Finding Project Success in Mexico


Designing and building projects in Mexico requires unique considerations that may differ from what many from the US, Asia and Europe think. Most of the projects Austin delivers in Mexico are for US, Asian, or European owners. Setting a project up for success is difficult, and doing so outside your home country can provide even more challenging. With more than 50 years experience delivery projects in Mexico and more than 8.5 million square feet (0.8m M2) of industrial plants and facilities completed in the past six years in Mexico, Austin team members have gained many lessons learned. Austin’s team includes members who have previously worked on the owner’s side of the owner-contractor equation, so below are two lessons learned from the owner’s perspective, and two from the contractor/design-builder perspective.

Lessons Learned from the Owner’s Perspective

1. Select the Right Contractor

Selecting a contractor to complete a project in Mexico is complex. To ensure you select the right one, interview the contractor in person, ideally in Mexico, to evaluate their presence, team members committed to the project, and how the work will be executed.

Beware of assumptions. Don’t assume that a Mexico-based contractor can save money or that going with a Mexico-based contractor makes sense. On the other hand, a U.S.-based contractor with reference projects in Mexico also might not give you the result you want. Do your due diligence by asking these questions:

1. Do they have a physical presence in Mexico?
2. Who will be performing the work and how and where will the work be performed?
3. When were their reference projects completed and what were the results
(safety, schedule, budget, etc.)?
4. What were their roles and responsibilities on those projects?

It’s critically important to vet your contractor, no matter where they are located, and lock in their delivery approach. This will help avoid a project that gets turned over to a Mexican operation without what you thought would be American quality and project management protocols, or a project executed from the U.S. that does not leverage Mexican resources, knowledge, standards and practices – leaving you with the same problems as hiring someone that has no real presence in Mexico.

2. There are Rules, Lots of Them

You might think it’s a lot easier to complete projects in Mexico compared to the U.S. or your native country. After all, its Mexico, right? No regulation, no permits, possibly no environmental permitting barriers like back home? Not the case.

In fact, Mexico has most of the same regulations and environmental permitting as the U.S., and in some ways, can be more burdensome. Coupled with the fact that you may not have connections like you do in your home country to get answers, guidance or an understanding of the permitting processes and procedures.
You will want to hire an engineering or design-build firm, and possibly an independent environmental consultant if the engineering provider doesn’t have environmental, that can speak intelligently about these topics and help guide you through the process.

Lessons Learned from the Contractor/Design-Builder’s Perspective

1. Real Design Is Critical, Not Just a Communication of Design Intent

First, design must be detailed. If you leave things as “field selected” or “field directed,” you are leaving it to whatever someone in Mexico decides they want to do in the field, potentially without supervision, and that may be different from what a craftsman would do in the U.S. in the field.

Second, ensure the design is Mexico-based. On occasion, Austin receives design packages that are completed in other parts of the world that include materials or equipment that are not standard or aren’t available in Mexico.

Third, Spanish is important. Outside the most senior level management within the trades, the ability to read and understand English, especially technical language, drops dramatically. Trade management can’t be one-on-one with every craftsman and still provide competitive pricing. Make sure you have Spanish-based drawings and specifications.

Fourth, translation tools are not viable solutions. Many times, Austin receives design packages completed in the U.S. or other parts of the world that were translated using software (e.g., Google Translate) and the translation was simply not right. Have the drawings and specifications created or translated by a native Mexican Spanish speaker. Or, develop your own in-house design operation in Mexico with native Spanish and English-speaking designers and engineers to complete the design.

2. Be Prepared to Stay on Guard in the Field

Safety and quality practices are not the same country to country. First, the “norms” in Mexico are different. Most of the time, especially on industrial projects, the bidding process drives pricing down. If nothing else is said and the field is not proactively managed, a craftsman may execute to the lowest cost Mexico “norm,” based on previous reductions to their cost and schedule.

Second, the Mexican construction market is busy. Most projects are fast-track, the workforce is stretched, and not the best craftspeople may be assigned to your project. Be engaged to catch this issue as soon as you see it. Also, these conditions cause field supervisors and managers to push their tradespeople more, which can lead to unsafe behavior and impacts to quality.

Successful Projects in Mexico

Designing and constructing projects in Mexico involves special requirements and unique considerations that are different from projects in the U.S. or other parts of the world. However, there are strong construction leaders in Mexico and talented craftspeople. The trick is making sure those are the people on your project. With the right experienced contractor who understands how to execute projects in Mexico and the owner’s active involvement in the vetting and execution of the process, projects in Mexico can be as successful and enjoyable as they are in the U.S.

This article was first published in Results Magazine, a publication by The Austin Company.

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