

Taxation is a complex issue. You must consult the tax authorities or professionals in your country before making plans to work abroad.

8. May Disrupt Long-Term Plans

Moving to another country for work is an incredible commitment with numerous sacrifices – personally, professionally, and financially.

It may very well be worth it. However, it is also possible that you underestimated what you leave behind.

Your devotion to architecture is without question. But consider the impact of living away from home for 3, 5, or 10 years.

You could be missing out on:

  • Valuable professional connections.
  • Relationship prospects.
  • The opportunity to base your

These issues may touch on the personal side, but the longer you base your professional life abroad, the less likely the remainder of it will feature the place you call home (except for retirement).

On the flip side, if you are not gunning for the architect’s license in your home country, working abroad as an architect can be incredibly rewarding. You get to experience working in international firms and different cultures, potentially work with famous designers and develop a whole new perspective that informs your growth architecturally.

Before you decide, take the time to assess your long-term plans and which option best lines up with them, and be mindful of the common mistakes architects make when accepting a job offer.