Excellence approach design for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi
Courtesy Weiss/Manfredi Excellence approach design for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi

On March 16, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on the status of U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Building Operations’ (OBO) Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities (Excellence) approach to embassy design, which was introduced in 2011 to build upon the well-received model of the U.S. General Services Administration's Design Excellence Program. Senator and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ron Johnson (R-WI) along with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked the GAO to assess the reasons for the shift from the Standard Embassy Design (SED) program of previous years, compare the new Excellence approach with the SED program, and determine “the extent to which State has established guidance and tools to implement and evaluate its Excellence approach,” according to the report. Since the transition from the Bush-era SED program, the Obama-era Excellence program has been subject to much political back and forth, most notably following the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Here are some of the GAO's key findings:

Reasons Behind the Change in Design Approach
After the State Department renewed its embassy construction program in 1999, following multiple terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies the previous year, the OBO introduced the templatized SED program in an effort to quickly provide safe workplaces for diplomatic personnel. Though the SED approach effectively reduced embassy construction from six years (prior to 1999) to approximately three years, according to the report, the OBO subsequently determined new requirements for U.S. embassies to fulfill and started transitioning to the Excellence approach in 2008.

The SED template, critics argued, allowed for limited capacity to reflect the specifics of site, climate, geography, and culture, sending an unwelcoming message to other countries. In 2010, then-Senator John Kerry, advocating for a more nuanced approach to embassy design, wrote in a CNN op-ed "Too often, [diplomatic facilities]—cold concrete at a forbidding distance, hidden away from city life, with little regard for the local surroundings—undermine our diplomats' message and even their mission."

The GAO report defined the State Department's criteria for embassies designed as part of the Excellence program (renamed in 2013 from the Design Excellence program) as follows: “[They should] best represent the U.S. government overseas; [be] functional and secure; incorporate sustainable design and energy efficiency; [be] cost-effective to operate and maintain; have greater proximity to host-government counterparts and users via more centrally-located urban sites; and better respond to the unique needs and context of specific posts.” The Excellence approach, as evidenced by the program's name, emphasized a renewed effort to select reputable firms that would design safe and secure facilities that were also sophisticated and sustainable.

A rendering of the U.S. embassy in London, designed by KieranTimberlake
U.S. Department of State A rendering of the SED program designed U.S. embassy in London, by firm KieranTimberlake.

Trade-offs Between SED and Excellence
By transitioning from the SED program to the Excellence approach, the OBO had greater control over the embassy designs, but at the expense of greater upfront costs and longer construction periods, by up to 24 months according to the report. Of the 24 embassy projects completed between 2011 and 2015, the GAO found the 16 Excellence projects accounted for 72 percent—or $286.7 million—of the $400.4 million spent in project funding over that period—a finding that is unsurprising since Excellence projects comprise the majority of completed facilities in this time. It is also interesting to note that the most expensive facility—in London, costing $61.5 million—is not an Excellence project.

In seeking to work with different design firms and “promote the innovation of American architecture, engineering, and design disciplines,” the OBO has encountered logistical delays and gaps in knowledge, the report finds. Currently, according to the report, four of five firms with indefinite delivery or indefinite quantity contracts with the OBO are new to embassy design; as a result, they are often not well versed in the specific security requirements of the diplomatic facilities, which can delay the proposal and approval process. Some firms also lack sufficiently secure workspaces for project design or have staffs that lack the required security clearance.

As of September 2014, the OBO enacted a new protocol requiring OBO senior management and industry peers to conduct design reviews to ensure embassy projects are well conceived and realizable in a timely and cost-efficient way. The GAO spoke with various design firms that have worked with the OBO, and they were split on their views of the value of these reviews; two firms said this process can take up time and money while another firm said it provides greater insight into project needs and potential pitfalls.

The OBO’s staff has mixed opinions on the success of the SED and Excellence approaches. In general, the majority of employees surveyed by GAO for this report believe that SED and Excellence are equally efficient. Of 421 respondents, 80 or more people attributed extended timelines, higher costs, management issues, inadequate coordination, processes complicated by complex projects, or inconsistent application of policies to the Excellence approach.

Excellence approach rendering for the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi
Courtesy Weiss/Manfredi Excellence approach rendering for the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi

Status of OBO Guidance and Tools
According to GAO findings, in general, the OBO lacks clearly defined measures “specific to Excellence goals at either the strategic or project level.” Despite publishing its Design Standards memo in 2013, the OBO did not publish its Guide to Excellence until 2016 and did not being formally evaluating design firms’ performance until August 2016.

The report finds that, to date, the OBO strategic plan does not define methods for evaluating the overall performance of the Excellence approach, lacking performance indicators—such as security, sustainability, or functionality—for Excellence facilities as compared to SED facilities.

The OBO also lacks performance measures and clear data aggregation methods to track the long-term costs and performance of facilities built with the Excellence approach the GAO claims. However, its July 2016 life-cycle cost assessment outlined goals for better facility assessment with special attention to costs of acquisition, design, construction, and operations and maintenance. As of October 2016, the OBO established an initiative to centralize and standardize data collection across operations.

The GAO concludes the report advising that the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, first assess if the OBO’s annual goal of moving 1,500 personnel to more secure and sustainable facilities is still appropriate or in need of revision. Additionally, the GAO recommends that the secretary should establish performance measures for new Excellence approach goals; determine mechanisms to track and evaluate facilities operations and maintenance performance; and establish a clear centralized data collection system.

In response to these recommendations, State has agreed to evaluate its goal of moving 1,500 personnel each year, develop new Excellence approach metrics, standardize methods to track and evaluate building performance, and finalize the process for centralized data management.