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New London Embassy: Design Passed the Full Mockup Blast, So Why the “Augmentation Option” For $2 Million?

Posted: 2:58 am EDT

 

Back in July last year, we wrote about the New London Embassy (NLE) project. Our trusted source told us that the project “went into construction before its glass facade design was tested to confirm it will meet blast standards.” Our source further explained that  the testing was needed only because the New London Embassy does not use known, familiar, window systems. The curtain wall apparently has no frames to ‘bite’ the glass and retain it under blast. That is a new technique for OBO we’re told, so the bureau reportedly had no basis to analyze the design (see New Embassy Construction Hearing: Witnesses Not Invited, and What About the Blast-Proof Glass?).

On December 8, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the New London Embassy Project. Below is an excerpt from State/OIG Steve Linick’s prepared statement (PDF):

In July 2015, OIG published the findings of its performance audit of the London NEC construction project.1 During this audit, OIG reviewed the Department’s evaluation and approval of the project design, including the design of the outer façade of the Chancery building,2 which comprises two layers. The outermost layer consists of a scrim stretched over a network of thin aluminum components. The scrim wraps the building to the east, west, and south, acting as a screen. Underneath the scrim, a glass curtain wall with an aluminum frame forms the inner layer of the building’s envelope.

OIG’s first objective was to determine whether the Department resolved security issues with the curtain wall design before allowing construction to begin. The Department’s physical security standards require all new office buildings such as the Chancery at the London NEC to provide blast protection to keep people and property safe from an attack. Moreover, by law and Department policy, the Department must certify to Congress that the project design will meet security standards prior to initiating construction.

OIG found that the Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) did not obtain blast-testing results for the Chancery’s curtain wall design before the Department certified the project and authorized initiation of construction. As discussed in more detail below, initiating construction prior to security certification and blast testing increased the financial risk to the Department and taxpayers, and was contrary to the Department’s policy.

A second objective for OIG was to determine whether the Department adhered to Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requirements in negotiating a price for the NEC. OIG found that the contracting officer responsible for the NEC construction contract awarded the construction portion of the contract without requiring the contractor to provide an explanation of approximately $42 million in cost differences between the initial proposal and the final proposal. Because the contracting officer did not obtain sufficient information when negotiating the final price for the construction portion of the contract as required by the FAR, OBO was unable to assess fully the contents of the construction proposal that the contracting officer ultimately accepted and used as the basis for the firm-fixed-price award.

A practice that does not comply with 12 FAM 361.1

Since at least 2003, the Department has followed the practice of issuing limited notices to proceed, as set forth in the 2003 draft agreement, thereby authorizing construction contractors to begin limited tasks (not including foundation work) prior to certification. This practice, however, does not comply with 12 FAM 361.1, which states that “no contract should be awarded or construction undertaken until the proponent of a project has been notified by the Department that the appropriate certification action has been completed.” Notwithstanding the prohibition in 12 FAM 361.1, DS approved OBO’s request for early site work and construction of the piling foundation of the London NEC in November 2012, more than a year before certification and blast testing.

Concerns with the security of the curtain wall

The London NEC’s outer façade design was new and was never previously evaluated or tested by DS. The glass curtain wall design used in the NEC needed to meet a variety of security criteria, including forced-entry/ballistic resistant (FE/BR) and blast-protection requirements. As early as November 2012, DS notified OBO of its concerns with the curtain-wall design. DS informed OBO that there were substantial omissions and deficiencies of essential information related to FE/BR testing, curtain-wall sound mitigation, and blast-design methodology. This meant that DS would not accept computer modeling of the curtain wall to certify whether it would meet blast requirements and thus would require field validation as a condition to certify the project. CSE also expressed concerns with the security of the curtain wall and notified DS that its concerns would “need to be resolved by either a follow-on design or a written agreement” from OBO.

An “alternate curtain wall system” – just in case

Based on that written assurance and prior to any blast testing, the Under Secretary of State for Management certified to Congress on December 16, 2013, that the London NEC would be constructed in a secure manner and would provide adequate and appropriate security for sensitive activities and personnel. During this timeframe, OBO tasked the design firm for the NEC to develop solutions in the event the curtain wall failed the blast test. Specifically, OBO worked with the contractor to develop an “alternate curtain wall system” that was acceptable to DS for certification without blast testing.

An “augmentation option”— for an additional cost of $2 million

DS oversaw two series of component-level blast tests in February and April 2014. According to DS, the tests were necessary to determine the viability of employing structural silicone for the curtain wall. However, because the test results were mixed and inconclusive, OBO and DS agreed that the full mockup blast test would be the only valid test of the design. The full mockup blast test occurred on May 28, 2014, and according to DS, the design passed. Nevertheless, DS and OBO reached an agreement incorporating what became known as an “augmentation option”— for an additional cost of $2 million. Employing this option, although not necessary to meet standards, was intended to provide an added measure of security.

As noted in our audit, OIG recognizes that the Department’s decision to initiate construction of the London NEC prior to completing the required blast testing was driven by a schedule to complete construction by 2017. However, by initiating construction without first completing blast testing, the Department committed itself to the construction of a building that could have required significant redesign, potentially placing millions of dollars at risk.

 

The House Oversight Committee hearing page is here with the rest of the video clips and the prepared statements of the witnesses from OIG, OBO, and Diplomatic Security.

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