The idea of working on international projects can be very alluring. But there can be many pitfalls and significant unknown factors that can affect whether a project or client relationship is successful. It is important to be aware of the potential challenges before engaging in these types of activities.


Many fire protection engineers have had experiences working on different project types and with different types of clients, whether owners, developers, contractors, architects or engineers. Engineers and consultants routinely have opinions and expectations on how things should be handled based on their personal experiences on projects they have completed in the past. The type of project and the country or jurisdiction in which they work influences how they approach specific issues. The manner in which one has always approached fire protection or life safety may literally be foreign in some parts of the world.

When dealing with a project that is outside of an engineer's home country, it is very important that due diligence be exercised to identify and become familiar with the rules and approaches applied in the location where the project will be developed. There could be significant research required before design advice can be given or design efforts can commence.

Solutions to specific fire safety design issues may be applied on a routine basis in some jurisdictions, but they may not be understood or may be met with skepticism in a foreign location. Gaining acceptance of unique design solutions often requires extensive documentation of the solution and the presentation of existing examples of similar designs.

Communication can also be very challenging. The location of the project and the individuals executing the project are often separated by time zone differences. Email communication often becomes the default. Communicating technical information by email presents unique challenges. Individuals requesting information regarding specific design details often do not provide enough information to adequately frame the question, and responses may leave out factors that can impact the application of solutions. When communicating by email, it is critical that an appropriate level of detail be presented and that responses also address factors that can impact implementation.

Local custom or language may also present a communication challenge. In some parts of the world, disagreement in a public forum can be considered inappropriate. Design team meetings can occur where all the participating members seemingly agree to actions that don't get implemented. This can lead to significant delays or rework. There can also be miscommunications with authorities. In one instance, the design team had thought they had an understanding that a project could be designed in accordance with a model code promulgated in the United States. The authorities had told the design team that it was acceptable to comply with the model code. What the authorities did not say was that they also expected the design to comply with the local code. This misunderstanding led to significant disagreement between the authorities and the design team. The project design was delayed and performance-based solutions had to be developed and negotiated to allow the design goals to be achieved.

There are locales that allow the application of codes and standards within their jurisdiction that are developed in the Unites States, United Kingdom, or Europe all at the same time and sometimes on the same project. These countries also incorporate local requirements. Examples can be found in the Middle East and Central and South America. There are also developing countries that do not have formalized code enforcement.

In all of these cases, there can be options as to what code will be applicable to the design of a building. One of the more critical issues that can impact the overall success of a project is defining the codes and standards that will be applicable to the project early in the design process. It is even better when there is an understanding of the approach before proposals for services are even prepared. Depending on the locale of a project, it may be beneficial to join forces with a local partner to assist with issues that are specific to the jurisdiction. It may be a necessity depending on the regulatory climate and requirements for licensure to perform various consulting or design services.

Another factor that needs to be considered in selecting which codes or standards system to apply is the level of familiarity that local contractors may have. The availability of products approved under a specific standard's system may also be a factor. While use of locally available products is usually allowed, it may require a comparative analysis of the test standards and documentation of equivalency to obtain approval. This can be time consuming and have an impact on schedules if it is not anticipated.


Many multinational companies have loss prevention and fire safety standards that they apply and enforce throughout their organizations regardless of the location of the facility. The approach taken by an organization in regard to fire protection and fire safety is usually based on the approach taken within the country of origin. As an example, many countries in Europe have strict compartmentation requirements to limit fire areas. Many European countries don't recognize sprinklers as mitigation for fire area size or compartmentation. When organizations from those countries come to the United States, they may be surprised by the large open areas that are allowed for sprinklered buildings.

Companies based in the United States that either develop projects overseas or design projects in foreign countries may be surprised by limits placed on their projects even though they may have what could be considered stringent corporate fire protection and fire safety standards. Standard design approaches often have to be modified to achieve local approval, or performance design options need to be negotiated.

They may also be surprised to find out that there are no local requirements and that local design or construction are done with no oversight. This can also create an unexpected burden. It may necessitate that the organization dedicate more resources or retain a third party to oversee design and construction in order to assure that minimum corporate life safety and fire protection criteria are met.

The level of effort required during construction can be significant. After a design is approved, site inspection is necessary to not only make sure that the required building features are implemented, but also to verify that approved products and materials are utilized. Substitution of inferior products or combustible materials where noncombustible materials are required is often discovered during site inspections.


Serving multinational clients globally can be very challenging and rewarding. There are a number of things that should be considered in order to maximize the potential for success when the opportunity presents itself.

Client Understanding

First, it is important to know the client and understand their expectations and goals. Different clients have different goals that can impact how they approach a project and therefore impact how an engineer advises the client. For example, if the client plans to build and hold a project for a long time, they will be interested in first costs and also in ongoing costs and the life-cycle costs of systems. Long-term maintenance requirements will also be more of a concern. That can impact product or system selection and design.

Getting on the same wavelength with the client is important particularly when the client is unfamiliar with the region in which the project is to be constructed. In order to be considered by a client for a foreign project, one would typically need experience in that market. Providing the client with an understanding of local issues that would affect their project before the project has begun can help to establish a framework for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Identifying and maintaining a primary and secondary contact within a consultant's organization that has the ability to engage the client and bring in the appropriate resources to fulfill various project needs is also helpful. There is nothing more frustrating to a client than not getting responses to inquiries.

Understanding Local Issues

It is critical to understand the requirements (or lack of requirements) of the jurisdiction in which a project will be developed. This is most efficiently done by having people in that country. There is no better way to know the local customs than through individuals that live in those locations. If an engineer does not have in-house resources within a specific locale, it may be appropriate to team with a local consultant.

Teaming arrangements usually work best when the team members bring different benefits and expertise to the team. The expertise should be complementary and not competitive. Teaming arrangements can be challenging, but if they are done in a manner that can produce mutual benefits, it can lead to long-term relationships.

Having the Right Team

It is equally important to make sure that the right resources and enough resources will be available. In addition to having the proper technical expertise for the design phases of a project, it may be necessary to staff the site to perform design reviews as well as site inspections to verify design implementation. Projects in regions that do not have review and inspection programs would need oversight to assure a client's requirements are implemented. Depending on the size of the project, this could require full-time site staffing for extended periods of time.

The on-site staff also needs to be experienced with a broad range of issues in order to deal with design as well as construction challenges. It can be very helpful to have off-site technical support arranged in advance to provide assistance to on-site staff. The off-site staff can provide necessary research and technical input based on information relayed from on-site staff.

Ray Grill is with Arup.