Design Program

Diplomatic Missions

Diplomats represent us abroad and maintain relations with other countries regarding treaties, trade and economics, culture, human rights, and the environment.  They are stationed at diplomatic missions, generally embassies and consulates.

The Ambassador, or Chief of Mission, and the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), head the Embassy.  Ambassadors are appointed by the president and are our highest-ranking representatives in other countries.  They manage U.S. agencies operating within the foreign country and it is common for many federal agencies to work at overseas posts.

Portugal became one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the United States when President George Washington appointed the first diplomat to Portugal in 1791.  The two countries have maintained positive relations and share strong defense ties, and Portugal is a member of the European Union and NATO.

In general, diplomats live in the host country and are protected by diplomatic immunity, as are the physical diplomatic missions.  Agents of the host country may not enter them except with the consent of the head of the mission, and the host state is obligated to protect the mission against intrusion or damage.

These diplomatic mission buildings are both the places where diplomacy is conducted, and the physical manifestations of a country abroad, so they have major symbolic as well as functional value.  They also act as a safety refuge in times of insecurity in the host countries, and in recent decades they have increasingly become targets.


The Lisbon project included both a new Chancery and a new Consulate.  Technically, an embassy is the diplomatic staff itself, not the physical building.  The building in which the embassy does its work is the embassy office building, or Chancery.  There is usually only one embassy in a foreign country, generally located in a country's capital city.  The embassy is responsible for representing the home country and managing major diplomatic issues and policy.  It is the location of the ambassador 's office and offices of most U.S. agencies.  The terms Chancery and Embassy are used interchangeably here, and the overall project was often called the Embassy.


Consulates are typically satellite offices of the embassy located in other locations and/or cities.  They need to be accessible to the public and their lower level of security makes them are somewhat incompatible with a Chancery.  Their roles are limited in scope, essentially public service offices, not secure embassy offices.  Consulates handle issues such as issuing visas, aiding in trade relationships, and taking care of migrants, tourists, expatriates, and international travelers.  They provide emergency assistance, passport and legal services to American citizens, and visa and other services related to asylum and immigration.

Design Program

Our client was the U.S. Department of State, Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO).  They referred to the project as the “Embassy Office Building,” which included both the Chancery and the Consulate.  Their architectural program described the requirements for a new building which included separate Chancery and Consulate functions.

The Chancery was mainly composed of offices, strictly organized into secure departments, plus supporting lobbies, conference rooms, etc.  The departments included executive (ambassador and DCM), political, economic, military, and international development agencies, and some more secretive functions.  Some rooms and departments were unidentified, so we had to lay out floor plans based on standardized room sizes without knowing their exact functions.

There were also other functions such as secure communications and document areas, dining facilities, housing for approximately 12 Marine Security Guards, a commissary and Naval Exchange, underground parking, auto service, and workshops.

The Consulate was about half consular and international communications offices, the rest being a series of public areas for large numbers of people to apply for visas and other services, plus meeting rooms and other support areas.  U.S. citizens had special waiting and processing areas.

FBO had a strict set of office space planning standards by which every office in the building was programmed for a specific type and rank of person, from the Ambassador and DCM at the top, to department heads, down to support staff, conference, and other rooms.  Room sizes were based on standard modules of specific dimensions.

architectural Policy

Many countries, including the U.S., traditionally built embassies that emphasized national pride, strength, and style.  However, for several decades leading up to our project, the U.S. had emphasized design excellence, and attempted to make their embassies more sensitive to and respectful of the local culture and surroundings.  FBO’s goal was for embassies to be “dignified guests,” and they provided this overarching program statement:

“Architectural Policy: Facilities shall be provided in an architectural form representative of the United States, expressing such qualities as dignity, strength, and neighborly sympathy.  These facilities should create good will because of their excellent architectural design, and their appropriateness to the site and country.  Ostentation will be avoided.  Designs must adhere to established construction practice and require the maximum utilization of United States materials, methods, and equipment of proven dependability.  Designs should also describe buildings economical to construct, operate, and maintain.  Maximum consideration must be given to including in the buildings features providing for the greatest possible protection and safety for the people using the buildings.”


Embassies and Consulates are high-profile and high-security environments.  In general, an embassy was supposed to operate in a country only as long as the host government could and would protect it, so the embassy’s defenses were only designed to hold off an attack temporarily and, hopefully, without violence.  We were told that the Marine Security Guards’ orders were to only fire their weapons as a last resort to save life.

The most sweeping Lisbon project security measure was locating the embassy on a large, suburban site where the buildings could be separated from adjacent streets and public areas.  This was a new strategy at the time, and it also provided the practical benefits of a site that accommodated a large building with gardens and parking without requiring high-rise construction or parking structures.

Building Codes

As diplomatic missions, U.S. embassy properties are treated as sovereign territory and are not under the jurisdiction of the local government, nor subject to land use review, building codes, or building permits.

We were required to design according to the current Uniform Building Code and the plans were reviewed by the State Department.  Lisbon is in the highest earthquake zone, so seismic structural design was critical.


Unlike most projects, we were not given a design budget.  We simply designed what we thought was appropriate, and the only feedback we received was regarding planning and aesthetic issues.  There were no cost consultants or interim cost estimates, and unlike many modern projects the design did not suffer from value engineering.  Perhaps FBO thought our design was conservative relative to what they typically saw from more high-profile firms.  We were never even informed of the final cost.


As with the budget, FBO did not give us a project schedule with hard deadlines, but the design phases had to fit FBO's review schedule.  The actual final timeline was:

Site visit, Concept Design               October - December 1978

Schematic Design                                             January - April 1979

Design Development                                         April - October 1979

Contract Documents                       October 1979 - June 1980

Tehran embassy attack                                              November 1979

Interior Design                                                                     1981 - 1982

Construction                                                                        1980 - 1984