Vive la Difference!

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Steve Gale weighs up the challenges of working in Europe

Working in other countries is part of the pleasure and the pain of having a skill that can cross borders. We think an ‘exotic’ location will be far away with a very un-British climate, but we only have to cross the channel to find differences that are as challenging as any you could wish for – and we keep underestimating them. We expect more common ground so near to home, but it’s rarely the case.

I detect a recent acceleration in European projects. Organisations in London are establishing bridgeheads in other cities partly because of Brexit, and the same political weather makes designers more interested in following them. For 30 years the natural destinations were usually oil rich states, but now we are involved in Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain – much closer, much safer, much easier? Not always.
European projects offer an illuminating learning curve on one hand – and a meandering journey slowed by potholes and unexpected dead-ends on the other. Local customs and world views are not obvious from the outside, but they inform the legal and cultural backdrop, and they plot the road map to success for our clients, who may be as new to a country as us. Corporate clients who have built in, say, Berlin might expect a similar reception in Warsaw or Paris or Stockholm, but it ain’t so.
Some differences are not surprising, like planning consents or building permits, whose requirements are deceptively familiar but can trip us up because of subtle but unanticipated nuances. Many European states require applications to be made by registered professionals, others don’t. You will find local representatives to steer you, but they are unlikely to know where your blind spots are – and how do you estimate a reasonable fee? They might feel burdened with unpaid translation tasks and be a piggy-in-the-middle for delays when approvals take too long – and will probably have to bear additional insurance risk for handling your work. From our side, this extra team member will eat into any fee agreed with a client who thought you could do it all for the same rate as the last job.

You are likely to be on the spot for an appropriate contract to sign, the amount of specification and detail expected by contractors, how to address local tax regimes and exchange rates, how to respond to landlord demands and local bidding procedures. Europe, even after 50 years of the EU, is far from a level playing field.

At the diplomatic end of the scale, the cultural norms will colour every transaction. Some builders see designers as partners in the struggle and others regard you as the client’s policeman. In some countries, the architect is assumed to be all-knowing, and in others is seen as someone who knocks out a concept and steps aside as the trades wade in to resolve the scheme on site.

Relationships with landlords can bring their own unexpected joy. Be sure to find out whether a tenant is perceived as a party with legal rights to alter a building – or as an irritant who should accept what he is given. Do not be surprised to find that fit-out work must be performed by a landlord’s contractor and charged to the tenant.

And then there is language. In a country where you will always be a foreigner, communication can quickly become weaponised if things go awry. In a place where you do not own both sides of any relationship, trust and understanding can devolve into long lasting feuds. Even if you speak a reasonable version of a local language, there is plenty of scope for misinterpretation.

If these learning experiences are for you, the spice of life and central to being part of a beautiful continent of countless languages and cultures, and which fits easily into the land mass of half of North America, then get stuck in – you will go far. If, on the other hand, you see perils and threats, which look like they could take away your livelihood through no fault of your own, then who could blame you for leaving it well alone? You are more likely to be somewhere in the middle, interested but wary, in which case walk with open eyes and ears – you will learn things not found on YouTube or in any books.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence at M Moser Associates.