March 19, 2014 in City

Integrus Architecture of Spokane designs state-of-the-art U.S. embassies worldwide

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Integrus Architecture’s Gerald Winkler, the principal in charge of embassy work, stands next to a print of the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – a building designed by his firm. Integrus has begun work on its 14th U.S. Embassy, this time in Mauritania.
(Full-size photo)

Most people in Spokane couldn’t point to Mauritania on a map.

One business in town, however, has become intimately familiar with the West African nation of 3.4 million people.

Spokane’s Integrus Architecture is designing the new American embassy in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. A team of 15 Integrus structural engineers, designers and architects will plan the $130 million diplomatic mission to include a chancery office building, U.S. Marines residence, warehouse, maintenance facilities, perimeter security, access pavilions, recreation facilities and a utility building.

This will be Integrus’ 14th U.S. embassy project, another pushpin on the company’s wall map of the world.

It will be its sixth African embassy, joining others in Mali, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Algeria and Guinea.

Originally launched in 1953 under the name Walker & McGough, the firm’s partners spotted an invitation in 1986 to qualify to build U.S. embassies for the State Department. The company already was designing a variety of buildings for local and state governments.

“We replied and qualified,” said Gerald Winkler, one of the firm’s eight partners and the principal in charge of embassy work.

Its first embassy, finished in 1996, was in Bogota, Colombia. Winkler said that project has been his favorite so far, in large part because the building harmonized its design with the historic section of the capital.

“Bogota got the most favorable comments since the design was so strongly influenced by the historical architecture of the 450-year-old city,” Winkler said. Even so, some residents then faulted the embassy for not seeming “modern” enough, he added.

Following the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, the U.S. government has undertaken a full reset of how embassies are designed and built.

The result, based on a set of guidelines fashioned in the late 1980s, has produced an embassy design plan that allows some variety but not a great deal.

Safety and security have become the guiding principle, said Mark Dailey, the firm’s principal in charge of design.

Under the revised plans the government has updated roughly 100 embassies and expects to build several dozen more by 2024.

Integrus is considered one of the midsize players among the dozen or so American design firms that are tackling new embassy projects.

More than half of its work is for state and local governments, universities and school districts. Integrus also designed the Coyote Ridge prison in Connell and the 512-bed expansion at Airway Heights Correctional Center.

Winkler has a half-joking description for that range of architectural work: “We design jails to keep people in. And we do the same thing with embassies, except it’s to keep people out.”

While the guidelines force architects to work within careful strictures for security, Winkler and Dailey said Integrus sees the business as lucrative and challenging.

As terror attacks continue across the globe, the guidelines and conditions continue to evolve, adding more specific requirements, Winkler said.

He calls one category of building requirements “spook and tech” components, which are required to ensure communications and detect intrusions. Winkler wouldn’t disclose any of those requirements.

The key building restrictions apply to the siting of the embassy buildings and the materials used inside. Structures must be away from public areas and off main roads, with walls and windows that are blast-proof and shatter-proof. The number and size of windows on outside walls is also limited.

Interior requirements ensure that living quarters and work areas are distant from public areas.

The focus on security has led some critics to brand America’s embassies as boxed bunkers that convey an image as the world’s least-open democracy.

One of the Integrus embassy projects is the rebuild of the U.S. diplomatic center in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan. Integrus is designing a new office building, an apartment building, and a remodel of the original embassy office and other small structures.

Winkler said the Kabul embassy project is unique in that the construction has to take place while staff and agencies on site continue working inside the complex.

Complexity is one of the challenges that makes Integrus take on embassy projects, Dailey said.

“By far embassies are the most challenging work we do,” he said.

“But we like to be challenged. We are putting these buildings into nations all over the world, and these buildings are symbols of our country,” he said.

Winkler said the Mauritania project will look for ways to add nods to the local culture and its history.

Since the country is a producer of copper, for example, Integrus will add copper as a treatment to the face of the building, he said.

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