Why count foreign billings?

August 11, 2010

For a long time, this magazine has resisted including projects outside of the United States in ranking our Design/Construct 300, an annual listing of the top architecture, engineering and construction firms (coverage starts on page 42). Counting U.S. projects alone, we reasoned, made the most sense because all of our readers are based in the United States, and the vast majority are only involved with U.S. construction.

Well, we've changed our minds. For our 25th annual filing this year, we bit the proverbial bullet and chose to wrap together all billings on planet Earth for the biggest U.S.-based companies.

We hope you agree with our rationale: The design professions are increasingly global in nature, and many building owners have operations outside of the United States. And although construction is still a very local activity, some of the largest builders are also working abroad.

A global shift

Most of our readers will never touch a foreign project during their careers, yet more and more of them work for firms that have some overseas involvement.

Only a few decades ago, design and construction firms could be lumped into two distinct categories: "the null set" and "the jet set." Half of the firms had no work outside of the United States, and half had international aspirations of some kind. This dichotomy peaked in the early 1980s, when dozens of architecture, engineering and construction firms followed the lead of other service industries and tacked the impressive appellation "international" onto their otherwise distinguished names.

The push for a global profile never went away. Today, we can classify multinational aspirants into four categories:

  • The true blue. All their work is in America, God bless; let there be no mistake about it. (You got a problem with that, pal?)

  • The dabblers. Between a half percent and 2 percent of their work is done outside of the United States. One sizable collaboration—generating working drawings for a signature designer, for example—may account for all foreign billings in a year.

  • The up-and-comers. They aspire to be expatriates, and they act like it. When they're not hiring bilingual designers, they're buying smaller firms with established foreign contacts and income. From 2 percent to 6 percent of billings are non-U.S.

  • The jet set. Only the biggest names and most prominent conglomerates inhabit this rarefied strata. As much as 30 percent of these firms' work is on foreign soils.

For those firms that hit critical mass overseas, it's off to the races. Billings get a boost, and the company is better prepared for an economic slump.

Still, by adding foreign billings to the list, I am sure we have pleased the up-and-comers while casting a less than positive light on the null-setters. The editors have pondered the effects of changing our famous listing, on its 25th anniversary, to the detriment of the true blue. I'm sure we may have irked at least a few of the giants on our list, but I hold out hope that we made the right decision.


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