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Six Issues to Keep in Mind When Working with Decorative Concrete Abroad

John Anderson of Brickform uses a power trowel on a concrete slab.I guess decorative concrete around the world is one of my specialty areas, as I have been involved in decorative concrete projects in more than 25 countries. After attending the World of Concrete for 11 years and working in the United States for Brickform as the area manager in Nevada and Arizona, I am able to compare how the decorative concrete business is approached in the U.S. with how it’s done in other countries I have worked in. The cultural practices and business models from country to country are unique in every way possible: techniques, materials, tools and construction practice regulations.

I would like to point out some of the basic issues that come up when planning a decorative concrete project in another country and how to reduce the risks involved.

Getting supplies
Several things seem to catch most people. The first hurdle is that getting materials, tools and equipment from a local source may be more difficult than expected. There is more chance of winning the lottery than finding a home improvement chain store or speciality concrete supply house in other countries. With this in mind, you should plan to ship everything but the kitchen sink, and if you’ll need one of those, ship it too.

Local contacts
In most cases, you will have a local contact who is supporting you while you are working in their country. Remember that this person is a key figure but most likely not an expert in the field of decorative concrete, and this is why you are there in the first place. Extreme planning at this point can save time and money when you arrive to discover that what you thought you asked for is not available. When communicating with your local contact, you should be very specific about your requirements and even send pictures of the items you request. The terminology used for some tools and equipment is not always the same as what you use at home, and the word for what you want may not even exist in other languages.

Shipping and clearing customs
If you are shipping products to the country, make sure this is done well in advance of the project start date. They can take months to arrive and clear customs. Just because something has arrived in the country does not mean you will be able to access it. In some countries, customs officials will hold the materials until you cross their palms with silver, which can mean your local contact has to begin negotiating. How desperately you need the products will affect how much you will have to pay. Therefore, ship well in advance and make sure all the relevant paperwork is correct to reduce delays.

Training the local work force
Sometimes you will be expected to use local labor to work with you on the project. Don’t expect to find ACI-certified concrete finishers or anyone that understands ICRI surface prep. It is more likely that you will need to spend several days training them in the most basic skill you will require. Make sure to allow for this when planning the time schedule for the project.

Work visas and travel status
Research the visa requirements for the country you’re going to work in. You need to apply for some visas months in advance while others can be done in just a few days. Check the travel status for the country with the U.S. government. You can do it online at Travel.state.gov. You would be shocked at the number of countries that are not safe to travel in.

Researching the country
It is always good to do a little research on the country and get to know the cultural, political and religious beliefs that are common there before you arrive. Getting to knowing the dos and don’ts could save you from some embarrassing situations like, for example, taking a case of Jack Daniel’s to Iran or getting arrested for taking a photograph in the wrong place.

We all know that planning, communication and managing expectations are key to success in any decorative concrete project, but that’s even more true when working in other countries. You need to take additional time to think and ask questions that normally would seem simple.

John Anderson is an architectural concrete consultant based in the United Kingdom.

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