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Q&A: U.S. State Department Embassy Design Officials

May 13, 2011

By Tom Ichniowski
This article originally appeared in Engineering News-Record

The State Dept.'s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) manages U.S. embassy construction around the world. Last year, OBO launched a Design Excellence initiative, modeled after the General Services Administration's long-established program. Over the past year, State Dept. working groups have studied OBO's programs and policies and came up with more than 60 recommendations for changes in how it does business.

ENR's Washington bureau chief, Tom Ichniowski, spoke with OBO's acting director, Adam Namm, and its deputy director, Lydia Muniz, in late April during a meeting of the bureau's Industry Advisory Panel, and followed up with Muniz on May 4, about whether the death of Osama bin Laden would have any impact on the OBO design excellence program.

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ENR: Has the death of Osama bin Laden caused you to review, reassess, evaluate design excellence vis-a-vis security?

Lydia Muniz
Lydia Muniz

Muniz: No....The beginning of the Capital Security [construction] Program [followed] the bombings of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the Standard Embassy Design came on the heels of 9/11 and a lot of the security standards came on the heels of that as well,

This is more a question that DS--[the State Dept. Bureau of Diplomatic Security] could answer--are they going to change the [security] standards. If they found the need to change the standards, then, just like we do now, we would incorporate those new standards into the [embassy construction] program. But I think that the entire approach to design and design excellence would remain the same.

ENR: The State Dept launched design excellence in April 2010. What is new now? What is the function of this advisory board meeting? And what's next?

Namm
Adam Namm

Namm: This is the fruition of a more-than-one-year effort to think about and formulate a design excellence initiative. So although we talked about design excellen

ce a year or a year and a half ago, this presentation today represented a whole lot of thought and a whole lot of work that went into figuring out what design excellence is for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

ENR: What are some examples of the working group recommendations?

Muniz: Or approach on design-bid-build and design-build. I think that goes really to the heart of our program. And it really sets forth a very clear  position for us moving forward --that we’re going to use both methods, that we’re going to push for design excellence with both, that we need to rely on both because we deal with so many different environments that we really need to be able to call on each methodology whenever we want.

Another very specific recommendation was in operations and maintenance, for example. We had more of a one-size-fits-all [approach] in many of our buildings. What we realized is that we work in so many different climates...that one system does not work in all situations.

We were having issues in some of our systems in areas that were coastal where there's a lot of salt and corrosive elements in the air. We have desert environments, where you really need to deal with constant sandstorms, with what that does to your air systems, to your intakes, to materials used on the exterior.

[So we came up with] very specific recommendations about different systems that should be used, depending on various sites, to making sure that we were very mindful of materials that were used in design so that we were keeping maintainability in mind.

Namm: I'll give you another example...We spec'ed water-cooled chillers in some very dusty and dry places and it was no surprise that those water-chilled coolers didn’t last as long as we would have liked.

Let me go back if I can to design-build vs. design-bid-build.

ENR: What was the old system? What was the old policy?

Namm: We had a default, to design build, which didn’t mean we didn’t do any design-bid=build--we did some...Berlin and Beijing--London was always going to be a design-bid-build.

But we are now not going to have a default and we're going to look at both methods of construction for all projects.

And that  at times will create friction within our system and get people talking and friction can create heat but it can also create light, and by talking about which delivery system makes more sense we feel like we’re going to get the best system to use.

ENR: Is there a first project on which you launch the design-excellence initiative?

Namm: It’s already started, is the answer. We are looking at both delivery methods--of course a lot of design excellence went into London, sustainability, it's going to be a LEED platinum building. So we’re already getting there.

ENR: Have you picked a contractor yet [for London]?

Namm: No. We have an architectural firm, it's design-bid-build, and KieranTimberlake out of Philadelphia, won the design contract [in 2010].

ENR: When do you go to construction?

Muniz: We're starting earlier than we would typically. And we've already gone out to bid for early contractor involvement....

We're going to retain a construction contractor through the design phase of the project, well in advance of when we would typically hire a construction contractor to simply build what had been [designed].

ENR: So this would be the contractor for the project, then?

Muniz: We will pick a firm to deliver services during design and we can stay with that firm in construction or we can move away and pick a new firm.

So in other words if we're not happy with their services in the first instance then we wouldn't be locked in, but if everything is going along well, then we have the option of working with that [contractor].

[Note: OBO says an award is expected by July. Groundbreaking is expected in 2013.]

ENR: So is it fair to say this is the first major project that incorporates some of the [design excellence] thinking?

Muniz: I think that there were always certain projects within the organization where we were applying a lot of the principles that we've...described here as design excellence. I just don't know that it was institution-wide. ...

[OBO is issuing two documents] the Guide to Design Excellence...and then the Standards for Design Excellence, which will replace our Architecture and Engineering Design Guidelines which basically right now include the Standard Embassy Design.

The new document on the one hand and the revision of the old document on the other [are] going to really shift the program.

So I think you see some [design excellence elements] now, but I think we’ll be cutting the ribbon on facilities two, three, four years from now where you’ll really see I think a wave of delivery of facilities where it becomes much more apparent that they were done in the spirit of design excellence....

ENR: What are some other major changes?

Namm:  Maintainability is a big part of design excellence. One of the working groups focused on maintenance, having American facility managers at each post, each new building, making as a requisite that those new facility managers have engineering degrees or facilities management degrees, which wasn't the case in the past....

Also [there is a] maintenance cost sharing initiative, which is in the administration's FY12 budget. We have said all along that we need more money for maintenance.  And we are now putting our money where our mouth is and saying that we will, at least in FY12, build one fewer new building if we can have more money for maintenance.

ENR: Are you going to have money from Congress to build a lot of buildings going forward... What's your outlook for having money [to] carry out this design excellence program.

Namm: I'm hopeful that even in a very austere budget environment we will continue to be funded. I feel that the program that we've ad for the last ten years has delivered. And I think Congress has been very pleased with  the program that we've executed over the last 10 years.

And I think showing the Congress and all of the other stakeholders that we can take a program that’s run well and make it even better will lead to continued robust funding for our program.”

ENR: Isn't design excellence more expensive?

Namm: Not necessarily, no, no.

Muniz: We've highlighted [that] we would be willing to accept...higher cost up front where it lowers cost over the long term. I think what we found going with some of the low bidders on projects is we were getting cheaper systems but they were more expensive to run.

So I think there's a willingness now to make an up-front investment where it's going to pay off in time, in terms of durability of  materials, of systems.

I think it absolutely doesn't have to cost more. I think sustainability again, [is] a very important element of the program.

I'm the daughter of an engineer, so for me, design is not ornament. For me,  design is, how do you solve a problem? And how do you solve it in the best way possible--with an economy of means and as beautifully as possible? And when those things merge together you have great design.

So I don't think it's about using more expensive materials. It's about using things that are durable, that are going to stand the test of time. So I feel strongly that the opposite is true--we'll get a better value.

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