Billion Dollar Embassy: High-Tech Security Trumps Old School Opulence
Policy + Politics

Billion Dollar Embassy: High-Tech Security Trumps Old School Opulence

State Department plans green, safe building in London

U.S. Department of State

America is famous for exporting its culture. And there was a time when its embassies around the world indulged this phenomenon, serving as beacons of American prosperity and openness to those in other nations. Then came terrorism.

In today’s environment of car bombs and subway blasts, safety trumps cost, design, and sometimes, better judgment. Around the globe, the U.S. has been giving up opulent digs for secure ones. As part of this trend, the U.S. embassy in London is preparing to abandon its outmoded Grosvenor Square building for a newer, safer and greener one.

But change like this doesn’t come cheap. The price tag for the new embassy: $1 billion.

What exactly makes a building cost so much, and perhaps more importantly, who’s footing the bill?

Terrorism and the Environment

Impressive buildings have never come cheap, but in this day and age, two factors loom large that barely existed 20 or 30 years ago: security and sustainability.

“The unique challenge that comes with designing the new embassy is to give form to the core beliefs of our democracy … in a way that is both securing and welcoming. At the same time, the building must confront the environmental challenges all nations face,” says James Timberlake, a partner in the firm that designed the future embassy, Kieran Timberlake.

“Welcoming” is a bit of a stretch, since the building, which will break ground in 2013, will have a controversial moat as an entrance. But the decision to build the “ice cube” and make it safer than its predecessor was not without good reason. First, of course, there were the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, followed by 9/11 three years later. Then, in 2005, bombs ripped through London’s subway system, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. Those acts of terrorism and others that were thwarted gave rise to extraordinary security measures around Grosvenor Square. And residents didn’t like it.

In 2006, State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) conducted an analysis of several plans to renovate the Grosvenor Square building. According to Jonathan Blyth, chief of staff at OBO, the current embassy building in London’s Grosvenor Square requires a renovation that would cost $600 million and take seven years. And even then, he says, it would not meet security standards for the post-9/11 era. So they decided to build.

The State Department eventually settled on a site away from London’s crowded center and its attendant security and functionality challenges, in a semi-industrial area called Nine Elms on the south bank of the Thames. The cost: $370 million, according to Blyth.

OBO also decided to make a substantial initial investment in green design, bringing the upfront costs even higher. Timberlake noted that the architects felt a responsibility to show that the U.S. is a leader in sustainable design.

Security and sustainability come together at a point: The building will have the ability to operate “off grid” for extended periods, according the architects, leaving it invulnerable to power outages or other failures of city services. Other high security technological safeguards are no doubt part of the design, but officials aren’t giving up the specifics. Nevertheless, the green/security package helps bring total construction costs to about $510 million.

Footing the Bill

Taxpayers will be happy to learn that if all goes according to plan, the new embassy will be “self-financed,” and the State Department won’t need funding from Congress. According to Blyth, the government will finance the project through the sale of three major pieces of real estate: the current London embassy in Grosvenor Square, estimated between £300 and £400, and sold in 2009 for an undisclosed sum, the nearby former Navy Annex, sold in 2007 for £250 million, and the Marine Security Guard Quarters, which will go on the market closer to the completion of the new embassy.

The State Department has a good chance of adhering to its budget plan for the new embassy. After the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings, OBO initiated a $21 billion program to retrofit or replace 201 embassies considered insecure or otherwise insufficient. A 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office showed that of the first 18 to be constructed, 14 came in under initial budget estimates.