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Originally published Saturday, December 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. architects find work overseas

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 U.S. ideal — down to the master bathroom and tree-lined sidewalk.

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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.

"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," said Jeff Rossely, a Bahrain-based developer of shopping malls, resorts and residential communities in the Middle East.

The trend started during the early 1990s and has intensified in recent years because of the U.S. housing downturn. 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.

U.S. 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 attracted to an U.S. suburban lifestyle.

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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 wine-making 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.

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.

Architect Aram 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.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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