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Demand grows for U.S.-style suburbs overseas

Architect Andy Feola keeps running into Southern California colleagues in some of the world's most exotic locations — from the Egyptian desert to China to Azerbaijan.
Architects Abroad
This undated image provided by F+A Architects shows an overview of the "Napa Valley" housing development in Beijing, China. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Architect Andy Feola keeps running into Southern California colleagues in some of the world's most exotic locations — from the Egyptian desert to China to Azerbaijan.

"We'll scratch our heads and ask 'Why are you here?'" said Feola, president of F+A Architects in Pasadena. "Well, I'm here for the same reasons you're here."

A growing number of architects and urban planners are finding work overseas as the domestic real estate slump persists. An emerging affluent class abroad is drawn to suburbs with U.S. names that mimic the American ideal — down to the master bathroom and tree-lined sidewalk.

A 2006 survey of American Institute of Architects members shows that large architecture firms with more than 100 employees reported billings from international work doubled in four years. Meanwhile, billings in the U.S. this year dropped to the lowest point in the 12 years the survey has been conducted.

While there's no hard data, more American-made windows, roofing systems, furnaces and other specialized materials are being shipped overseas because projects designed by Americans are built to U.S. construction standards, said Jim Haughey, an economist with Reed Construction Data, which tracks the construction industry.

"The English concept of a man's home is his castle is true in most parts of Asia, the Mideast and Eastern Europe," said Jeff Rossely, a Bahrain-based developer of shopping malls, resorts and residential communities in the Middle East. "If you look at how countries are moving up the socio-economic ladder, some of the things they all want is a car, a house, a nice view and air conditioning."

Suburban lifestyle
The trend started during the early 1990s U.S. housing downturn and has intensified in recent years. Firms that ventured abroad since that time say doing so has helped them weather economic slowdowns in certain markets.

It has also created opportunities to design on a grander and more creative scale. At times, architects are creating huge master-planned communities encompassing a mix of single-family homes with high rises, parks and shopping centers. Feola's firm is designing a shopping and entertainment complex for New Cairo, a metropolis built from scratch for roughly 200,000 residents in Egypt. The idea is to avoid some of the mistakes of the past and create a mixed-use environment where people rely less on their car to get to shops and services.

American firms are behind an eco-friendly island connected to Shanghai by rail, and a new township in northern Indian loaded with luxury villas, apartments, shops, parks and schools.

Curiously, some of the developments overseas look and sound a lot like California suburbs marketed to affluent customers who have spent time living in the U.S. or are attracted to an American suburban lifestyle.

Feola's firm, which does 90 percent of its projects outside the U.S. and is best known for designing a shopping mall in Dubai with an indoor ski slope, was responsible for a development outside of Beijing called Napa Valley that has little resemblance to the winemaking region.

Grassy front lawns and driveways lead to pastel-colored homes that mimic French, Italian or Spanish architectural styles. Customized kitchens, screening rooms and basement wine cellars are very different from Chairman Mao's vision of communal living.

"It's hard to tell you're not in Southern California," Feola said.

Another Beijing suburb is aptly named Orange County, which sold out within days of opening in 2002. Chinese developers hired Newport Beach firm Bassenian Lagoni to make a replica of homes they saw south of Los Angeles. With the eerie resemblance to the American suburb, critics derided the homes as "McMansions."

"It's too bad that we as Americans are turning away from suburban sprawl as Asia adopts it," said Robert Fishman, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

Fitting with local culture
Architect Aram Bassenian, whose Mediterranean-style homes have come to define California's ritzy suburbs, contends that architects shouldn't shoulder all the blame. California borrows ideas from elsewhere, and for centuries cities have been designed or influenced by outsiders.

Many advances in green home design that were developed in the U.S. are being introduced overseas, including better insulation or ventilation to rely less on fossil fuels for heating and air conditioning.

To make the homes fit with the local culture, outdoor kitchens are added in Asia for frying food, and trellises are installed to protect Mediterranean homes from intense sunlight.

"We don't create the demand, we respond to people's needs for shelter, for housing," Bassenian said.

Despite criticism, suburban communities are sprouting in Latin America, North Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe. To promote developments that won't deplete natural resources, land use experts at the Urban Land Institute have been taking foreign groups on "study tours" of U.S. communities and recently opened an education center in the United Arab Emirates.

Developers say they look to American architects because they have a track record of designing successful shopping malls, resorts and other high-end projects.

Bassenian said he doesn't take lightly the task of creating a built-in environment for people millions of miles away.

"It is both a daunting responsibility as well as an incredible privilege to think that what we do here will shape how somebody lives around the world," Bassenian said.