'It's a crown jewel'

Becky Vargo • Jan 20, 2018 at 11:00 AM

Former Grand Haven resident James Timberlake has added a long line of credits to his resume since graduating from Grand Haven High School in 1970.

But the crown jewel has to be the design of the U.S. Embassy in London, which opened this week, he said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

The new embassy was in the news recently with President Donald Trump’s refusal to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $1 billion facility.

An Associated Press fact-checking story from Jan. 12 quoted a tweet from the president: “Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!” 

Timberlake said the ceremony has been indefinitely postponed.

Timberlake and Stephen Kieran, partners in the Kieran Timberlake architectural firm of Philadelphia, joined 39 other firms in a competition in 2008 to win the contract to build the new embassy. That was during the Barack Obama administration, but the decision to build a new embassy was made during the George W. Bush administration, Timberlake said.

The U.S. State Department conducted an audit of the old embassy at Grosvenor Square between 2004 and 2006, Timberlake said.

“There were 600 people in a space designed for 200,” the architect said. “They were processing 700-800 visa visits per day.”

Timberlake said the former embassy was designed for a much simpler day and time, and did not meet current security requirements.

In 2006, the State Department conducted a feasibility study of its London properties. State Department officials determined they could sell the embassy as well as the U.S. Navy building across the street. The proceeds would be used to buy new property, as well as pay the design and construction costs of a new embassy. 

Timberlake said no additional funds were allocated through Congress to build the embassy.

The selection process for the building design was made by an architectural jury, which reviewed the 39 firms and whittled that number down to 12, Timberlake said. In 2009, the jury interviewed those firms and further whittled the group down to four. Those four firms were then invited to compete for the job.

KieranTimberlake was notified in 2010 that they were awarded the contract.

“You have to imagine how we felt when we found out we won the competition out of internationally renowned firms,” Timberlake said.

The company created by the college friends in 1984 had built its reputation over the years as a “firm that espouses a philosophy of sustainable design.”

“Our projects include the programming, planning and design of new structures, as well as the conservation, renovation and transformation of existing buildings, with special expertise in education, government, arts and culture, civic, and residential projects,” it says on the company’s website.

Timberlake said his interest in architecture started when his father, George Timberlake, was the minister at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His first exposure was during the planning and construction of the brick classroom building at St. John’s.

“My dad would take us out to Win Schuler’s (now The Kirby Grill),” where the younger Timberlake would listen to discussions about the building process, he said. 

As he grew older, Timberlake said he would ride his bicycle around town and walk all of the construction sites. 

At age 15, he started working for the Reichardt family in downtown Grand Haven and was exposed to purchases they made from travels all over the world.  Timberlake maintains his friendship with Field Reichardt, who still resides in Grand Haven.

“He is so low key,” Reichardt said of Timberlake. “He is proud of his work, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”

Reichardt also expressed admiration for Timberlake’s re-use of old structures for his office building.

“Until two years ago, their office was the upper two floors of a parking garage,” Reichardt said. “Now they have an office that was a former old brewery building.”

Timberlake went to Wayne State University and then to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture. He and Kieran worked for another company before splitting off to create their own firm.

“We do a lot of adaptive re-use and historic preservation,” Timberlake said.

Their company recently completed high-end homes in New York and California, as well as public parks and plazas in Philadelphia. They are working on a housing project in India and a mixed-use academic building at New York University. They have worked on several buildings in the University of California system, Timberlake said.

KieranTimberlake employs 120 people and now has seven partners, Timberlake said. The award-winning firm achieved LEED Platinum status with the new London embassy, as well as the United Kingdom’s BREEM status. 

“The design of the embassy, we think, is quite beautiful,” Timberlake said.

It was designed for future flexibility and is “one of the most sustainable embassies in the world,” he added.

The old embassy was located in the posh Mayfair area, but the new location — Nine Elms between the Vauxhall and Vattersey neighborhoods — is definitely up and coming, Timberlake said.

“This is a vibrant, new neighborhood,” he said.

Timberlake noted that the embassy was built along a high street (a main street in the U.S.), and that many new housing units and mixed-use developments were cropping up fast. The Jan. 12 AP story also notes that the embassy is just as close to the U.K. Parliament and other government buildings as the old site. 

“Completing a building of this stature, for this purpose, for this client is an amazing accomplishment,” Timberlake said. “It’s a crown jewel — not only for the Department of State, but for the U.S. government and KiernanTimberlake.”

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