Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mo' Better Fortresses

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We all hate those Fortress Embassies, don't we? Well, some of our diplomatic premises aren't nearly fortress-y enough but, in general, yes, we all hate them.

So it was good news when the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations met with its Industry Advisory Panel yesterday, and then sent out a press release about how it is exploring ways to design less fortress-y embassies. This is all part of the Design Excellence initiative that is slowly replacing OBO's established practice of standardized embassy design.

Here's the press release. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Introduces New Perimeter Design Concepts for Diplomatic Facilities:

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) announced the new Embassy Perimeter Improvement Concepts (EPIC) initiative during its Industry Advisory Panel meeting today. The EPIC team studied compound perimeter designs to improve the quality and appeal of the built environment surrounding United States diplomatic facilities abroad. The EPIC initiative [see a summary here] is one of many efforts OBO is undertaking in its renewed commitment to Design Excellence.

OBO and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security collaborated with Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Rhodeside & Harwell, and Weidlinger Associates to observe and document the perimeters of four existing embassy compounds. After analyzing the function and aesthetic realities of perimeter designs, the team developed a range of alternate approaches to achieving mandated security requirements.

The goal of EPIC is to design new embassy perimeters that present a more positive and welcoming image of the United States abroad, while meeting all perimeter security standards and the functional needs of these facilities.

Design Excellence, implemented in 2010, is a holistic approach to building U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. Using the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities as a road map, Design Excellence furthers OBO’s mission to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent American values and the best in American architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.

OBO has gotten away from the standard embassy design a couple times in recent years to do one-offs, most notably in Beijing. See some photos of that Unfortress Embassy here, and an artist's rendering from the embassy's website, below.

Wow. All that glass, water features, fancy landscaping, and cultural sensitivity. What's not to like? No Fortress there. Why not do more of those?

Here's my take-away from OBO's Design Excellence guidance and how it might affect future embassy construction:

-- Urban site selection for most new buildings. We can expect to see taller chancery buildings on smaller plots of land closer to the urban core. At least, we can expect that in those cities where OBO doesn't need to provide on-compound amenities like dining and recreation facilities, or on-compound housing. For the worst of the Third World, and for the highest-threat posts, big compounds in - necessarily - remote locations will continue to be needed.

-- Representational (not just functional) embassy buildings that are fitted into the surrounding architectural environment. No more Big Box diplo-kitsch productions that all come from the same template.

-- Grounds and landscaping will be an important part of the design. They will no longer be ignored, value-engineered away, or left for the regional bureau to pay for later. I could rant a little here about one of this year's new construction projects in which the entire compound is landscaped with a foot-deep cover of loose rock that looks like a barren moonscape, can't be safely walked on, soaks up solar heat until it feels like a frying pan, makes it impossible to establish a helicopter landing zone for emergency evacuations, and would become secondary fragmentation in the event of a bomb attack. I could rant about that, but I'm trying to ease up about it.

-- A higher value will be placed on selecting excellent designers (“seek to hire the highest quality American architects and engineers”), as opposed to hiring anyone willing to sign a firm fixed price contract for less than the next guy.

-- Designs will take lifecycle analysis into account, thereby reducing long-term costs for operations and maintenance.

-- Historical, cultural, and architectural legacy buildings will be preserved. OBO does this now, however, I hope it will more fully develop adaptive work-arounds for meeting security requirements, especially perimeter security requirements, in protected cultural properties. I see no reason why such buildings can't be preserved both in the cultural sense and in the literal sense of being preserved from destruction by mobs and vehicle bombs.

-- OBO will seek the best value when contracting. The guidance states that "current [OBO] policy emphasizes low first cost at the expense of design quality and lifecycle costs." Indeed, it does. They can admit that kind of thing now that General Williams isn’t around.

Come to think of it, General Williams has been gone for almost four years. What took OBO so long to shake off his influence?


Steve Peacock said...

Excellent, yet disturbing, post. The current economic climate does not even stop these folks from prettying up their fortresses, eh? I guess it wasn't just Bush, Jr. who did such things (see "A Shrub Grows in Baghdad" :

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. Actually, there will be less money coming from Congress next year for new embassy construction. However, a lot of 'design excellence' is aimed at making more rational choices for the long term (such as lower maintenance costs and energy consumption), so the architectural prettyfication has a mundane cost-savings side as well.