Civil engineering students from NUST visit the construction site, Oct. 29, 2021. Photo by Jacques Du Toit
By Matthew A. Shedd
Nestled among the gently rolling hills of Windhoek, Namibia—in a nondescript residential neighborhood—an unlikely epicenter of U.S. foreign policy is thriving: a construction site. While the Department of State’s capital projects provide platforms to advance U.S. foreign policy, they take years to complete. However, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) Project Director (PD) Jeff Grace and Embassy Windhoek have partnered to highlight how capital projects can be used as platforms to showcase innovative and sustainable building practices, promote diversity, and increase educational outreach and engagement—all during the construction phase. In addition to advancing policy goals, these efforts strip away the perceived shroud of secrecy often associated with a large diplomatic facility, cultivating lasting trust, rapport, and relationships with numerous institutions and emerging Namibian leaders, and strengthening the U.S.-Namibian relationship.
Spread over 12.8 acres, the $287 million project boasts a brand new chancery, Marine Security Guard residence, and a support annex containing various maintenance spaces. Additionally, the campus features a water reservoir, a water treatment facility, and a utility building that houses a power plant. The project represents the United States’ commitment to sustainability. The chancery is situated east to west and outfitted with specially selected facade materials to reduce solar heat gain. Strategic window placement coupled with special vertical shades maximize natural light while minimizing direct heat penetration. Photovoltaic canopies will generate half of the chancery’s energy needs while shading parking areas. The site is tiered and landscaped to reduce erosion. Working in consultation with the Namibian National Botanical Research Institute, project staff introduced 5,000 plants and trees from 33 native, drought-tolerant species to minimize irrigation needs. The project also recycles 97% of its waste and will integrate with Windhoek’s sustainable water treatment program to recycle 99% of the campus’ wastewater to be treated for the city’s potable water use.
“In many ways, the new embassy project is analogous to Namibia’s young democracy; a new and innovative start that brings people of diverse backgrounds together, promotes shared democratic values, and nurtures the next generation of leaders,” said U.S. Ambassador to Namibia Randy W. Berry.
This comparison is exemplified in the new embassy’s staff and the general contractor B.L. Harbert International’s (BLHI) workforce, which are multicultural (representing 23 nationalities) and multi-generational (ranging in age from 18 to 72). Perhaps, most notable is the project’s female cohort. OBO’s small staff includes 11 women—two engineers, an architect, two administrative specialists, a move coordinator, and five security personnel. Similarly, BLHI has employed 117 women during the project.
Project employees expressed that it has been historically challenging for women to find jobs and be respected as equals in the construction industry. However, they all agreed that working on this project has given them professional exposure and opportunities they would not have been afforded elsewhere. BLHI Assistant Safety Manager Happiness Ndlovu said this experience has inspired her to consider starting her own safety consultancy business with a focus on recruiting more women into the safety profession. Her electrician colleagues Bradina Hofena and Selma Tetekela have both risen to the highest level of Namibian national certification for electricians and said that working on this project has significantly expanded their technical skillset.
“The sheer scope of the project, the variety of construction disciplines, the innovation, and the heightened emphasis on safety and security have broadened my horizons,” said OBO Civil Engineer Inge Duvenhage.
Architect Monica Haufiku added that experiencing “diplomacy and construction under one roof has allowed me to appreciate the relationship between architecture, engineering, technology, security, art, and culture.”
Respondents also said greater representation of women in the construction industry will inspire future generations of women professionals.
“Encouraging women at a younger age to explore STEM occupations will unlock a satisfying, challenging, and exciting world of science,” said OBO Mechanical Engineer Heather Kirksey.
Large construction sites are a beehive of fast-moving, risk-laden activities that must be precisely orchestrated to achieve efficiency, safety, and meet critical milestones. Using such a project site for activities outside the scope of work can be disruptive and cause delays. Undeterred by these potential drawbacks, Grace transformed the new embassy campus project into a learning and outreach platform, particularly one focused on promoting architecture and engineering disciplines. Working with his locally employed staff and embassy colleagues, Grace opened the doors to the new embassy, hosting numerous outreach events with the Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST) architecture and engineering students. He also hosted several town hall events and most recently welcomed Jill Biden, first lady of the United States.
These engagements showcase U.S. innovation in sustainable building practices, the value of public-private partnerships, the benefits of U.S. companies which invest in countries where they operate, and the strength of diverse workforces. They also serve as a launching point for new relationships, the exchange of ideas, and an incubator of learning.
The global stage is being redefined by what many characterize as the great power competition. Much like the Cold War era, this geopolitical dynamic involves U.S. adversaries attempting to influence and exploit young democracies. Despite these nations’ aspirations, they are burdened with socio-economic challenges. Namibia is no different in this regard. Though rich in natural resources and human capital, and possessing a deep-water port situated along global shipping lanes, Namibia faces a youth unemployment rate of more than 50% and the second-highest level of income inequality in the world.
These circumstances present a challenge, but also an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate its commitment and values through concrete action; something it is unequivocally delivering. The new embassy project is infusing $17 million into the local economy and employing over 2,000 Namibians. Committed to helping its host community, BLHI sponsors a lunch donation project, providing more than 56,000 meals to school-age children.
In October 2022, then-Chargé d’Affaires Jessica P. Long described the ongoing U.S. commitment to Namibia during her remarks at the new embassy campus’ tree planting ceremony.
“The U.S. government does not just talk the talk when it comes to corporate social responsibility, we also walk the walk. Let the planting of these trees today be a symbol of our partnership with Namibia, deeply rooted, enduring, and fruitful,” said Long.
During the most recent NUST visit, Berry met with architecture students and echoed Long’s sentiments about the NEC project, characterizing it as “monumental” and “enduring” like America’s commitment to Namibia and its citizens. This commitment is reflected in Embassy Windhoek’s vision to leverage the project’s full potential and reach out to the local community during construction, which has proven to be a strategic success. There is no doubt that OBO construction projects are advancing U.S. foreign policy.
Matthew A. Shedd is a site security manager at the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.