Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Price of Excellence in Embassy Design

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has been getting a lot of criticism lately for the escalating costs of its new embassy construction projects, and especially for shifting away from its former program of down-and-dirty "Standard Embassy Design" and toward the much tonier practice of "Design Excellence."

See the CBS News report Are modern U.S. embassies becoming too costly to build? for the arguments against Design Excellence. They boil down to: it costs more and takes longer than the standard designs did, so you can't do as many of them, and therefore you end up leaving some embassy staff in old and unsecure facilities for longer than would be necessary if you did less excellent designs.

Exhibit A for the case against Design Excellence is Mexico City, which was the first new embassy project to be formally solicited under the Design Excellence program. See more on that here. Diplopudit's recent post (New Embassy Mexico City Estimated to Cost $350-$450M Now More Pricey At $763 Million) is a comprehensive summary of the current situation.

The original solicitation for Mexico city included that estimated construction cost of between $350 million and $450 million, and also stated that "the Department of State project shall demonstrate the value of true integrated design that balances aesthetics, cost, constructability and reliability, following the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence." You can read about those principles - or "Principles" - here.

So the project's estimated cost doubled before the first shovel-full of dirt was turned? That is far from excellent. In fact, the Mexico City project might end up being a better demonstration of the unintended consequences of the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence than of their stated goals.

But the biggest slam on OBO this week, the piledriver, the possible knock-out blow for Design Excellence, was delivered by the House Oversight Committee. The committee, by which I really mean Representative Chaffetz, wrote to SecState Kerry requesting a long and comprehensive list of documents concerning new construction planning and Design Excellence practices and justifications, both in general and for several specific projects.

This week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), pressed Secretary of State John Kerry after reports [one by CBS News and one by Al Jazeera] that State Department embassy design efforts have recently emphasized style at the expense of security and cost efficiency. The Committee has requested information from the State Department about specific construction projects that have suffered from problems and extended building times resulting from a deviation from the efficient standard embassy design approach, which stresses security and functionality, to the new “design excellence” program, which stresses openness and innovation.

After all that bad news about cost escalations and spiraling-out-of-control design excellence, I would like to point out one recent instance in which OBO completed a new embassy project for what seems to be a reasonable cost. It dedicated a United States Dedicates New U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic this week for the rather normal price of $193 million.

According to the project's fact sheet, that $193 million paid for a five-story office building with 26,000 square meters of space, plus a support annex and a Marine House, on a compound of 16 acres. The consular section has over 50 windows (!) for visa services, and the whole place has all kinds of energy efficiency, sustainability, saving-the-rainforest, greeny-eco stuff.

Not bad. Even better, on June 12, OBO solicited proposals for new construction at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, which include installing a pre-engineered structure to serve as a temporary office annex. "Pre-engineered" as in a prefabricated, or modular building. Something better than a trailer but not as architecturally satisfying as a real building.
A project is in design to construct new housing, expand the existing Marine Security Guard Residence (MSGR), a temporary office annex (installation and fit-out of pre-engineered structure), expand existing American Club, gymnasium and commissary, and update the compound utilities to support the new buildings on the existing Consulate Compound which opened in 2011 [see more on that here] ... and other site work including site utilities, landscaping and surface parking.

The solicitation states that the approximate cost for all that work is $35 million to $47 million. Quite the bargain basement price, for buildings of the size and nature called for in the solicitation.

Pre-engineered buildings are a common practice in the construction world. Most commercial buildings, including bank branches, 'big box' stores, healthcare facilities, etc., are pre-engineered. But this is the first instance I can recall of OBO adding such a building to an existing diplomatic compound that is already full of purpose-designed offices and residences.

For OBO to go with a pre-engineered office building is as far from Design Excellence as it gets. Definitely déclassé. But it's also, most likely, a big reason for the truly excellent cost estimate on that new Karachi project.

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