The Design of Diplomacy

An American embassy is more than just a building – it’s a physical representation of diplomacy that communicates the values and spirit of the United States while acknowledging the cultures of the nation in which it resides. For the citizens of countries that have a U.S. diplomatic presence, it represents the United States itself.

For the U.S. Department of State, building an embassy is an opportunity to put its best foot forward internationally while providing for the practical needs of those who work and reside in the facility. With this in mind, the Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) – the agency that oversees the construction, maintenance and operations of U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad – seeks to build facilities that meet the highest design standards and preserve the safety of citizens and employees.

A Need for Security

OBO’s current Capital Security Construction program grew out of events following the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which prompted the Secretary of State to form an Overseas Presence Advisory Panel to review the conditions of U.S. facilities abroad, said Christine Foushee, director of external affairs for the bureau.

In its report, the panel cited unsafe and deteriorating conditions in several facilities and warned that more than 85 percent of diplomatic facilities overseas were vulnerable to attack. As a result, in 1999, Congress enacted the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA) and the department elevated the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations to bureau status and renamed it the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

Under this program, OBO is tasked with replacing more than 180 aging facilities that do not meet the standards set forth in SECCA. These standards include a number of security requirements including a 100-foot setback between a building and the perimeter.

“Since the bombings in Africa, our construction program has been able to move more than 27,000 U.S. employees into safer and more secure facilities,” says Robert Browning, office director for construction management for OBO, noting the bureau has completed 89 new embassy and consulate buildings since the enactment of SECCA. “We have a strong building program with 40 capital projects valued at over $6 billion total currently in construction.”

Aiming for the Best

OBO looks to build on its successful history through its new Design Excellence program. The program, introduced in 2010, seeks to balance the need for secure facilities with the need for facilities that properly represent the United States and are appropriate to their surroundings. Design Excellence replaces the Bureau’s Standard Embassy Design program, which had been used for most of its projects over the last 10 years.

“With the Standard Embassy Design program, we had great success with delivering one kind of product quickly, but along the way we were missing the opportunity to create a sense of what an embassy could contribute to its surroundings,” says Joseph Toussaint, managing director for program development, coordination, and support for OBO. “The image these buildings projected of America was not as open and inviting as it could be.”

The Design Excellence program set forth a number of guiding principles aimed at delivering facilities that “represent the best of American architecture, engineering, technology, art and culture while providing the best long-term value to the American taxpayer,” OBO notes.

These principles include:

  • Purpose and function – OBO seeks to build facilities that represent the best of American architecture, design and construction in a context that is appropriate to the host nation.
  • Site – The bureau works to select sites that enhance diplomacy, including in urban areas. The Design Excellence program also pays attention to buildings, streets and public spaces surrounding each facility.
  • Design – Buildings will be designed in “a comprehensive process of understanding and balancing requirements and incorporating them into a thoughtfully conceived, cohesive and coherent whole,” the bureau says. OBO wishes to avoid an “official” embassy style and build facilities that are responsive to their surroundings. Grounds and landscaping are viewed as equally important to architecture.
  • Engineering – Facilities will include the most advanced building methods, systems, technologies and materials that are appropriate to the site and climate of the host country. 
  • Safety and security – Designs and construction will meet or exceed all security and safety standards. 
  • Sustainability – OBO is making a robust effort to incorporate energy-efficient practices into its architecture and engineering efforts, and encourages contractors to recycle materials on site. The bureau now is requiring a baseline LEED® Silver certification on major new construction projects, Toussaint says. 
  • Professional services – The bureau looks to hire the highest quality of American architects and engineers. Selection is based on the quality of design achievements and overall company portfolios.
  • Construction – OBO engages construction partners throughout the design and implementation process to ensure high quality. The bureau awards both design/build and design/bid/build projects through a transparent proposal and award process, Foushee notes.
  • Operations and maintenance – Facilities will be economical to operate and maintain, and will utilize durable, dependable and suitable materials.
  • Art – OBO will integrate American and host nation art and culture into embassy buildings and grounds.
  • Properties and collections –OBO is committed to preserving the State Depart­ment’s historical, cultural and architectural legacy through the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. The register lists important diplomatic overseas architecture and property.
Principles Applied

The New London Embassy (NLE) project is in the vanguard of the Design Excellence program. The design, by architectural firm KieranTimberlake, features a design that “provides a street-level experience that respects the urban texture of the existing landscape and contributes to the development of the public realm,” OBO says.

“At the same time, the design will minimize the impact of security measures on the surrounding streets and will actually create new public spaces,” the Bureau adds. “The NLE will demonstrate exceptional environmental leadership and will include photovoltaic panels and employ water reuse strategies.”

 OBO is striving to meet aggressive building performance requirements, which will result in a higher level of LEED certification as well as its U.K. equivalent, BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM).

After a competition, the design of the NLE was initiated in February 2011 and is expected to be completed in late spring of 2013. Construction is expected to be completed in the spring of 2017.  The total budget for this project is $1.2 billion.

All projects overseen by OBO past and present are marked by the work of prequalified contractors and construction firms.

The bureau looks to builders with self-performing capabilities experienced in completing similarly sized projects, as well as the past experience of each member of the prospective contractor’s management team.

OBO maintains close relationships with the project teams on all embassy and consulate projects, and appoints a project director on site and an administrative staff in Washington, D.C., to work directly with the contractors.

“All of the contractors we work with provide a vital service to us,” Browning adds.  


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