Despite the UK’s D&B, metric dimensions and elegant regulations, San Francisco’s opportunities were irresistible
I arrived in London in the trough of the ‘Great Recession,’ moving from foggy San Francisco in the summer of 2009 and ready for a change.
I was surprised to learn that we could contact the head teacher of the school we were designing only through the contractor
While I already knew a number of people in London and had heard horror stories about the state of the economy, nothing prepared me for sending out 80 CVs to get two interviews. I finally found a contract position working on a design-build primary school for a medium-sized office through an architect I met at a meeting of the American Institute of Architects’ UK Chapter. The design-build form of contract was not something I had encountered before; I was used to frequent contact with clients, and was surprised to learn that we could contact the head teacher of the school we were designing only through the contractor. At the same time, I was impressed with the UK’s clear-cut building regulations compared to the confusing legalese of California.
The biggest adjustment to working outside the US was the metric system, which I enthusiastically embraced. I remember showing a colleague in London drawings I had brought from the US; she couldn’t imagine why anyone would dimension a building with fractions.
After a few months I moved to Skidmore Owings & Merrill to work on an ambitious scheme for a corporate headquarters in Geneva. SOM’s London office brought me in to implement BIM software. The weekly summer softball game in Regent’s Park was a nice reminder that we were in London as we worked long hours on a very complicated project in a huge international practice – though high expectations for my American softball skills went mostly unfulfilled.
I returned in 2011 to California, and the practice I had left two years earlier, David Baker Architects. The economy had picked up in the Bay Area. Demand for rental housing was soaring and I found myself doing high quality architecture closely aligned with landscape architecture and good urban design.
After a few years back in the Bay Area, I’m taking another big step – starting a practice doing a mixture of small architectural projects for my own clients and BIM consulting for larger firms. The experience of working abroad on a variety of project types and working in other countries has made me more confident in approaching new ventures, and I was able to use some of the connections I had made in London to find consulting work in San Francisco.
I loved London, and would like to return someday, although opportunities to work for myself would be limited due to the difficulty of obtaining architectural licence. While the educational system is very similar, professional licences in the US are managed at state level which has made reciprocity agreements with other countries nearly impossible. Having taken a multi-year internship and nine exams to become licenced in New York, followed by an additional exam for California, it is difficult to imagine jumping through the hoops again.
I miss the level of academic discourse in London, dry British sense of humour, steady stream of interesting cultural events and proximity to mainland Europe. But it seems easier for smaller practices to become established in San Francisco and middle-sized firms can compete for larger projects more easily here than in the UK. On top of that, the fantastic outdoor scenery and proximity to both ocean and mountains in California is a huge draw.
Mark Hogan was associate at David Baker Architects before setting up his own firm this year
Housing affordability is as big an issue in San Francisco as it is in London. A question I hear a lot lately is ‘Why can’t developers build housing for the people who need it most instead of for the rich?’ A 640ft2 apartment in a five-storey 100 unit wood-framed building with a concrete first story (very common in San Francisco) would cost nearly half a million dollars to build – including land costs but excluding profit or construction financing. A household earning the median San Francisco income of $73,000 only qualifies for a $310,000 mortgage. We need to bring costs down.