Making connections across the pacific

A Red Deer architect is building bridges between his firm and its counterparts in China. George Berry of Berry Architecture & Associates crossed the Pacific last month in hopes of developing relationships with Chinese architectural firms. He was accompanied by his friend Yi Yang, an electrical engineer from Edmonton who grew up in the Asian country and has family there.

A Red Deer architect is building bridges between his firm and its counterparts in China.

George Berry of Berry Architecture & Associates crossed the Pacific last month in hopes of developing relationships with Chinese architectural firms. He was accompanied by his friend Yi Yang, an electrical engineer from Edmonton who grew up in the Asian country and has family there.

Berry thinks his 15-person architectural firm can bring value to Chinese developers in several areas, including wood-frame construction.

“We understand wood-frame construction in Canada probably better than any place in the world.”

This was illustrated in Alberta last week by the passage of legislation allowing wood-frame construction for buildings up to six storeys in height.

“China is just developing wood-frame construction,” said Berry.

While in China, he conducted a half-day seminar at an architectural firm and met with officials from the Canadian Wood Council.

“They would be very interested in having some more education directly from Canadian architects to show them how wood works,” said Berry, explaining that the council is eager to grow the market for Canadian lumber in Asia.

Chinese officials do have concerns about fire, and because wood is imported it’s an expensive building material. But Berry said the risk of fire can be minimized, and unlike the concrete and steel that currently dominates construction in China, wood is a renewable resource that could be produced domestically.

“We want to show them that you can build with wood and it should be the cheapest of the three.”

Wood-frame buildings can also be built much faster — an important advantage in light of China’s rapid growth.

And they’re warmer and easier to insulate than concrete and steel, he said.

Berry also sees a market opportunity for his firm’s expertise in seniors’ housing and facilities. The traditional Chinese model of children caring for their aging parents is beginning to break down as younger generations become more affluent and interested in travel.

But alternatives are lacking.

“They’ve taken old buildings and repurposed them to be seniors’ apartments. But they don’t provide the services; they’re not senior friendly.”

Finally, Berry’s noticed that the Chinese are interested in his firm’s focus on environmentally sustainable design and building practices.

“A couple of the developers there are really starting to market environmental cities.”

He and Yang made good connections in China, said Berry, and appear likely to gain some projects as a result.

“I’m working with one firm in Beijing and two in Shanghai that we’re trying to create partnerships with.”

One project he’s negotiating on is a seniors’ complex with a couple thousand units, a shopping centre and recreational facilities.

There are challenges to working in China, he acknowledged.

“As a foreign architect we can only do design work. We can’t do any working drawings or construction administration or anything along those lines.”

He doesn’t consider the distance and 16-hour time difference to be a huge issue.

“A lot of it we’ll be doing remotely and through Skype.”

Berry said his decision to pursue the Chinese market was motivate by a desire to diversify his company’s workload, which can ebb and flow with the Alberta economy.

“I just felt we couldn’t have all of our eggs in one basket here.”

He praised Alberta International and Intergovernmental Relations, and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada for their help in arranging meetings for him and Yang. Berry feels they’ve made great strides in forming relationships with prospective partners.

“Once you’ve got that relationship built in the Chinese culture, it’s very important.

“Their word means everything.”

The architectural firms Berry met in China are already urging him to return. And he’s hoping to bring members of a Shanghai company here this June to attend the Canadian Green Building Council conference in Vancouver and then travel around Alberta.

Berry thinks there could also be opportunities for Chinese architects here, explaining that some are doing very progressive design work.

“They’ve got a lot of expertise in architectural fields that we don’t have readily available here in Alberta.”

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