Property management

The spate of embassy relocations and renovations is symptomatic of London’s volatile property market and presents particular challenges for missions. John Furlong and Nigel Carter explained how FCO Services can offer local knowledge and solutions for hard-pressed facilities managers.

Why move?
Faced with skyrocketing property prices in London or the need to expand, diplomatic missions have three options: relocate, consolidate or renovate.

Embassies may choose to relocate for security reasons (such as the US Embassy); or they may have outgrown the current building (such as Brazil or Estonia); or they want to take advantage of the market conditions, where a mission can make a handsome profit on their existing buildings, and use the funds to build a bigger, more bespoke mission in a more affordable area (such as the Dutch). For some, renewing the lease is prohibitively expensive and more affordable premises need to be sought (as happened with the Philippines).

Missions with trade offices, consulates and cultural sections scattered around London may choose to sell these off and use the funds to consolidate their functions in one or two larger buildings, as the Polish and Canadians have done.

Some of London’s smaller missions have found themselves in the unenviable position of renting in London and face the toughest environment of all where landlords seeking out the highest bidder may force an embassy to move.

And those who need bigger premises but cannot afford to move, need to renovate to make the best use of their space.

Find a local partner
Whatever the reason to renovate or relocate, extensive planning and local knowledge is required. FCO Services is an ideal partner for London missions, as evidenced by a major relocation and renovation project with the Canadian High Commission.

As a supplier to the Foreign Office, they provide property management services to British diplomatic missions and government departments both in London and worldwide wherever the FCO has a footprint. They have a detailed understanding of how embassies operate and the specialist functions they need to fulfil. They understand design and procedures to keep the building secure, staff safe, protect data, while at the same time projecting a welcoming and appealing brand for the country to the general public.

The Property Services division of FCO Services has around 1200 staff who are able to manage projects large and small from initial feasibility studies, through the tendering process to supervision of the works and project completion.

Flexible, sustainable, secure designs
If a mission is relocating, FCO Services has the local knowledge of the property market to offer pre-purchase advice. They can appraise shortlisted buildings and advise which would be suitable to convert to a mission. When working on the Canada House project, they undertook condition surveys to ensure the building they intended on purchasing was structurally sound and then did space planning studies to ensure that everything and everyone would be able to fit into the new premises.

Whether a new or existing building, FCO Services can design the interior so that it makes the most efficient and flexible use of the space available, while at the same time including security features. They also have extensive experience in upgrading old London buildings with modern technology.

Sustainability is integral to their designs, so the finished premises is energy efficient and reduces waste. Canada House is a model of sustainability, with photo-voltaic panels and a green roof and ‘green wall’, complete with beehives. FCO Services can also do environmental audits for missions and staff training to ensure that a mission is as sustainable as possible.

Architect Nick Baker is an expert in sustainable designs and said it is possible to add sustainability features to a listed building, as he did with the Austrian Embassy, which is a Grade I listed building.

The building environment in London, both from a physical and from a regulatory point of view is very challenging, warned Larry Richter, Head of Management at the US Embassy. Before missions embark on any building works – no matter how large or small – it is essential that they consult experts on planning consents.

Any works done to a building will need planning permission from the local authorities. It is also important to note that there are 11,000 buildings in Westminster alone that are protected by listed status. Before changes can be made, especially to the exterior façade – even something as basic as disabled access – permission will be required from Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage).

Because the US mission was a new build, the construction site also underwent an archaeological survey. Stone Age tools were found on the site that are now in the Museum of London.

In the case of a leasehold property (which includes most properties in central London) the landlord or freeholder will need to be notified. In most leasehold agreements, tenants are responsible for the upkeep of a building, which in the case of a listed building can be quite an expensive job.

Team work
It is also essential that a mission’s local partner can work with contractors brought over to build some of the more sensitive areas of the embassy. Because FCO Services has worked with contractors around the world, they are ideally placed to do this.

John Sommerville, Facilities Manager at the Canadian High Commission, said FCO Services “knitted together” the various contractors working on the renovation of Canada House and the relocation of the High Commission from MacDonald House enabling the complex project to be completed on budget and on time for The Queen’s ribbon cutting ceremony in February 2015 (pictured above).

Nigel Carter of FCO Services