Visibility has always played a role in locating and designing U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions throughout the world. But openness and accessibility, two traits of a democratic system that the U.S. government tries to convey through its missions, are becoming increasingly difficult to design for and build as government buildings become targets for terrorists. In Croatia, the State Dept. is solving the problem by relocating its aged, cramped and outdated mission from the center of Zagreb to the capital's outskirts.

The coming move has not pleased many of the embassy's staff and workers who are loath to abandon a convenient location, but the new structure promises a level of security that cannot now be delivered. The four-story, 8,000-sq-m concrete and steel structure is nearing completion on a 6-acre plot carved from a cornfield near Zagreb's airport.

PROTECTED New embassy is contained in walled compound.
(Photo by John J. Kosowatz for ENR)

Being built under an initial $39-million design-build contract with J.A. Jones Inc., the Zagreb embassy has been high on the State Dept.'s priority list because of the present embassy's vulnerability and the tinderbox politics of the Balkans. While Croatia has good relations with the U.S., potential trouble spots in nearby Kosovo, Serbia and Albania make the U.S. mission more strategically critical. Staffing has increased since Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia and the former Zagreb consulate became a full-fledged embassy.

Charlotte-based Jones and its Croatian partner, Zagreb-based Tehnika, are moving toward completion in January, about two months ahead of scheduled completion, says Jones project manager Ty Cobb Jr. But change orders mostly tied to security have increased total costs to just over $46 million. "Security standards for embassies are an evolving definition," says State Dept. project executive William L. Pounds.

Still smarting over the scandal that compromised the Moscow embassy in the 1980s, State Dept. construction managers reviewed Jones' work plan and determined that specially cleared U.S. contractors and workers must do more work than proposed. "That added about $3.5 million to costs," says Pounds.

Another $1.7-million spike came during value engineering when government engineers opted to clad the building in stone, rather than its proposed stucco finish. Stucco does not wear well, especially in a seismic zone, and any patching would require a security-cleared U.S. team of workers, says Pounds. The expected patch and repair costs over the building's life exceeded cost of the stone, he says. "At home, this [project] would be like riding a plow horse," says Pounds. "Here, it's more like a bucking horse."

Many building security upgrades are obvious. Besides ownership of the site–the present complex is leased and services and offices are spread throughout two separate structures–the new building sits within a compound protected by 9-ft-high, 1.5-ft-thick reinforced concrete walls designed to resist ramming by vehicles. The complex is hooked into local water and power systems. Below-ground water tanks will provide emergency water and fire-fighting capability. A backup generator can provide limited emergency power.

Visitors will be directed to a receiving area separated from the main building. Those seeking visas and other consular services will move through a covered walkway to a room fitted with a series of blast-resistant service windows. Access behind the windows is restricted–there are no doors to permit entry. Within the structure, walls are designed for different strengths, depending on location and sensitivity. "It depends on what's behind them," says Pounds. They can be bolstered with sheet steel, in the most extreme use, to mesh for less sensitive areas.

Access to the building site is strictly controlled. Workers must sign in and pass a retinal check to confirm their identity before their shift begins and when leaving. While some $15 million has been spent on local materials and labor, State requires U.S.- produced systems and materials for much of the structure. All of it is shipped from U.S. ports in sealed containers, which are opened on the building site in the presence of cleared U.S. workers and State Dept. security personnel. "The bulk of it is sheetrock, but the shipments can be anything," says Pounds. Those materials can only be handled by cleared U.S. workers.

MAKING SURE Workers must pass retinal screening for access. (Photo by John J. Kosowatz for ENR)

While the building is largely concrete, a steel penthouse holds mechanical and HVAC equipment. Air intakes were relocated to the penthouse for security as part of the value-engineering practice. Project officials were sweating a "super change order" that would have added additional chilling and generating capacity. Fabrication and delivery of the equipment would add some six to eight months to the schedule, says Pounds. But State, feeling the effect of tight funding, now has backed off. "Power generation and the chillers can be done as a retrofit," says Pounds.

The complex is now about 78% complete, says Pounds, and he is confident Jones will beat the completion date, perhaps by two months. Roads and water and electrical infrastructure hookups to the complex are now in place. Work has gone fairly smoothly, with Tehnika essentially acting as the job's general contractor. The firm brought on 28 subcontractors for the project.

Installation of the stone cladding fell behind when the Croatian subcontractor defaulted because of cash-flow problems associated with other jobs. Because some contractors have difficulty in establishing credit–a problem not uncommon in eastern European countries transitioning to a market economy–Jones purchased the stone for the firm that took over the job.

Still, U.S. construction officials laud their Croatian counterparts for skill and ability. "One of the best kept secrets in this part of the world is the Croatian construction industry," says Pounds. "I'm impressed with the quality of product that the local manufacturers are producing."

There were some start-up problems tied to securing local permits and constructing the building to meet U.S. codes. Cobb points out that rigid electrical conduit "does not exist" in-country and local contractors have no expertise in its installation. That forced Jones to perform electrical work itself.

Despite some initial snags in early permit procurement and foot-dragging by former embassy officials, the Zagreb embassy looks like a State Dept. success story. "The building itself will be a huge improvement for operations," says Ambassador Lawrence Rossin. "It will be a great place to work. Right now, it's not. And when you put $46 million into a new building you are making a commitment to the country itself."

But the agency faces more difficult challenges in future work, especially in Germany where security standards for setbacks were altered to fit with local requirements in Berlin. The new U.S. embassy there will be built on its historic location near the Brandenburg Gate in what was East Berlin. Building a secure signature building in the capital of post-Cold War Germany will be one the State Dept.'s biggest building challenges.