Saturday, October 31, 2015

Embassy Bishkek Leaves the Silver Diner

Photo from U.S. Embassy Bishkek's Facebook page

SecState Kerry went to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, today to cut the ribbon on another new U.S. Embassy that was completed by my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. He made some appropriate remarks at the dedication ceremony.

First, Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney recalled the old embassy building - the one that's being replaced today - which was brand new the first time she was posted to Bishkek.

The American Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic has come a very long way. Our initial embassy was a kindergarten here in Bishkek, and we very quickly outgrew it. When I served in the Kyrgyz Republic for the first time in 1999, I felt fortunate to work in our current embassy building which was new at that time. It was great. Everyone had decent office space, new computers and printers, and for the first time in my Foreign Service career all of the furniture in our offices matched. (Laughter.) I think others had the same experience.

That second embassy was modular, meaning that it was built in the United States, shipped to Bishkek, and assembled here. However, as our partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic deepened and our cooperation expanded, we quickly outgrew that office space and needed a new chancery that would represent the strength and the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Government and the people of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Now we have a chancery that is built on this site and is anchored in Kyrgyz soil. This building represents an investment in the future of our bilateral relationship. We are very proud of this new chancery. I am delighted that my colleagues will work in an embassy where they will be safe, secure, and have a comfortable environment that will facilitate their creativity and efficiency.

Then, SecState Kerry enthused about our new new embassy in Bishkek - "It’s a superb building. It is brilliantly designed. It’s bright; it’s open; it’s energy-efficient" - but he did find fault with its lack of trees and saw room for aesthetic growth. (Does he mean shrubbery?)
We – I want to congratulate all those who have been involved in helping to bring the construction of this building to a successful conclusion, and I hope you’ll all agree that the effort has been worthwhile. I don’t know if our security people will allow it, I don’t know what the rules are, but I was sitting here thinking I want to see some trees along these walls here, and maybe we can do some things that aesthetically grow it as we go forward.

When Ambassador Gwaltney got the microphone back she recognized OBO's representative at the dedication.
Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. We are also honored to have with us today Ambassador Will Moser, who is the principal deputy director of the Office of Overseas Building Operations at the Department of State, the office that had responsibility for building this beautiful chancery. Ambassador Moser, would you join us? Mr. Secretary, Mr. Minister, shall we go and cut the ribbon.

As an aside, Will Moser is someone OBO-watchers should keep an eye on. Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova before being assigned to OBO as PDAS, he is an experienced career Foreign Service Office with a strong background in embassy management, logistics, and global support. In other words, he is just the sort to provide OBO with the adult supervision that its current Director and her Deputy Director cannot. He also handles hostile questioning from Congress a lot better than they do, judging from what I saw at the recent House Oversight hearing on Mexican border violence.

Lastly, allow me to say a word about the old embassy building in Bishkek and why it was known as The Silver Diner.

As Ambassador Gwaltney noted, the building was of modular construction, meaning it was built in sections at a factory in the U.S., with the sections shipped to Bishkek and assembled on the embassy site. The result was not something an architect would love, but it was a functional and secure office building. Ambassador Gwaltney seems to have fond memories of working there.

Above all, that modular building was fast and cheap. Our initial embassy in Bishkek was in a former kindergarten which we replaced with the modular building in 1998. The cycle of planning, contracting, designing and constructing that replacement was probably not more than two years. The cost was $15 million. That's not a typo. The new embassy office building actually cost $15 million, an amount of money that would not pay for the windows or the doors in any current Fortress Embassy. OBO's contractor, Kullman Industries, won an industry Design-Build Award in 1999 in the category of Public Sector Projects under $15 million. I will never again be able to type "$15 million" in a post about new U.S. Embassy construction costs.

Old Embassy Bishkek, photo from

A Silver Diner - see the shared architectural DNA? 

That's it, above left. On the right is a typical Silver Diner restaurant. The similarity is no accident.

The embassy construction constructor was Kullman Building Corporation, which began in 1927 as Kullman Dining Car Company, a builder of railroad dining cars. By the 1940s, railroad cars had morphed into roadside restaurants, of which Kullman was a prime builder. Eventually, Kullman used the techniques of railroad dining car construction to manufacture buildings of all types, as explained in New York Architecture's salute to the diner:
Strip a diner of its stainless steel, its restaurant equipment, furnishings and ornamentation, and what remains is a highly durable steel and concrete building module, that interconnects with other such modules to form a variety of building types. Kullman, with Robert's urging, aggressively pursued this new potential in the corrections, educational, institutional, and broader food service markets.

The company coined the term "Accelerated Construction" to describe a building process free from the uncertainties of weather, site conditions, and contractor relations. Accelerated or factory construction utilizes the same building materials and labor found on any project site, but with an extra measure of quality control and predictability.

-- snip --

In 1994, Kullman made history yet again by building a United States embassy building at its plant in Avenel, New Jersey and shipping it to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. This development marked the first construction of an American embassy in America, and its success led to projects for Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Built, shipped, and assembled by American personnel with security clearances, Kullman helped the State Department avoid the security risks that often plague on-site construction by local labor in foreign countries.

Modular construction is a common practice for school systems, chain restaurants, banks, hotels, and so forth. It makes sense because there are only a very few different ways you can lay out, for example, a branch bank. The tellers have to be in a certain configuration and relationship to the bank officers, to the vault, and to the drive-up window. You can design it once and build it many times. It's the same thing with hotels. Frequent travelers must have noticed that all Hyatt Hotels have pretty much the same lobby and atrium.

New U.S. embassy buildings could also be modularized, which would not only reduce their design costs but also greatly shorten their construction times, which is where the big savings would occur compared to conventional construction.

Such a great deal! Why doesn't OBO do more modular construction? In my opinion, it's because architects generally hate modular construction, and OBO is pretty much run in the interests of architects.

Maybe that will change if, someday, an experienced Foreign Service Officer with a strong background in management, logistics, and global support were ever to be put in charge of OBO.


James said...

Design aesthetics aside, I bet the Silver Diner has better food.

TSB said...

Kyrgyz food might be pretty awesome. Lamb kabobs, and such. It could give the Silver Diner a run for its money.

Anonymous said...

TSB, James: Lamb Kabobs sound good to me but here this represents my current opinion about everything else: gwb

Anonymous said...

TSB: Por ehemplo Ben Carson suspends campaign for 2 weeks while leading in the polls to go on a book tour and asks for Secret Service protection because he fears liberal extremists are out to get him! gwb (funny photo)

Anonymous said...

TSB: Radio Free China! Right in your backyard. And they have stolen Hillary's foreign policy agenda.

“We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world,” Xi said in a policy address in November last year, according to Xinhua. If they are able to penetrate Texas James could be accused of storing illegal weapons and ammo and carrying them in his vehicle. gwb