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Baltimore architectural firm in demand for overseas projects

While many architectural and planning firms have seen a drop-off in design work as a result of the recession and the slow recovery, one Baltimore-based company has remained busy by finding work in other countries.

Development Design Group has carved out a niche by designing retail centers, housing, arenas and large mixed-use communities for clients around the globe. This month, it announced that it has been hired to design China's largest shopping center, a 4 million-square-foot retail component of a project called the Tianjin City Culture Center Development.

Established in 1979 and housed inside a former National Bohemian Brewery warehouse on Brewers Hill, DDG has a staff of 87 employees who, among them, speak more than two dozen languages and dialects. Before the recession, 30 percent to 35 percent of the firm's design work was "offshore," with the bulk of its projects in the United States. Now, however, overseas work makes up 90 percent to 95 percent of the firm's total billings. And since the announcement about the China project, DDG has been getting inquiries from even more prospective international clients.

Chief Executive Officer Roy Higgs, a native of Great Britain and a naturalized American citizen, spoke recently about DDG's international practice and why American architects are in high demand overseas.

Question: Why do people from other countries hire American architects?

Answer: We are contacted by people who have projects that haven't worked very well, or have a tremendous vacancy rate or haven't sold if they're residential. … When they hire us, our projects to date have been — touch wood — unbelievably successful.

Q: How many countries are you working in right now?

A: We're working in Vietnam, India, Turkey, China, South Africa, Guatemala, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. We have a project about to start in Turkmenistan. We just finished a project in Ecuador. We finished [one] in Colombia. We have potential projects in Angola, Mozambique [and] Ukraine. And, let me see, there was one other: Saudi Arabia.

Q: Do you have employees in Baltimore who speak the languages of all those countries?

A: Currently, we have people speaking over 24 languages here. We really are the United Nations of Baltimore.

Q: What about the people who run DDG?

A: Our partnership is also international. I'm from the UK originally. I have partners from Pakistan, India, the Middle East, Colombia, Thailand and, of course, one or two from Baltimore.

Q: Do foreign developers consider it desirable to hire designers from America?

A: There is a cachet.

Q: How is the tenant mix at retail centers changing?

A: It used to be a retail center would be predictable. It would be 20 percent fashion, 10 percent shoes, 20 percent food and beverage, 20 percent entertainment or whatever. … Today, all those formulas are out the window, because more and more you are getting nontraditional uses that are coming into retail developments.

Q: What's next?

A: I think mixed use is certainly the wave of the future. It's a perfectly normal approach to development. I think people would like to live in and around exciting places that have lots of food and beverages and safe, interesting streets with nice shops. There are ways to integrate leisure, recreation, sports with retail and entertainment in a much stronger way. I think we are beginning to see that.

Q: Stylistically, how do you approach projects? Do foreign clients want an American theme or do they want something indigenous to their country?

A: We are very sensitive to the site and the location and the culture and our clients' vision. … We don't have a style per se.

Q: Do you have satellite offices in the countries where you have projects?

A: We tried it. But ... it just never worked for our [corporate] culture. … Quite frankly, in today's market and with the size of our practice and where we want to be and where we're comfortable, we're in many ways far more efficient working with [one central office].

Q: Is Baltimore a good place to be based?

A: I think so. … We have Reagan, Dulles, BWI [airports]. At a push, we've got Philadelphia. JFK isn't that far. … And our costs in Baltimore are reasonable compared to some other locales.

Q: Is there a downside to being American?

A: There are some countries where we can't work, such as North Korea and Iran. We were approached by a client from Dubai to do a huge mixed-use project in Tehran, Iran. We were about to sign a contract when somebody said: "I don't think you can do architecture [in Iran]. You aren't allowed to do that." I checked that out and was told, well, we can sell the Iranians medicine and videos and books. We can go there on vacation. But we can't sell them architectural and engineering services. I appealed that. I said it's a shopping center with apartments and a hotel, not a nuclear power station. But we were turned down.

Q: Is work in this country picking up as the economy improves?

A: I think the drought is almost over. We're down to the wire in negotiations [for a commission] in Milwaukee. A project in the Philadelphia area is starting up again. We're in Cincinnati, Ohio; Colorado; Los Angeles; Texas. The phones are ringing. So it seems to us things are starting to open up a bit.

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