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Federal Advocacy

State Department to Adopt AIA Recommendations for Design Excellence in Embassies

Modeled after the GSA’s program, Design Excellence will begin a new era in embassy design

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor


At a meeting last week of State Department officials in charge of embassy construction and an advisory panel of building industry professionals, the Department of State pledged to revise their embassy design procedures in accordance with an AIA report that recommends creating a Design Excellence program similar to the General Services Administration’s (GSA) program for federal buildings.

The AIA report (“Design for Diplomacy: Embassy Design for the 21st Century”) and the AIA’s advocacy efforts on embassy design are also reflected in legislation that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts introduced last week, which similarly calls for a GSA-style Design Excellence program to be instituted at the State Department.

Since 1999, embassy design had been completed under the Standard Embassy Design (SED) program, which has been criticized by some as creating unapproachable, anti-urban, and unappealing embassies. Adam Namm, acting director of the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO), said that in the future, the State Department must ensure that building functionality, sustainability, and of course security is balanced with quality design. “We want to do better,” he said.

Both Design Excellence programs will be grounded in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a historic document that calls for an original, unique architecture that provides “visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.” Since 1994, the GSA’s program has improved the quality of federally funded buildings by elevating and highlighting the position of the lead architect and having private-sector design peers lend their expertise to the design selection and development process. The State Department has taken these precedents and assembled a set of “guiding principles,” which deal with building site, sustainability, design, construction, operations and maintenance, etc. As the project winds its way through steering committees and working groups, the State Department hopes to have a finished Design Excellence program by early 2011. These working groups will be composed of State Department staff, though they will be meeting with different external groups that have an interest in design excellence.

The SED program began as a response to the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and was meant to raise the level of security at diplomatic facilities. The program succeeded at this goal, and at allowing the OBO to build prolifically. It completed 71 new diplomatic facilities from 1999 till today. However, the products of the SED program were often isolated, fortress-like compounds on exurban sites designed with static templates that didn’t reflect the context of their environment. “Design Excellence has been a lower priority,” Namm said. While reviewing the history of State Department embassy building, Namm called the SED-era Republic of Congo embassy in Brazzaville a “well-built, functional building that does look a little like a minimum security prison.”

Few would argue that more sustainable, high-performance buildings wouldn’t help the State Department’s portfolio of facilities better perform their function, but Namm made it clear—appearances matter, too. “It’s not just about saving money on an electric bill,” he said. How buildings look and function “is about public diplomacy.”

“The quality of the buildings themselves is a part of the mission [of the State Department],” said John Ruble, FAIA, the AIA’s representative on the State Department’s Industry Advisory Panel. Ruble, who also took part in the task force that released the AIA’s report on embassy design last July, was on hand to speak about the AIA’s recommendations, and to make the case that the appearance of a United States embassy is the physical embodiment of the country for many millions of foreigners around the world. His own firm, Moore Ruble Yudell, designed the new U.S. embassy in Berlin.

State Department officials made it clear that the SED program won’t be scrapped entirely. Its best features (such as its expediency and modest costs) would be retained, along with a new emphasis on Design Excellence and a new design process. Determining the process that creates well-designed embassies (like the suggestion to adopt the GSA’s peer review procedures), will be key to the program’s success, Ruble said. “Design Excellence is a process, not a fixed set of criteria.”

Lydia Muniz, deputy director of the OBO, praised the AIA for being “one of the organizations that has invested a lot of energy in articulating goals and a direction” for the program.

“We welcome OBO’s dedication to making American embassies secure and sustainable,” said AIA President George Miller, FAIA. “Coming as this initiative does during National Architecture Week, our profession looks forward to assisting OBO in any way possible to help make its design excellence program a success.”

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Balancing Design Excellence and Building Security at US Embassies


Read the AIA’s report, “Design for Diplomacy: Embassy Design for the 21st Century.”

Visit the AIA’s Embassy Design Advocacy Web site.

See what the Committee on Design Knowledge Community is up to.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the multimedia presentation, “21st Century Public Architecture: Design Excellence.”

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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