Navigating Structural Engineering Abroad


What’s it like to work abroad as opposed to working from your Portland office? 

When working abroad, you have to be able to adapt to local conditions. Typically, you’re working in hotels, office conference rooms and other spaces which may have high-security requirements. Internet connections may be slow or not available at all, and cell phone coverage can be limited. In some locations, power-outages are common. Many of the site visits we perform overseas involve hours of building assessments and documentation of existing structures which require walking, climbing, and sometimes crawling in confined spaces to observe concealed conditions.

We also usually have dinner meetings and other after hours social events with the project teams and clients, so days can be long with little sleep. But these activities with clients offer great opportunities to get to know each other on a personal level which can enhance working relationships. 

How do you approach overseas work? 

I try to keep a work hard/play hard mentality. On-site work can be demanding and has to be balanced with the on-going workload back in the office. Add in dinners, other social activities and a little sight-seeing, and there’s very little time for rest. Additionally, when I’m overseas, I try to learn a few phrases in the local language and some local customs beforehand. It’s more polite and helpful when we’re in remote places where English is rarely spoken. I also try to keep a low profile, avoiding the typical marks of a tourist like fancy cameras and guidebooks, and respecting local customs like wearing long pants in Muslim countries or taking off your shoes when going into someone’s house.

What’s the hardest part about travel abroad for work? 

A few things come to mind. The toughest would be being away from my family. There’s also the stress of juggling a hectic schedule, getting little rest, and of course, overcoming jetlag.

cairo_main-copy.jpgWhat do you like best about working abroad?

I love getting to travel to faraway places, in many cases to countries which would not be on the casual traveler’s list. While free time can come at a premium, there are sometimes great opportunities to explore local sites and even take side-trips. I also enjoy the company of the project teams in addition to the interaction with locals. The food and sights are another big plus. 

What are some challenges you run into on these projects?

As I mentioned before, adapting to the local climate and work environment can be particularly challenging. Unexpected information (or lack of information) can make it difficult to complete certain tasks. Also, learning local building codes, construction methods, and material availability plays a big part in the approach to new building design and complex renovations. 

What’s your most memorable overseas trip for KPFF? 

My most memorable trip was probably my first. I went to Kathmandu (The capital city of Nepal) for two weeks in 2010.  Kathmandu is a great city and very walkable, which made exploring very accessible and enjoyable. It isn’t a touristy place – mostly just trekkers stopping on their way to Everest.  The temples and shrines were very unique and there were many tiny and hidden streets packed with shops, markets, and food. Getting around by rickshaw was fun, and the people are extremely friendly. During the trip, we had a free weekend and were able to book a hotel in the Himalayan foothills and do some hiking; the views were incredible.

The trip ended on an interesting note: the last three days of our trip, there was a large protest by the Maoist group in Nepal that crippled city transportation. All restaurants and shops were closed except for one hour in the evenings. We almost didn’t make it to the airport, and the hotel food started getting really old! 

Any travel tips to share? 

Bring something to help you sleep through the first few nights. Jetlag can be a drag.

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