UIA Congress offers a glimpse into South Korean architecture market

FKI Tower - South Korean design market

The exterior of the FKI Tower in Seoul, South Korea, designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

As the 2017 UIA World Architects Congress in Seoul approaches, a South Korean specialist describes the country's burgeoning design business

Over the years, South Korea has emerged as a capital of manufacturing, business, and, more recently, design. This September, the 2017 UIA World Architects Congress will provide an opportunity for architects from across the globe to share new practices, technologies, and research while exploring a growing architectural design market.

According to the latest record from the Architecture & Urban Research Institute, South Korea’s architectural design service industry, including landscape architecture and interior design services, generated revenue estimated at $5.9 billion—architectural design at $4.9 billion, urban planning and landscape architecture at $443 million and interior design at $562 million—in 2014.

An overview of South Korea’s architectural design service market

After the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1949) and the ravages of the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea evolved quickly, with construction-focused industrialization leading a once-desolate land to urbanized cities. The country continues to evolve today, becoming a major hub of international business in Northeast Asia. Its three largest cities—Seoul, Incheon and Busan—have positioned themselves to be new global centers for high-rise and sustainable aspirations, competing against other major cities in Asia. There is a growing national interest in architectural design, yet the practical needs of rebuilding after the war took precedence over aesthetics. If the emphasis is on developing new or renovating residential, cultural or educational spaces, South Korea’s growing trend is heading towards design-focused architecture.

Over the next few years, South Korea has the potential to offer business opportunities to international players in architectural design, urban planning, sustainable design consulting services, and interior design services, increasing activities and challenges in its architectural design services market.

Value of doing international business: South Korea

At first glance, South Korea appears to be just like any other nation. Its capital city, Seoul, is a modern, thriving metropolis with the latest technology the world has to offer. All over South Korea, you'll find first-class telecommunications, five-star hotels, Western restaurants, modern transport systems, and innovative architecture. Nonetheless, the country is still very Korean; it is imperative that any American doing business in South Korea realizes that Seoul is not Los Angeles.

Every year South Korea becomes more and more modern, but it is important to recognize that modern does not equal Western.

Every year South Korea becomes more and more modern, but it is important to recognize that modern does not equal Western. South Koreans will not expect you to be an expert on the nuances of their culture, but they will appreciate a show of interest in matters that are important to them. Among 19,191 architectural design, landscape architecture, and interior design firms in South Korea, the top 50 firms account for about 30 percent of the country’s revenue in the sector, with small independent firms focusing on engaging local communities. However, even though large architectural service firms monopolize the industry, the country also relies on international companies when it comes to servicing schematic designs. As a result, South Korea offers ample business opportunities to foreign firms with experience in the international market.

Entering the market

Developing and maintaining a good professional relationship is one of the most effective ways for US firms to tap into the South Korean architectural service market. The relationship a firm is engaged in, combined with the relationships of its partners, can build up an important and vast business network across markets and national boundaries. This network can help a firm connect to potential customers. Although many projects are awarded through competitions or pre-qualification processes, even more opportunities are provided through networks and referrals. The availability to build strong international reputations is strongly associated with firm’s ability to network. Therefore, establishing close contacts with experts, academics, and associations that have the knowledge of local market is very important.

How the US Commercial Service Korea can help your business

The US Commercial Service Korea is an overseas office of the US Department of Commerce and is responsible for Commercial Affairs at the US Embassy in Seoul. We offer counseling and fee-based business matchmaking services to US companies that are interested in looking for business partners and potential business opportunities. We also support local Korean companies to find US supply sources, along with opportunities to represent US companies in Korea. To learn more, please refer to our US Commercial Service Korea website.

The UIA 2017 World Architects Congress is an unparalleled occasion for architects to participate in one of the profession’s premier events and develop new business leads in an international market. Be sure to register to attend, and let the AIA know of your participation to stay abreast of the latest news and opportunities in Seoul.

Nathan Huh is the senior commercial specialist for the US Commercial Service Korea in Seoul.

Image credits

FKI Tower - South Korean design market

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

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