British Embassy, Yemen: The fortress
Design Engine Architects was founded in 2000 and has offices in the UK and Poland. Its headquarters for Gifford Engineers is considered one of the UK’s most energy-efficient office buildings. The practice recently won an international competition for a new theatre in Gdansk and has been selected as one of only 20 practices for a new framework by English Partnerships.
One of the first things I noticed as I entered the office on taking up my job as British ambassador to Yemen in July 2004 was a rather grim set of photographs showing the embassy buildings with all the windows blown in and the interior covered in smashed furniture and broken glass - the result of a satchel-bomb casually thrown over the compound wall in October 2000.
Fortunately, no one was hurt in that attack. However, it was a clear indication that the two ramshackle 1970s villas in the busy heart of Hadda - once an outlying suburb of the capital of Sana’a, now a crowded commercial district - that we had occupied for nearly 10 years were no longer tenable as a secure base from which to work. Before my arrival, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had been obliged to reduce staff numbers to a minimum and we were prevented from using much of the site. This drastically affected our ability to operate. The lack of secure facilities in which to interview visa applicants, for example, constrained our ability to offer a full visa-issuing service.
I needed little reminding that the threat to Britain’s diplomatic missions around the world from international terrorism had never been higher. Just eight months earlier, when I was based in Cairo, I had watched in horror as news unfolded of the devastating suicide attacks against the British consulate-general and the headquarters of HSBC in Istanbul. These attacks injured hundreds of people and killed 33, including the consul-general, my good friend Roger Short, and many of his staff.
Istanbul, 9/11 and other terrorist incidents gave real urgency to the FCO’s review of the security of all Britain’s diplomatic missions around the world. We need to be able to deliver high-quality services to the public, and to implement the UK’s international priorities, while fulfilling our duty of care to our staff and protecting our buildings and assets.
The FCO had already purchased a large site to the north-east of Sana’a, in an area which was beginning to attract development in the form of other embassies, government buildings and, most notably, the new Mpick Hotel. The site, near the imposing bulk of Jebel Nuqum, one of the many mountains surrounding the city, would provide the space needed for effective security (known as ‘stand-off’ in military jargon) but would be within reach of the main parts of Sana’a. Following the appointment of Design Engine as project architect, Gleeds Gulf as project manager and GIBS as main contractor, work began in March 2005 under the watchful eye of an experienced resident clerk of works and visiting experts, all from the FCO. Over the next 21 months embassy staff watched with interest, curiosity and mounting anticipation as a modern office building took shape in a barren and stark landscape.
The Republic of Yemen, which lies at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east, is not well-known in the West. It tends to hit the headlines for the wrong reasons - like the satchel-bomb attack in 2000 or when unlucky tourists are kidnapped by tribesmen with a grievance. One of the poorest countries in the Middle East, with a GDP per capita of less than $600 (300), Yemen faces a number of serious developmental and economic challenges over the next few years as the population expands, the country’s limited oil reserves dwindle, and it attempts to reform its governance and its political and economic systems.
This complex political and development agenda means that the UK is now far more involved with the government of Yemen in terms of aid, political engagement and security cooperation than we were three years ago. One of the immediate issues we faced as the new embassy took shape was that our staffing numbers were increasing as the UK’s engagement with Yemen deepened. Furthermore, embassy administration and support-staff numbers needed reinforcing following past evacuations of staff. In discussions with the FCO and Design Engine it became evident that we would have to change various aspects of the internal layout of the building, such as sacrificing meeting rooms and storage, to provide more office space.
The building process itself was a challenging one for those directly involved, and not just because of the inherent difficulties in any construction process. Few governments represented in Yemen had attempted to build a new embassy from scratch, and some of the work of engaging with the Yemeni government fell to embassy staff - for example, getting the right clearances from the Yemeni customs authority on time, ensuring that the contractor’s expatriate staff had the correct work permits, and dealing with the issues of water and electricity supply to the site.
The new embassy was designed and built to the highest British security standards demanded by the FCO. It had to be capable not only of providing a modern environment for staff to work in, but also protecting us from the sort of attack that claimed so many lives in Istanbul. Very few buildings in Yemen come close to this standard of construction, and the contractor and architect faced many practical challenges in realising the project.
Although enhanced security was foremost in my mind as the project progressed, it soon became apparent that Design Engine had also taken the second part of the FCO’s competition brief very much to heart - to demonstrate the very best of British architectural and engineering design. An embassy is not simply a set of offices - it makes a statement about the country it represents. The clean lines and vibrant colours of the new British Embassy in Sana’a give an unmistakable impression of the UK as a modern country at the cutting edge of professional excellence.
Yemen may have its problems but, as one of the most recent countries to open itself up to the modern world, its enormously rich architectural history is a source of pride to Yemenis and of wonder to visitors. Unesco has named three locations in Yemen as world heritage sites: the old city of Sana’a, with its stunning traditional buildings, some of which date back to the 6th century; the ancient walled city of Shibam, to the east in Wadi Hadramaut, with its 300-year-old mud-brick ‘skyscrapers’ that rise 30m out of the desert; and the ancient city of Zabid in the south. The surviving Victorian architecture of Aden is unique in Arabia, and is a visible legacy of 128 years of British presence in the south of the country. Sadly, many of these historic colonial buildings are now in a state of dilapidation, and in need of greater international attention.
In a country with such a rich architectural history on display, the question of how a British architect would approach the embassy commission was of no small interest locally. Many visitors have been surprised and pleased, as I was, by the inclusion of, or reference to, traditional Yemeni design elements, such as the mudbrick walls in the private gardens to the rear of the building, and the modern interpretation of Yemeni ‘qamariyyah’ windows that allow coloured light to enter the building from the east.
The embassy was opened formally on 10 January 2007 by Kim Howells, the FCO’s minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa, who had come to Yemen a year earlier to perform the topping-out ceremony when the main structure was complete. As Howells noted, the new building is a statement of the UK’s commitment to its bilateral relationship with Yemen and a wish to see that relationship develop further. But it also embodies the key UK values that we want to project overseas: diversity, sustainability and respect for the environment, which are reected through disabled access, reuse of plants from the old site for landscaping and the recycling of grey water for the gardens.
Reactions of embassy staff to the new building have been overwhelmingly positive. Simply being able to have all staff together in one building has increased our efficiency and enabled us to be more joined up and effective as an organisation.
I have sometimes wondered over the past two years how easy the FCO is as a client. We offer prestige and profile, of course, but our demands are often, if not contradictory, then perhaps mutually exclusive. We want top-level security, but we do not want our embassy buildings to look like fortresses. We demand openness to the public but want to be able to restrict access when necessary. We often have to satisfy the needs of the many different government departments that work with us overseas. And we want our buildings to reect the best of Britain while being sympathetic to the local environment of the host country and the needs and expectations of their government.
I believe that the new British Embassy in Sana’a successfully meets all these separate objectives. We now have an innovative and aesthetically pleasing building that incorporates modern British design excellence and traditional Yemeni elements and offers improved security, drawing on a wealth of experience in quality and innovation in Foreign and Commonwealth Office buildings around the world. In short, a building of which we can be immensely proud.
STRUCTURE The structural form - a reinforced concrete box - was dictated by the brief ‘s security requirements. However, the stand-off distance allowed by the site meant that the facades could be significantly punctured by windows.
These windows, along with engineered features such as the weathering-steel brise soleil and the canopies, meant that any bunker ‘feel’ was avoided. The structure has seismic design criteria to contend with but the cellular nature of the external and internal walls readily deals with the forces. Dense gravels underlie the site, so a shallow raft carries the loads to the substrata. In line with the prevailing philosophy for British government buildings, including those outside the UK, sustainability was a key part of the brief. Early concepts incorporated several energy- and watersaving features, and most of these were retained in the final building. Although rain is infrequent, at some times of the year it can fall in heavy bursts, and this is collected and stored at the bottom of the site for later use in irrigation and feeding wash-down hoses. Sewage treatment also includes a clean water take-off stage which uses clean but non-potable water for irrigation. The relatively large swing in temperature between day and night is used to store heat and cooling in an underground concrete labyrinth. This stores heat during the daytime in winter and releases it as useful heat energy in the chilly evenings and early mornings. In summer, it is cooled at night to provide precooling for fresh air during the day.
The one abundant resource on this site - at nearly 3,000m above sea level - is sunshine, which is used to heat water for washing. This building sits comfortably in its environment, making the best use of the climate to reduce its demand for water and energy from the scarce and somewhat unreliable local supplies.
Des Mairs and Andy Peters, whitbybird Credits Tender date October 2004 Start on site date March 2005 Contract duration 21 months Gross external floor area 1,500m 2Form of contract GC Works 1 with Quantities Total cost 5.5 million Client Foreign and Commonwealth Office Architect/interior design Design Engine Architects Structural engineer/building services engineer whitbybird Landscape Coe Design Quantity surveyor Cyril Sweett/D G Jones & Partners, Dubai Planning supervisor PCM Safety Fire-safety consultant SAFE Bomb-blast consultant D J Goode & Associates Project manager Gleeds BBL/Gleeds Gulf Main contractor GIBS M&E subcontractor Summit Engineering Services Window supplier Frontline GB Steel fabricator Standard Fabricators LLC, Dubai Furniture supplier Roundhere