Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 3, 2014.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has a colossal mission. Nearly every official building that the United States owns and leases under Chief of Mission authority falls under OBO’s domain—from embassies, consulates, and residences to office complexes, housing units, Marine quarters, and support facilities such as warehouses, maintenance buildings, airfields, and emergency medical units. The portfolio includes 275 missions in 190 countries, amounting to more than 34 million square feet of owned property and 35 million square feet of leased properties.

OBO handles all aspects of a building, including design, construction, acquisition, sale, and maintenance, with an annual construction budget of $2.2 billion. “In all cases, OBO’s mission is the same—providing safe, secure, and functional facilities that support the needs of our personnel serving abroad and the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. government,” said OBO Director Lydia Muniz during a congressional hearing last July.

Andrew Scott, OBO project architect, and Robert Diggs, fire protection engineer, have a combined 36 years at OBO, and are part of the bureau’s mission to ensure that the nation’s foreign embassies are built to the highest possible standards of safety, security, and functionality. Scott and Diggs spoke with NFPA Journal about their work and the challenges of maintaining the highest of standards while building in the most diverse—and sometimes dangerous—environments imaginable.

How do the bureau’s parts work together and what are your individual roles?
Scott: We have every discipline represented in the organization: mechanical, electrical, structural, life safety, fire, architecture, art, and interior design. We also have real estate professionals, project coordinators, construction managers, cost estimators, facility managers, and security managers—everything it takes to develop and maintain properties all over the world. During the planning and project development process, fire specialists and design managers, among others, are key positions on the teams. My role as an architect and project design manager entails both looking after architectural issues and making sure that all of the different disciplines come together in the vision of the building.

Diggs: As a fire protection engineer, I coordinate security requirements, life safety requirements, and fire protection engineering requirements—the key issue being making sure we have a structure that's safe and fairly code-compliant.

 

Fairly compliant?
Diggs: I use the term “fairly” because we often have to make equivalent decisions or modifications to the building to make sure that we can incorporate all the things we need from a safety standpoint. An example would be in type-1 standpipe requirements. We only require 65 psi, even though NFPA 14, Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems, might say 100 psi. The reason is because the local fire department can't handle 100 psi, so there's no reason to impose a requirement that can’t be met. That said, we're strict about maintaining compliance with the code, because we are also the authority having jurisdiction. So as the owner, we look at it one way, and as the authority having jurisdiction we sort of self-police, which puts an onus on us.

You are the authority having jurisdiction even though you're in a foreign country? How does that work?
Diggs: The premises of diplomatic missions are inviolable under international law, so generally we can follow our own standards. At the same time, there is an obligation to respect the law of the receiving state, and practical reasons to try to maintain good relations with local authorities, so we seek to resolve any issues of conflicting or more stringent local standards amicably with receiving state officials on a case-by-case basis.

 

What sort of code adjustments do you sometimes have to make?
Diggs: In NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, there's something called a limited access facility—a building that has limited access from a fire and rescue standpoint. Our buildings fall into that category. Although they are not technically windowless, they are functionally windowless, because you cannot get in the building through the window quickly. Because of that, a number of requirements kick in from the building code. What we do is evaluate the risk, we look at the use of the building, and we basically treat it like a special structure. We don’t impose all of the requirements of a limited access or underground or windowless facility. Instead, we use some of the requirements that are found in high-rise and other buildings, and build a performance-based type of building. That's sort of the macro approach we take to our design.

 

The sheer number of buildings and diversity of environments and conditions must present many challenges for an architect.
Scott: We’re building in very different contexts, from very hot desert environments with very little access to any kind of infrastructure, to very well-developed urban environments like London, Paris, or Jakarta.

Our work includes building away from the center of the city on larger open sites and building in densely settled urban areas, both of which create some interesting challenges. For example, in Jakarta we are in the middle of constructing a 10-story high-rise. On top of defining the building as windowless and finding remedies to that, we also have security issues to consider. There are certain parts of the building where we need to have restricted access, but at the same time that creates a barrier. In our buildings you need two means of egress, and often that becomes challenging to maintain. So sometimes we come up with some hybrid solutions where we’re able to have egress doors that are on special kinds of egress hardware.

What kinds of assessments must you make prior to building design?
Scott: Before we get going on the project we do an initial planning survey that is really extensive. What is the political climate in this environment? What is the likelihood that we're going to have problems because there's upheaval or demonstrations? It also gets into the cost of materials and the cost of labor. It gets into all the environmental conditions and whether it's likely to be a high seismic zone or a flood zone. It asks what kind of fire protection is provided in the city: Is there a fire department? What kinds of reservoirs are available? It's really in-depth so that, when we begin the design process, we have a pretty good feeling for the limitations that we need to be careful of.

There’s much turmoil in the world right now, from Ukraine to Gaza to Syria. There were the tragic events in Libya in 2012, when militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and killed the U.S. ambassador and a U.S. Foreign Service official. How do these real-world events impact the OBO and what you do?
Scott: The Department revisits our standards frequently and is always prepared to reconsider what's working and what's not working.We frequently ask, ‘What could we do better?’ Sometimes it's a project that’s underway and it's hard to shift gears. Other times it's a project that’s just in design and we can easily shift gears.

It’s obvious you need to maintain some flexibility during the design process, but are there standard elements that are required to go into every building?
Diggs: There are specific standardized elements within our buildings from a fire protection standpoint, one of which is the fire pump. We typically design our fire pumps to 1,000 gallons per minute and 150 psi. That is standardized as a minimum.

Our buildings also must be fairly self-sufficient. We aren't on an island, but we provide our own fire pump, we have our own generator, we have all types of mechanisms to make sure that the embassy can continue to function, even in the most critical circumstances. A prime example was in Port Au Prince, Haiti, where we had just finished a facility that was designed to very stringent seismic standards, and that facility was able to withstand an enormous earthquake with minimal damage. It became the hub of activity for the reconstruction of that country. And all of this ties back to the code.

Did you have a recent project that was particularly challenging?
Diggs: We had an existing five-story chancery in Suriname that lacked a sprinkler system because it was built quite some time ago. To avoid the unnecessary cost of housing a separate water tank on the property, we built a four-foot deep pool on the compound, surrounded it with some patio furniture so they now had a water feature, and then we connected it to a vertical turbine-type fire pump through a canal and a well-type system, which is fully compliant with NFPA 20, Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection. It takes a little bit of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, but it's sort of a win-win for everybody, both architecturally and from an engineering standpoint.

 Jesse Roman is the staff writer of NFPA Journal