Design Visa: Why MMA’s Clients Take Us Abroad

When initiating a new project for a vacation home or secluded getaway retreat, one of the first questions that come up is: should I hire a local architect or bring my architect with me?

It’s a superb question, and one several of our clients have asked themselves over the years.

Local or Remote—Which is Best?

The answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as one might imagine. There are certainly pros and cons and differing opinions. In this post, we will share several of them with you so you can be more informed.

A primary reason why many homeowners choose to bring their design professionals with them to remote projects rather than work with local pros is that they already have a trusted and successful relationship with their architect. Many clients have invested time in establishing their so-called “Dream Team,” and the last thing they want to do is risk a new project, remote from their immediate control, on a brand new team that is untested.

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A Boston client took MMA to Arizona for the design of its winter vacation home, where the firm infused classical Spanish Colonial detail and order into the remodel of golf community home in Scottsdale.

A counter argument for hiring design professionals locally is that local professionals have an intimate knowledge of their environs, of available material sources and experience dealing with local regulatory review processes. In the past, these three core reasons overpowered largely any rational argument for not hiring local professionals. However, in the 21st century modern design practice is altering the strength of that common old argument.

The Diminishing Power of Boots on the Ground

Prior to the age of the Internet and tools like Google Earth, Open Street Map and an abundance of mobile “apps” on all matter of locality data, it was truly the case that you needed boots on the ground in order to get a head start on understanding a remote site for your client. However, now local weather, vegetation, culture, and vernacular architectural influences are all fully accessible to design professionals over Internet and “app” resources. Along with this, tools such as Google Earth—a program that provides high-definition satellite-based imagery—enables architects to examine the details of both local and remote sites in ways that couldn’t have  been accomplished in person without the services of a helicopter. In fact, these technologies are so powerful and useful that we use them for our local projects as often as our remote projects—and so do the architects local to far-flung locations.

The Local Builder as Partner

While local design professionals have years of experience working with regional and local material resources, so too do the local building trades and general contractors. At Morehouse MacDonald, we learned early on the power we bring to the project by partnering with highly experienced, local general contractors who are familiar with regional materials and construction methods, and with organizations who are well-versed in working with a full compliment of design professionals. For example, when we worked in Arizona a decade ago, we relied on RAM Construction’s expertise and valuable local resources to help us craft an extensive renovation for our Boston client’s southwest vacation home. RAM Construction introduced us to new window vendors and local artisans which had a great effect on the success of the project. (see image above).

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In the West Indies, MMA has partnered and leveraged multiple years of experience working with local general contractors who provide invaluable input on the design and construction process, while our growing experience with serving global clients remotely continues to advance.

In each remote client case, Morehouse MacDonald starts the process early to establish a strong working relationship with the general contractor who is an instrumental party in the design process. For example, today Morehouse MacDonald has years of experience working with the highly professional organization Bennett Hofford Construction, on numerous projects in South Carolina and in the West Indies.

Regulation Environments as Foreign Languages

Despite efforts across the globe to unify building codes, such as the increased adoption of the International Residential Building Code, each town, locality and region has its own set of legal requirements. We actually experience major diversity on this just within the Boston metro region, as towns with more financial resources often create more bureaucratic permitting processes than towns without them. It is helpful for our clients to understand that design and zoning regulations – no matter where you are building in the world – are largely similar in their core structure, yet all unique in final details. In some ways they are the foreign languages of architectural practice, and like foreign languages, the more languages you know the easier it becomes to quickly master new ones. As Morehouse MacDonald continues to accumulate project experiences in states as far as Utah and Arizona, the entire eastern seaboard and in foreign countries in the West Indies, we comprehend and respond to new regulations more quickly than the average firm.

We have also found in our remote work that our general contractor partners provide us, and the team, extensive support in the area of regulations and approvals, as they are nearly always handling the backside of the permitting approvals process.

Closing Thoughts

The question of should I hire a local architect or bring my architect with me is an important one for each client to consider. As an old Japanese proverb says, “even a sheet of paper has two sides.” The two sides of this decision involve a series of trade-offs between the argument for familiarity of location versus familiarity of team. Even though local teams are more familiar with the landscape and environment, technology has allowed homeowners to use the design teams they trust to build all over the world.

Since all projects near or far inevitably have a few challenges, we believe it is better to find the solutions with the the team you know and trust. That’s why more of our clients continue to trust us to lead the design on their next vacation home.

Related Vacation Home Projects

Scottsdale House — Arizona

Tropic Retreat – Florida

Kiawah House — South Carolina

Caribbean Villa on Nevis — West Indies