By Ron Tomasso, FAIA 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in July, takes the most thorough look at the issues of accessibility and is the most recent accessibility guidance for U.S. buildings. In the struggle for equality, disability advocates fought for the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—which requires accessibility in federal programs, and the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968—which requires barrier-free accessibility in federal buildings, including U.S. diplomatic facilities. 

Illustration courtesy of the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy
Illustration courtesy of the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy

Although the Department of State has historically struggled to balance accessibility and other issues, including physical security, life safety, and other U.S. and host country codes, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is leading federal agencies in the pursuit of excellence in accessible design.

“This year’s 75th National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we celebrate innovative design and construction efforts incorporated into our facilities that foster a more inclusive, accessible environment,” said OBO’s Director Addison “Tad” Davis IV. 

Each October, NDEAM highlights the contributions and talents of employees with disabilities while encouraging agencies to explore disability inclusion through the lens of workplace policies and practices. Aligned with this year’s theme, “Increasing Access and Opportunity,” several OBO projects represent ongoing efforts to fuse accessibility with architectural design. 

Located on a steeply sloped 10-acre site, the new embassy in Ankara, Turkey, (presently under construction) seeks to represent openness and democracy, while creating a secure environment for all. The new campus is a modern interpretation of traditional Turkish architecture, with a series of courtyards providing both secure outdoor space within the embassy and an organizational structure to the landscape. 

A street view of the entrance at Embassy Ankara shows the gentle slope up to the main entrance pavilion and continues directly to the chancery. Illustration courtesy of Ennead Architects
A street view of the entrance at Embassy Ankara shows the gentle slope up to the main entrance pavilion and continues directly to the chancery. Illustration courtesy of Ennead Architects

The courtyards begin as a series of regular, walled gardens that define an active processional across the site and rises 23 meters from front to back. Starting at the street, formal entry and consular forecourts create urban spaces that welcome visitors. The main arrival court is generously landscaped, giving green space to the urban environment. Upon passing through the entry pavilion, visitors follow a visual and physical path through the gardens towards the chancery, a singular architectural volume with a series of internal courtyards. 

An aerial view of Embassy Ankara’s campus (currently under construction) shows an accessible main entrance pavilion in the foreground. Illustration courtesy of Ennead Architects
An aerial view of Embassy Ankara’s campus (currently under construction) shows an accessible main entrance pavilion in the foreground. Illustration courtesy of Ennead Architects

Working with the design team headed by Ennead Architects, OBO identified accessible entry as both a key driver and a major challenge given the 3 meters of grade change between the street and the front chancery entrance. A clear, direct route embodies the tenets of universal design and brings visitors of all abilities along the same path. The ascent to the access pavilion’s front door is gently sloped, facilitating way-finding for first-time visitors and reinforcing a sense of welcome. The front door is visible through the glassy entry pavilion, and the entrance is further defined by the cantilever of the building that shelters it. Contrasting paving strips in the sidewalks mark an accessible path for people with low vision. Progress across the site, which steps up via a series of terraces to support functions at the rear of the site, is made via ramps, avoiding stairs and lifts wherever possible. 

In the Netherlands, a multi-building embassy replaced the historic Marcel Breuer chancery that was in the center of The Hague. The new site, in the adjoining town of Wassenaar, is near the old facility and well served by transit. Irrigation canals crisscross the green, 10-acre campus. Despite being a flat site, the canals necessitate a network of bridges that complicate access to and within the facility. A functionally integrated landscape design was important. 

Typical in the Netherlands, building elements are linked through red brick paving and walls, while the color white at the entrances mirrors ceremonial Dutch buildings. The project team from MRY Architects and OBO devised a strategy to connect the main entrance from the road to the chancery with a new bridge over the largest of the canals. OBO also asked the municipality to develop an accessible route from the bus stops to the main entrance. The municipality considered multiple solutions with differing accessible configurations and sought local input for preference. This process resulted in a new pedestrian bridge that completes this accessible path, resulting in a highly functional solution and allowing clear, direct movement over a series of bridges to the entrance of the new chancery.

Inside the facility, restrooms serving the public diplomacy conference room are designed to Dutch accessibility standards, similar to U.S. standards. These restrooms are more suited to the needs of the individuals primarily using them.

Aerial view of U.S. Consulate General Istanbul from the highest point of site. Top of elevator tower at far right, main entrance center. Photo by Eric Piasecki
Aerial view of U.S. Consulate General Istanbul from the highest point of site. Top of elevator tower at far right, main entrance center. Photo by Eric Piasecki

The U.S. Consulate in Istanbul sought accessibility when they replaced their historic Palazzo Corpi in the Taxim area of Istanbul. The former facility was the first property the Department purchased for diplomatic use in Europe. The new 23-acre site, much further up the Bosporus in Istinye, is located on a hilltop overlooking the water. The consulate office building is located centrally in the site at a significant elevation above the grade entrance. This vertical difference presented a challenge to provide access for all. 

A street view of the main entrance pavilion at the lowest point of site at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul with the elevator tower beyond. Photo by Eric Piasecki
A street view of the main entrance pavilion at the lowest point of site at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul with the elevator tower beyond. Photo by Eric Piasecki

ZGF Architects and OBO worked to provide a new security screening facility leading to a tower containing two elevators and stairs leading to two “bridges.” One bridge sequesters consular visitors for both security and way-finding, and the other leads to the diplomatic entrance. This successful solution demonstrates that security, accessibility, and good design are not mutually exclusive. 

The U.S. embassy residence in Luxembourg’s ground-level view shows the new accessible entrance to the right and the historic entrance on the left. Photo courtesy of Studio Remi Villaggi
The U.S. embassy residence in Luxembourg’s ground-level view shows the new accessible entrance to the right and the historic entrance on the left. Photo courtesy of Studio Remi Villaggi

OBO also manages many residential buildings which must also adhere to building and accessibility guidelines. The ambassador’s residence in Luxembourg, while typical of ambassador’s residences in Europe, differs from others in that it is on the same site as the chancery. The chancery and other mission functions are constructed and arranged around the residence, the historically important building on the campus. After interior flooding of the building due to aged plumbing, OBO expedited a project to replace all plumbing systems fully. 

OBO challenged the design team, headed by Hollingsworth Pack, to remedy the most critical accessibility needs. One restroom in each zone of the building: representational zone, ambassador’s bedroom suite, and private family living area, are now fully accessible. OBO also made the building entrance accessible, since this was a long-standing deficiency. A historic porte-cochère prevented accessibility in the main entrance; therefore, the accessible entrance adjoins it. This project is an example of respectfully adapting an older building for accessibility. 

The U.S. Consulate General in Amsterdam’s entrance pavilion provides accessible entry to both the consular and official entrances. Photo by Ewout Huibers
The U.S. Consulate General in Amsterdam’s entrance pavilion provides accessible entry to both the consular and official entrances. Photo by Ewout Huibers

Close-up view of the U.S. Consulate General in Amsterdam’s accessible entryway. Photo by Ewout Huibers
Close-up view of the U.S. Consulate General in Amsterdam’s accessible entryway. Photo by Ewout Huibers

At the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam, the main goal of OBO’s project was to improve the physical security of the historic consulate building. This was achieved by adding a modern security screening entrance facility. However, the small size of the site and rigorous historic preservation requirements added to the complexity of the project. Working with Davis Brody Bond Architects, the team provided a new screening facility to serve as the front door, which also leads to two new accessible entrances. The sidewalk gently slopes up to the modern addition, which visually contrasts with the historic building. Since the building was made a historic Rijksmonument (national heritage site in the Netherlands) in 1996, significant changes are discouraged. The simple addition of an accessible restroom for consular visitors proved nearly as challenging to have approved as the overall addition itself. The project ultimately solved the most critical accessibility problems without a detrimental impact on the historic structure. 

The accessibility in these projects represents American values of respect, equality, and dignity for all, which underscores the architectural goal of openness and democracy.

 “Accessibility within our projects is aligned with OBO’s Design Standards, which OBO fully supports,” said Angel A. Dizon III, managing director of OBO’s Program Development, Coordination, and Support (PDCS) Directorate. 

The PDCS Directorate produces the design standards that lead to the achievement of high quality, fully integrated, and accessible diplomatic facilities that represent the American people. View the recently published OBO Access Guide here. To learn more about OBO’s projects, visit their website.

Ron Tomasso is a design manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and the program manager for the OBO Barrier-Free Accessibility Program. He is also a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA).