Report from Morocco

What practice looks like on the other side of the Atlantic

Some design firms export professional services internationally solely from their U.S.-based offices, often coordinating with local partners on an as-needed basis. Others have established offices overseas, usually staffed by a combination of expat and local staff.  

Currently on a two-year assignment in Morocco, I lead a fast-growing planning and design group that is working on several large-scale projects for a U.S./Moroccan joint venture. While there are many similarities to how professional practice is conducted overseas, there are some important differences as well. Here is what international practice looks like from the other side of the Atlantic.

Morocco occupies a unique position, both geographically and culturally; it is where Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East all come together. Strongly influenced by French colonization, it has evolved into a moderate Muslim state, ruled by King Mohammed VI, who holds executive authority over military, foreign policy, and religious affairs. At the same time, the king has ceded significant authority to an elected parliament, creating a constitutional monarchy that could well serve as a model for the Arab world.

The country’s economy is driven primarily by agriculture and tourism, and it is also the world’s third-largest producer of phosphates. There is growing international investment, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, plus the U.S./Moroccan Free Trade Agreement that was passed in 2004. As a result, Morocco is embarking on a number of bold new initiatives that are likely to have wide-ranging effect, within the country and across Africa.

Lacking in significant fossil fuel resources, Morocco has a strong interest in developing sources of renewable energy. The Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) has established a nationally sponsored program to create an integrated system of five new solar power installations that will generate a minimum of 2,000 megawatts. The first is scheduled for completion in 2015 and the total project will be finished by 2019. MASEN also supports research and training programs.

Morocco has also set up a substantial wind energy program. The Moroccan Integrated Wind Energy Project (WIWEP) has a goal of bolstering installed capacity from 280 megawatts in 2010 to 2,000 megawatts in 2020 — a seven-fold increase in only ten years. A recently completed project in Tarfaya has a total capacity of 300 megawatts, making it the largest wind farm in Africa.

The country is also upgrading its water infrastructure, with approximately 100 dams providing resources for municipalities, industry, and agriculture (which currently accounts for more than 80 percent of all water usage). As the population continues to grow, particularly along the Atlantic coast, there is serious interest in constructing desalinization plants to satisfy the increasing need for potable water.

Transportation systems are also being improved as well, including significant new highway construction, urban mass transit, and a high-speed rail line that will connect Tangier with Marrakech (the first phase of which will be completed in 2016), making it possible to complete the almost 600 kilometer trip in under three hours. Morocco’s waste management and recycling initiatives are also getting a lot of attention; the World Bank recently agreed to provide $270 million for development of a municipal waste management plan that is scheduled to be implemented by 2020.

These initiatives are strong evidence of Morocco’s focus on the future. The country has embraced a long term strategy of sustainable urbanism which is providing huge opportunities for the A/E/C industry. These changes are being enthusiastically welcomed by a young, sophisticated professional class that is beginning to gain international recognition through events such as the Venice Biennale, where Morocco has a pavilion for the first time.

What is professional practice like in such a dynamic environment? Based on the French model, it has some substantial differences from U.S.-based practice. There is no professional reciprocity; only Moroccans can be licensed to practice architecture. There are just 1500 professionals practicing in the entire country, with most of them located in the major cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier, Agadir, Fes, and Rabat (the capital city). Responsibility and liability for projects rests entirely with the individual, not a corporate entity. By law, architecture and engineering are required to be executed separately. However, there are some indications that firms representing these disciplines may be permitted to team together for selected public solicitations.

The project delivery process is defined and controlled first by a Schema Directeur Amenagement Urbain — basically a regional master plan — that is updated every thirty years. This is essentially a land use plan that establishes a framework for developing infrastructure. The Plan D’amenagement is the approval process for parcels falling within the overall plan. Land use, subdivisions, parcelization, infrastructure, development of the public realm, and more detailed design guidelines are all components of the process. The preparation and submission of a Plan D’amenagement must be supervised by a licensed architect, and it is a requirement in obtaining a permit to construct individual buildings.

Fees for architecture generally average approximately five percent of construction cost, including construction administrative services. The phases of work are similar to those in the U.S.: SD, DD, CD, and CA. Design/build is an emerging delivery methodology and is beginning to be used on larger jobs. International firms partnering with a local are subject to a withholding tax of 10 percent on their fees, and local firms must pay a value-added tax of 20 percent.

Most large projects are for public sector work, and the biggest generally involve collaborations between Moroccan firms and foreign firms, mostly European. For U.S.-based companies, language remains a significant barrier. The traditional language of business in Morocco is French, which includes RFPs, contracts, and project communications. Meetings can start in English but generally devolve into French. Hence, although time consuming and sometimes imprecise, translation is a necessary part of any professional engagement.

In Casablanca, our planning and design group now includes an international staff of ten people from Morocco, Spain, France, and the U.S., and we have already developed a good network of professional contacts within the country. There is tremendous growth potential in Morocco as well as North and West Africa, and we make extensive use of support from offices in other parts of our U.S.-based company. By leveraging these resources, our group of ten can take on much larger and more complex assignments.

While we rely heavily on electronic communication for day-to-day business, we have discovered that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. With this in mind, we have established a workshop process whereby key members of our global project teams travel to Casablanca for intensive charrettes, generally lasting one to two weeks. We also send local staff to work in our international offices as part of a networking and mentoring strategy.

We are currently involved with large master planning, architecture, and construction projects in locations such as Benguerir, Safi, Laayoune, and a ground-up new city located between Casablanca and El Jadida that will have a population of 130,000 when fully built. In keeping with the country’s long-term focus, all of these projects include programs devoted to improved housing, education, training and job creation. Each one has particular focus on sustainable design.

Taken as a whole, the implications of events in  Morocco are nothing short of amazing, and if successful, it will be a powerful demonstration of how smart design can be employed to improve the country’s environment, infrastructure, educational system, and overall economy. The keys to being successful in such a dynamic environment are to make the best possible use of all available resources, be highly observant, and keep an open mind about new and different ways of getting things done. We have learned that on a multinational team, while everyone brings a unique and valued perspective, design is the common language that makes it all work seamlessly. Here are a few key lessons learned that can apply to projects not only in Morocco but in other countries as well:

  1. Understand history
    Morocco has been significantly influenced by different cultures, including African, Arab, and European.
  2. Embrace prevailing standards
    Client expectations and professional practice are based on the French model, not the more flexible U.S. model.
  3. Have something to offer
    There is growing interest in both U.S. investment and technical sophistication, which makes for a strong value proposition for U.S. firms.
  4. Make sure your team is multi-lingual
    The ability to communicate in more than one language is a huge advantage in building local relationships as well as facilitating business development and project delivery.
  5. Be present
    Nothing beats face-to-face communication. Demonstrate commitment by being visible and accessible. Cultivate local contacts wherever possible.
  6. Be inventive
    We strive to combine global sophistication with knowledge of local skills and craft, so that the design solutions are uniquely Moroccan in nature.

No doubt the lessons learned in Morocco can be adapted to other countries and cultures as well. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is that design done well is a universal language that can help advance all cultures in their own unique ways.

Bob Koup is a principal with an international planning, design and engineering firm. He moved from Boston to Casablanca in 2013.