Unlocking Local Expertise: Harnessing Boots on the Ground for Your Remote Project
Updated: Jun 28
A recent conversation I had with the Malaysian Investment Development Authority on the challenges foreign companies have when establishing facilities from afar inspired me to write this article about my own experiences and to share some tactics I employ when planning and executing remote projects.
Planting Your Facility Someplace New
Many companies that I work with have been faced with the need to venture into unfamiliar territory. For example, a California pharmaceutical manufacturer deciding to build their first overseas facility in Taiwan; or a US-based tech giant needing additional data center capacity in India and Germany and Brazil and so on.
Whether you’re a startup, or a Fortune 50 giant, many of the challenges are similar and so are the solutions.
It may be that your company has no presence in the location it’s expanding into. Or, it does have a presence but there isn’t the right skillset there to drive a capital project e.g. like having a sales office in your target location.
So what do you do?
How do you get quick boots on the ground with the right skills to work with the team back at “home base” effectively?
The first step of figuring out a solution is to take a step back and think about the challenges that building in a new place creates. What are some of the factors that determine whether or not your project comes in on time, on budget, and fit-for-purpose?
Some challenges relevant to this discussion include:
How do I find the right people to perform specific delivery tasks? For example, who are the experienced data center contractors in Sydney? Or Frankfurt? Or Tokyo?
How do I effectively engage with the authorities having jurisdiction so that my project sails smoothly through the permitting and approvals process? For example, how do I present information accurately to the local fire chief in a midwestern state to permit my data center, when it’s the first time this person has been asked to review a data center of that scale?
How do I appropriately design my project so that I’m not asking local contractors to work with unfamiliar materials and methods when there are familiar local equivalents available? How do I even find out what these local equivalents are? For example, what sorts of structural steel (ie. fabricated to what standard? ASTM, BSI, CEN, JSI?) is used in Malaysia?
Local Experts are Key
Even if you had one or more members of your team move to the new location and set up shop there, they lack the local knowledge of the target site and its environs. Sourcing top-notch local expertise to be part of the delivery team will provide the local knowledge and working relationships that can help prevent costly missteps and delays.
What should I look for?
A tactic I frequently use on my remote projects is to find hyper-local engineering firms and make them a part of the design team. Starting with a local design team member allows you to start the localization efforts early in the project phase while most of the activity is still on paper and not at the site. Local knowledge and expertise can be incorporated into the design while it’s being developed as opposed to trying to localize a design at the end when most of the design is complete. This results in a more integrated, ground-up localized design.
Starting early with local know-how also enables us to optimize the project schedule earlier and take advantage of more windows of opportunity. For example, the local team member could know that accelerated permitting options are available in a particular jurisdiction and what the steps are to obtain such approval or that particular city planning approval meetings occur at some cadence and to time submissions for the most optimum time.
Another benefit to going the engineering firm route for the local team member is that it is fairly normal for multiple engineering firms to come together on a project and provide expertise in their various disciplines. For example, an architectural firm that has in-house structural engineering expertise which partners with an engineering firm with mechanical and electrical skillset to design a research lab. So, your home-based design firm would typically already have the structures and processes in place to easily absorb and integrate a separate local engineering entity to execute the design.
What Local Engineering Discipline Should I Engage?
I particularly like to hire local civil engineering firms to partner with my home-based engineering team. Out of all the disciplines, civil engineering concerns itself most with site conditions and so the local partner will be able to contribute much to the design itself while providing the benefits of local know-how.
Yes, we can take soil samples and perform traffic studies to understand local conditions, but these are narrow data points that cannot compare with the instinctive local knowledge an engineer who lives and works in the area has. For example, in a past data center project I had in Iowa, my local engineer informed us we could not plan on stabilizing the soil with grass seeding when we had it scheduled as the ground would still be frozen then. A fact that just wasn’t intuitive to the rest of the team since we didn’t live there.
If there is little site work in your project because you’re moving into an existing building, then another alternative for a good local firm to engage would be an architectural firm.
Architectural firms who work locally in the area have better knowledge of the crop of buildings there because either they’ve worked on similar ones or even on the particular one your facility is going in. Like when I had a project for a biotech firm planning their facility in a building of architectural interest. Hiring a firm with people who had worked on the original design of the building was an added bonus as they would be able to help ensure the new design would respect the integrity of, and understand at a deeper level, the original design intent.
Finding That Hyper-Local Firm
These firms are unlikely to have big, flashy websites that appear on the first page of a Google search. They probably won’t be prominently featured in news articles or global trade publications.
But there are some ways to find the firms that are genuinely local and have direct experience working in your new location:
Get recommendations from contacts in the area or who have worked in the area. Sometimes, these will be secondary connections who can then point you to the right firms.
Look for local/regional engineering or construction associations who provide rankings.
Does the local municipality post their building permits online? If so, you may see the same handful of architectural or engineering firms popping up on a regular basis in permit submissions.
Once you’ve got a few possibilities, drill down more:
Review the websites of the firms you’re considering. Are the majority of their projects in the exact city/state/province of your site?
Have a look at Google Maps. Are the potential partner’s offices near your site? Or are they maybe near to the local permitting authorities? For example, my local engineering firm in Iowa would just walk our plans for submission a block or so down the street to the city’s offices.
Once you find a few possibilities, you’ll need to talk to these firms, and perform pre-qualifications to determine whether they’re a good fit for your needs for the project.
Things to Watch Out For
When taking this approach, do be mindful of a couple of points:
Though you’re hiring the local firm to produce an engineering deliverable, you are also wanting them to serve as early “boots on the ground” to perform tasks such as report on site conditions and liaise with local stakeholders. This latter scope is slightly beyond the typical engineering scope for a firm so it must be made clear that this is desired. The firm would probably need to beef up their project management or project support portion of their scope to accommodate this.
Taking this step to be clear about your needs and expectations from the start will ensure you get the appropriate level of support you desire.
Additionally, make sure the firm that you’re talking to really is local. If the firm you find has multiple offices, make sure you’re dealing directly with a person who’s located in the office that’s in the same city as your project. Using someone from a nearby state or country will not enable you to derive as much of the benefits discussed above.
Planning and executing a capital project from afar adds another layer of complexity since you are not able to see the site and build local relationships as often as someone local can.
Early in a project, one such resource to tap to perform these vital boots on the ground functions can be hyper-local engineering and architectural firms. Incorporating them into your overall design team will improve design localization and bring the added benefits of local knowledge and relationships to the project.
Gim Crew is a Principal at Crew Universal who works with biotech and tech companies grappling with complex capital projects. She helps project owners control the unknowns at any given stage. Her expertise is in establishing clear project definitions and predictive plans upstream, which then translate into smooth execution and decisive actions downstream. Gim has managed large-scale builds as both client and contractor locally in the US and the world over. She combines exceptional technical knowledge with practical project experience, offering targeted solutions and multiple perspectives for project challenges.