The flexibility of remote work takes on a new dimension when American landscape architecture firms can bring on Ukrainian designers fleeing war.
By Laurie A. Shuster
Anna Kulvanovska had been waiting a long time at an immigration office in Sweden when she decided to check her LinkedIn account. “I don’t use LinkedIn often, but I was waiting my turn and it was a long time,” says Kulvanovska, who is a Ukrainian landscape architect. Having left her home in Kyiv during the first 24 hours of the Russian invasion, Kulvanovska traveled to Romania and then to Malmö, Sweden, where a friend had agreed to help her. “I was very lucky,” she says.
On LinkedIn she saw a message from Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, the managing principal of SWA Group in Houston. He had posted an inquiry about the health and well-being of Ukrainian landscape designers in the face of the ongoing conflict. Kulvanovska responded. “At first, he wasn’t saying he wanted to work with me; he just asked how I am and where I am,” she says. “We just started talking.”
Eventually Baumgardner asked if she needed work, and if she would like to work as a contractor for SWA. That was the first step in launching Support by Design, an online hub that houses a database of displaced and/or out-of-work Ukrainian landscape designers as well as business tools such as sample contracts—no visas or tax documents required—that U.S. firms can use to hire Ukrainian designers. The Landscape Architecture Foundation and ASLA have supported the program, and architects have taken note, launching a website of their own, Hire Ukrainian Designers. Baumgardner says Support by Design is now in the process of merging with that site, and Support by Design’s resources are available there.
Baumgardner says that when the war began, his business did what many did: posted messages of support on social media and donated to nonprofits. “And it felt like, well, is that it? We did our part by putting a Ukrainian flag on Instagram?” he says. “I thought, we should think about this more specifically to design, and to landscape architecture in particular. Is there something we can do with that?”
Although SWA had worked on a few projects in the country in the past, Baumgardner says he had never thought much about the state of landscape architecture in Ukraine, so he did some online research. “I found really interesting work that was being done. These firms seemed to be very creative, with a strong point of view about design.” He found contact information on design company websites and started sending emails. When he didn’t hear back right away, he posted on LinkedIn. A week later, Kulvanovska responded. “She said, ‘Yes, I do need a job, and by the way, I have a handful of people in a similar situation.’”
SWA contracted with Kulvanovska, and eventually with other Ukrainian designers, with modest expectations at first. Baumgardner says that the 10 or so Ukrainian designers that SWA has worked with have done exemplary work. “They’re very productive. And the work they do is very thoughtful and extremely complete. We’ve had nothing but good results from it.”
As news of the program spread, other landscape architecture firms got involved. Brad McCauley, ASLA, the managing principal of Site Design Group in Chicago, connected first with Natasha Shandura, whom he describes as a “rock star.” His team then connected with VKA, a firm with roughly a dozen full-time employees and a similar number of part-timers and quickly decided to bring the whole group under contract. “They were extremely like-minded, awesome people,” McCauley says. “Once we understood their capacity, we worked out a deal within a week.”
And while it has taken some time to smooth out the bumps—Ukraine uses the metric system, for example —the skill level of Ukrainian designers in areas such as BIM and 360-degree visualization exceeds that of some Americans, McCauley says. “They teach us and help us create our standards.”
At SWA, Baumgardner says he was initially inspired by two realizations: that all work for Ukrainian landscape architects had disappeared in an instant, and that those designers—and their skills—would be needed at some future time to rebuild the ravaged country. “When an entire country is at war, there are no developers that are building residential, there is no parks department that’s going to do the next great park, there is not a public works group that’s going to do a road diet/bike network thing; none of that was going to happen. I’ve had clients call and put projects on hold, but I’ve never had every project go on hold,” he says. Assuming landscape architects will be in demand in Ukraine once the war ends, he understood they would need to keep up their skills. Designers won’t be in a position to rebuild if they lose touch with the profession and their skill set, he says.
Aside from working through different measurement standards, working with Ukrainian designers has been relatively easy. “People will tend to tell you that they don’t speak good English, but once you start talking with them, you figure out their English is much better than they think it is,” Baumgardner says. McCauley says using common technologies including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, and Slack has helped keep projects moving and lines of communication clear. “It’s seamless,” he says. And the time differences—many of VKA’s employees have returned to Kyiv—actually help projects run faster.
As Baumgardner has worked with other design firms connecting with Ukrainian designers, he has found that the office culture at large firms can be a barrier. “As designers, we are creative, and we are risk takers. But your IT professionals, HR group, accountants—they’re hired not to be risk takers,” he says. “So, we created a bunch of tools for those guys that they can grab ahold of.” Among the resources available through the website are a database of available candidates and their portfolios, a lawyer-vetted contract template, and information on different work arrangements. Because they are contractors like any other, the designers do not need to apply for H-1B temporary employment visas, and the hiring firm does not need to withhold taxes, Baumgardner says. “There is no reporting requirement,” he says. “A lot of firms will go to China to get an illustration done, and they’ll contract with someone; it’s exactly the same.”
McCauley, who is also the vice president of membership for ASLA, emphasizes that the program is not taking jobs from U.S. workers. “When you look at the ASLA job board, it’s on fire,” he says. “There are firms who can’t find anybody. So, it’s a good way to build talent and grow the U.S. profession.” He is even considering whether his firm’s relationship with these designers will continue after the war. “We joke a lot about starting our Kyiv office, and I don’t think that’s out of the question,” he says.
For Kulvanovska, the arrangement means she can now afford to rent her own apartment in Malmö and send money to family still in Ukraine. She sets up at a local coworking facility that offered her space for free, and there she interacts with and learns from other freelancers. “There are a lot of architects, landscape architects, product designers, furniture designers,” Kulvanovska says. “The support is outstanding. I didn’t expect this.” And she values being able to maintain her skills. “What I am gaining working remotely like this with SWA can be really helpful to make something nice in Ukraine—maybe even with SWA, you never know,” she says. “The professional experience is very nice, and what I learned about collaboration is also at a very high level.”
For landscape architects in the United States who want to hire a Ukrainian designer, Kulvanovska recommends a measured approach. “Start with personal contact and just talk,” she says. “Just be in trust with the person, and maybe understand how much they can or want to do.” Offering a concrete list of tasks to be completed would also help, she says.
Baumgardner says U.S. firms should prepare for both outstanding work and heart-wrenching moments. “They’ll ask, is it okay if during some of my workday, I have to go down to the bomb shelter because we have air raids? Yeah, of course, yes!”
Baumgardner adds that U.S. designers can get as much from collaborating with Ukrainians as they do. “For us, it’s a huge opportunity to engage with this budding profession that is just bubbling up, yet at the same time is very sophisticated. I see it as a learning opportunity that’s springing out of something very negative. If you change your point of view to ask where is the opportunity in it, there’s actually a lot.”