- The new building on the 5.6-acre site has sustainability at its core
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
The US Embassy in Colombo has been given an upgrade that is modern and at times even futuristic, while also giving the arts a much-deserved focus.
Located on the existing 5.6-acre site that is very much a landmark in the city, the US Embassy in Colombo supports important diplomatic and commercial relations between the US and Sri Lanka. It also embodies the mission of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) to provide safe, secure, functional, and resilient facilities, ensuring a robust platform for US diplomacy abroad.
With a $ 314 million project budget, it comes as no surprise that the new building has many elements that stand out and make a statement. It is also estimated that the local investment is $ 90 million, and 1,800 Sri Lankans were employed throughout the construction.
What stands out about the new building is the sustainable design that optimises natural light and outdoor garden spaces, and components of US architecture, engineering, and building standards that embrace local ecology, history, and culture. The new US Embassy is also well suited for Colombo’s tropical climate, and the courtyards and gardens provide welcoming shade, and are a pleasant environment for employees as well as visitors.
During a media tour of the new premises, led by US Ambassador Julie Chung, it was pointed out that elements such as deep roof overhangs and sunscreens not only provide protection from the elements, but are also integrated into the architecture in a manner that is consistent with local tradition. Natural stone and wood sourced from Sri Lanka adds to the lushness of the landscape, and the interior of the building incorporates patterns and colours that are inspired by local culture, art and the surrounding gardens.
Regarding the building itself, a special note must be made of design architect ZGF Architects, design and build contractor Caddell Construction Company, and architect of record Integrus Architecture.
Sustainability is very much a key component of the design and construction, and efforts have been made to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, while also increasing security and resiliency strategies that advance the shared goal of the two countries to augment renewable energy usage.
There are many rigorous climate protection methods used to mitigate the adverse impacts of strong sun and heavy rainfall. For instance, building materials are not only regionally available, but can also withstand the sun and corrosion, while deep shades protect the interior from solar heat gain. In addition to this, an advanced stormwater management system is in place, and the on-site wastewater treatment plant treats and recycles grey water to be used for irrigation.
One will also see the use of indigenous plantings that promote the local ecosystem, support wildlife and habitat growth, and minimise the need for irrigation. Emphasising their commitment to environmental leadership and sustainable design and construction, Chung said: “To mitigate the strong sun, as you just felt outside, and heavy rainfall, we have built the embassy from regionally available materials that can withstand the sun and corrosion, as well as this environment.”
She added: “There’s a climate-responsive shell with deep shades that protect the interior from solar heat gain. We have what is called a photovoltaic system that offsets 11% of annual energy use and, as I just mentioned, we are on track to gain a Silver Membership in the global Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.”
What gives the new US Embassy Colombo a splash of colour and culture is the art that adorns most walls and showcases the talent of artists from Sri Lanka as well as the United States. A dialogue of the shared values between the two countries is thus created by these works of art.
The embassy states that the permanent art collection, curated by OBO’s Office of Art in Embassies, includes art in a variety of media, including paintings, photography, textiles, and sculpture. Highlights include site-specific commissions of Birds for Sri Lanka and a wall sculpture representing the atolls and coral life in the oceans. These works reflect an understanding of the diversity and richness of American and Sri Lankan ecology and cultural heritage.
Many of us are more familiar with the American Centre than the US Embassy itself, and the revamped American Centre has even more to offer visitors. “We opened the American Centre on 29 September, hosting library patrons, Youth Forum members, and other programme participants,” Chung said, adding that it is a space for collaborative learning and digital engagement.
“So, we’ll continue to have media literacy and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) events. All these events are free. There is no cost to any participant,” she said, adding, “We have also conducted many discussion sessions here already, for example on youth participation in democracy. We want to symbolise an exchange of free and open ideas here in Sri Lanka.”