News
10.24.2012
Securing Diplomacy
Recent attacks challenge OBO Design Excellence.
KieranTimberlake's design for a new U.S. embassy in London.
Courtesy KieranTimberlake

Following the fatal attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, and the spate of conflicts that have followed outside American embassies in the Middle East and Indonesia, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which oversees diplomatic facilities, isn’t saying whether its Design Excellence program will be subject to a reevaluation or new security requirements. However, an independent expert on security architecture said that “recent events may necessitate revisiting how we balance design and security priorities.”

OBO started Design Excellence—modeled closely on the 18-year-old U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) program of the same name—two years ago following criticism by Sen. John Kerry and others that recent embassy buildings were too fortress-like. The program seeks to raise the quality of design overall and to better balance security with openness and accessibility. In January, Casey Jones, the director of Design Excellence at GSA, was detailed to the State Department to run its sister program.

KieranTimberlake’s design for the new U.S. embassy in London predates the official start of the program but embodies its basic principles. The architects substituted a moat and landscaped barriers for a perimeter wall and the building envelope is made of ETFE-clad, blast-resistant glass, rather than masonry. OBO points to the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed consulate in Guangzhou, China and embassy in Beijing as additional precursors.

Will the new emphasis on transparency last? When asked about the program’s focus going forward, OBO responded with a written statement: “OBO’s Design Excellence initiative is about improving the way in which OBO plans, designs, constructs, and maintains our diplomatic facilities, advancing a new generation of secure, high-performance, buildings in support of all aspects of American diplomacy,” it said. “One of the key objectives is to design embassies and consulates that convey openness and accessibility, while still meeting our security requirements.”

It is unclear whether security requirements will be heightened. “The Department’s security standards and requirements are frequently reviewed and updated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security,” an OBO spokesperson stated.

Congress funds diplomatic construction, which means that theoretically it could be subject to federal spending cuts—but given the recent attacks, that seems very unlikely. With pressure on the government to quickly secure or replace high-risk and interim facilities like the one in Benghazi, the question is whether the protocols of Design Excellence (for example, using design-bid-build as well as design-build delivery, and selecting sites in central urban areas) will be honored and not viewed as too time-consuming, expensive, or risky.

According to security design expert Barbara Nadel, who chaired an AIA task force on the 21st-century embassy and wrote a report that served as the framework for OBO’s Design Excellence program, affordability is crucial. “New embassies must be affordable so we can continue to replace outdated and insecure facilities in dangerous and remote locations,” Nadel said. “Design and escalating construction, maintenance, and operational costs must be tempered with the reality of what the people inside these facilities must face.”

Nadel noted that the current construction program was authorized by Congress after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people. The primary intention was to ensure the safety of Americans serving overseas.

The first project under OBO’s Design Excellence is a new embassy in Mexico City designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Davis Brody Bond. Construction is expected to begin in 2015.

Amanda Kolson Hurley