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State Department’s Design Excellence Program Takes its First Steps in China

With a renewed focus on design and community connection, the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations builds a test case

By Sara Fernández Cendón

After a decade focusing mostly on the functional requirements of delivering extra-secure embassies and consulates on time and on budget, the Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) is revisiting the design side of its construction program. Lydia Muniz, principal deputy director at OBO, says that the agency has completed more than 80 safer and more functional diplomatic facilities over the last 10 years, and is now eager to renew its commitment to design by implementing a Design Excellence program for U.S. embassies and consulates.

Building security expert Barbara Nadel, FAIA, says OBO’s Design Excellence program will produce a new generation of secure, sustainable, high-performance buildings that take into account life-cycle costs along with the local context and conditions of each host country. “With this initiative, OBO encourages America’s talented design professionals to balance necessary security requirements with good design, energy savings, and sustainability—while providing best value for American taxpayers,” she says.

Nadel chaired the AIA 21st-Century Embassy Task Force, which produced “Design for Diplomacy: New Embassies for the 21st Century,” a report OBO used to develop its Design Excellence Program, based on the General Service Administration’s well-established Design Excellence initiative.

By re-envisioning the construction program, Muniz says the OBO went through a process that reexamined everything—from building aesthetics, to performance, to where sites were being acquired, to how sensitive these facilities were to their environment and context. But, Muniz says, a program like this can’t turn on a dime. OBO’s Design Excellence initiative was officially launched in April 2011, and a series of documents further spelling out details will be published in the months ahead.

Even before the program was announced, a few isolated projects had shown signs of this new direction. According to Muniz, some of the more recent embassy projects in Berlin and Beijing which were completed prior to the launch of the Design Excellence Program embody some of the principles of the new initiative. Other projects currently underway (such as the U.S. embassy in London designed by KieranTimberlake, and the consulate in Guangzhou, China, by SOM) are moving in this direction even more.

Guangzhou leads the way

Currently under construction, the Guangzhou consulate is located in the central part of the city, the best location for diplomatic business and urban visibility and vitality. The location is consistent with Design Excellence guidelines recommending the use of urban sites to facilitate the functions and representational role of diplomatic facilities. The guidelines also stress the importance of contributing to the urban fabric with buildings that fit gracefully within their contexts. For security reasons, previous diplomatic facilities were often located in far-off, isolated suburban areas that contributed little to the civic life of the cities and nations they served.

Surrounded by taller buildings, the $160 million, 150,000-square-foot consulate is broken up into seven low-rise pavilions, including three perimeter security stations. The main consular building at the center provides work spaces, a café, a library, and multipurpose rooms. About the size of a city block, the consulate site is imagined as a garden within an urban canyon. The pavilions are connected through gardens, and several of them feature green roofs.

Craig Hartman, FAIA, an SOM design partner based in the firm’s San Francisco office, says breaking up consular functions into small individual buildings rather than housing them all within a single tower helped the design achieve the right scale in light of both its physical and cultural context. “The resulting layered sequence of gardens and buildings is very connected with Chinese cultural history, specifically that of China’s southern coastal Lin’an culture in which trees, riparian plant materials, buildings, and public spaces are seamlessly woven together,” he says.

Preserving “civic dignity” through intense security

Design Excellence guidelines stress that diplomatic facilities must meet strict security requirements while remaining welcoming for all those seeking services. This is particularly relevant for consulates, whose primary public function is to seamlessly process hundreds of visa applicants. This, along with the site, was the beginning of the design concept for Hartman.

“The large volume of applicants, coupled with the common concern about missing the prized, highly-sought opportunity for a visa, means that long queues begin forming early in the morning despite the pre-established appointment time,” he says. To avoid large crowds waiting for interminable lengths out on the street, the design established three queuing zones: one prior to security screening, one inside the grounds past the security checkpoint, and one within the consular building itself. “I wanted to provide a sense of civic dignity at each of these three points in the visa process, beginning with the provision of a generous rain and sun protected American front porch [at the main entry point], a perimeter sheltered garden plaza, and, finally, a great hall within the consular building,” Hartman says.

The design facilitates circulation through these points with a tapestry of materials and plants that extend from the street, through the screening area and the garden, and into the great hall—the pavilion where the visa windows are located. The great hall is a double-height space defined by a veil wall made of local sustainably harvested teak that stretches from one wall onto the ceiling and then onto the opposite wall.

The design also balances a sense of openness with the need for security. Because, according to Hartman, the key to making diplomatic facilities secure is to separate them from potential threats, all contemporary U.S. embassies and consulates must be at least 30 meters away from the street, which can weaken the civic connection to their host city. The Guangzhou consulate visually diminishes this required separation by making the setback zone a place for art and rain gardens, all of which will be visible from the street.

In addition to addressing security and functional requirements, the Guangzhou consulate design is a direct response to the region’s hot and humid climate, frequent heavy rains, and annual typhoons. The main consular building is a stone-clad shell fenestrated with horizontal slot windows deeply recessed in response to the high, intense subtropical sun. Deep overhangs on the arching roof also provide shelter from the heat and rain. This kind of responsiveness to context is yet another way in which the project reflects Design Excellence priorities. The gardens, inspired by traditional Chinese designs, will feature native plant species and covered walkways to guard from the elements.

The Guangzhou consulate is also expected to receive LEED Silver certification, another relatively new design feature for OBO projects. Sustainable features include use of local, recycled, and renewable materials, building shape and fenestration techniques, use of daylighting, permeable paving, and constructed wetlands to minimize and capture runoff. The building will also include high-efficiency systems for air conditioning and plumbing, as well as lighting control sensors, personal task lamps, and energy efficient light fixtures. The OBO expects the new consulate to be complete in January 2013.


SOM’s U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China. All images courtesy of SOM.

The consulate, as viewed from the street.

The perimeter sheltered consular entry garden.

The consulate’s great hall.


Recent Related:

From ARCHITECT Magazine: Security by Design—Ten Years After 9/11, How Can Design Improve Security?

Design Excellence Initiative Driving Next Generation of Embassies

State Department to Adopt AIA Recommendations for Design Excellence in Embassies

Balancing Design Excellence and Building Security at New U.S. Embassies

AIA Calls on State Department to Integrate Security and Design Excellence


Visit the Public Architects Committee Knowledge Community Website on AIA KnowledgeNet.

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The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Creating Safe and Secure Civic Buildings: The Post–September 11 Challenge,” by Barbara Nadel, FAIA.

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