London’s Shiny New U.S. Embassy

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Yesterday, January 16, a new United States Embassy opened in the Nine Elms area of Wandsworth, a borough of central London, England. The flashy, chunky, ice cube of a building is an architectural wonder, and a security-first but environmentally friendly construction. The decision to move the U.S. Embassy to a new London location was made in the waning months of the presidency of George W. Bush in 2008. Construction of the new embassy began in 2013, and tinkering continued right up to the morning it opened.

The new 12-story embassy, designed by Philadelphia-based architectural firm KieranTimberlake, has nearly twice the floor space as the old one. The building is powered by renewable energy and maximizes the use of natural light as well as natural wind currents through cross ventilation. Solar panels line the embassy’s glass roof, absorbing both sunshine and rainwater for irrigation and flushing.

The building’s trademark façade uses laminated glazing with an outer layer of pressurized ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a highly durable plastic. The transparent exterior ensures a uniform distribution of light while screening excessive solar glare and heat. The windows are clearly visible to birds, however, greatly reducing accidental flying collisions. The façade is also self-cleaning and limits downdrafts on the outside, effectively reducing wind in the adjacent plaza and sidewalks.

Like castles of old, the embassy has stone walls and is protected by a moat. Other security measures include bollards (posts to block vehicles) camouflaged by plants, blast-proof walls and ceilings, a 100-foot (30-meter) open perimeter, and a garrison of armed security personnel.

The new U.S. Embassy earned the highest platinum certification by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It was also rated outstanding by the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), the world’s longest established method of assessing, certifying, and rating building sustainability.

The building’s $1-billion dollar price tag was paid for by the sale of the previous embassy—located across the River Thames on Grosvenor Square in the Mayfair district—and other U.S. properties in London. The U.S. Embassy had been on Grosvenor Square (in more than one location) since future president John Adams became the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James in 1785. Interestingly, four other future presidents—James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan—all served as London ministers prior to occupying the White House. In 1893, Delaware Senator Thomas F. Bayard was the first to hold the rank of ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO)—did you know there was one?—directs the foreign building program for the Department of State and the U.S. government community serving abroad. Other recent OBO projects have included new embassies in N’Djamena, Chad; Nouakchott, Mauritania; and Oslo, Norway. New embassies will soon go up in Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Paraguay, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uganda.

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Image: This artist’s rendering of the new U.S. Embassy shows the building under a somewhat-typical rainy London sky. Credit: KieranTimberlake, U.S. Embassy London

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