Beyond Borderline - 2 new GSA Border Stations

A bilateral team builds a sustainably designed border station that deftly straddles the line between the U.S. and Canada.

August 11, 2010

About 200 miles southeast of Calgary along Interstate 15, the Port of Entry facility in Sweet Grass, Mont., and Coutts, Alta., is one of the busiest border crossing stations in North America, processing 1.3 million travelers and 413,000 commercial shipments each year.

Dedicated this past September, the 100,000-sf, six-building complex is the nation's first LEED-registered border station, incorporating energy- and water-saving technologies, low-VOC materials, extensive use of daylighting, and indoor air quality advances.

But the significance of this $26.5 million facility goes beyond its sustainable qualities. It's the first of a new breed of border inspection stations developed jointly by U.S. and Canadian border authorities.

The steel-and-glass facility sits smack dab on the U.S.-Canada border. Its three-story main port building is split nearly 50–50 down the middle, housing offices and public areas for U.S. immigration, customs, and border patrol agencies in the south portion of the building, and similar facilities for Canadian agencies on the north end.

With border security at an all-time high, it may not seem like the most ideal time for such an experiment. But officials of both governments insist that by pooling financial resources and sharing common function spaces and buildings, they can build and operate state-of-the-art facilities with the latest security gadgetry at reduced cost.

Roughly 22% of the space is shared by agencies of both countries, including training areas, break rooms, restrooms, and a telecommunications room. The price tag was divided among four agencies: the U.S. General Services Administration (48.2%), Canada Border Services Agency (43.6%), Montana Department of Transportation (4.1%), and Alberta Transportation and Utilities (4.1%).

The Sweet Grass/Coutts station is the first of three projects initiated under the "Shared Border Accord" signed by President Clinton and former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 1996. More than 50 locations have been flagged for future development between U.S. and Canada, according to Dane Ashlie, senior project leader with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Ashlie teamed with Gerald J. Lach of the U.S. GSA to manage the planning, design, and construction of the complex. The five-year effort involved satisfying the needs of dozens of government agencies across two countries, overcoming cross-border laws and permit issues, and building a secure facility on time and within budget — all the while meeting the criteria for LEED certification. The facility recently won a GSA Environmental Award and is seeking a LEED Certified rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

"We had to pioneer everything because a joint facility of this scope and size had never been done before," says Ashlie. "There was no set of rules in place for building a facility on the borderline."

Import/export laws were "especially frustrating," says Ashlie. Every piece of material and equipment that crossed the border had to be registered with the appropriate customs agency. In some cases, the team had to pay brokerage fees of up to $900 to transport materials and equipment across the border. "All materials onsite should have been duty-free, but we could not get anyone higher up [in either government] to help us out," says Ashlie.

Labor laws prohibited construction crews from working on both sides of the border. The project was awarded to one construction management firm as a design-build "umbrella" contract, but it had to be treated as two separate projects, with different contractors and subcontractors on each side of the border, says Lach.

"For instance, a steel crew would build up to the borderline and would have to wait for the steel crew on the other side of the border to finish," says Lach. "It took quite a bit of coordination to meet in the middle."

Construction manager Bird Management, Calgary, employed Native American firms to take advantage of their dual citizenship, but Ashlie says the unions occasionally stepped in, pulling crews off the job and delaying the project.

A tough go at green

From the beginning, the Building Team felt that it had a "severe disadvantage" in meeting LEED criteria, says Lach.

"LEED seemed to be written for private-sector office facilities in urban areas," says Lach. "We were quite the opposite — a specialized government facility in a rural area."

For instance, even though the project reclaimed 23 acres of land contaminated by a 1920s oil refinery, the team had a tough time convincing the USGBC to award a point for brownfield redevelopment (SS Credit 3) because the site was not classified as a brownfield by the U.S. EPA. When it was demonstrated that the project involved removal of 14 oil storage tanks and hundreds of tons of contaminated soil, and abatement and demolition of several buildings along the property line, at a cost of $1 million, the USGBC granted the point.

Where possible, the Building Team avoided the cost of abatement and demolition of buildings by relocating structures slated for destruction to vacant properties in Coutts. In all, 18 buildings, including restaurants, stores, brokerage firms, and homes, were relocated, saving $750,000.

"Because these structures were filled with lead-based paint, formaldehyde, and asbestos, the cost to demolish the buildings was up to three times more than the cost of moving them," says Ashlie.

GSA estimates that reclaiming the land saved $15 million over alternative plans, which would have involved re-routing I-15.

Specifying materials manufactured within 500 miles (MR Credit 5) was also a challenge, says Kate Diamond, principal with Siegal Diamond Architecture, design architect on the project. "There's only a limited amount of carpet that's manufactured around there — like none," says Diamond, now with RNL Design, Los Angeles. Glazing and siding were also tough to come by. In the end, the team was able to meet LEED's minimum requirement of 20% locally manufactured materials (by cost). These included concrete, concrete block, and HVAC equipment.

To meet programmatic and sustainability goals, GSA and CBSA instituted a unique design-build bridging approach. This involved having the design concept team create sustainable design criteria and specifications, from which the design-builder could specify materials and systems and form the general parameters for construction.

In this case, Siegel Diamond set specific goals for energy and water conservation, IAQ, environmentally sensitive materials, and waste management. Specifications for criteria such as materials and finishes, floor plans, and site arrangement could not be tampered with by the design-builder.

However, criteria for the building systems and structure were based strictly on performance, allowing the design-builder to specify what it considered to be cost-effective systems that met performance requirements.

"With standard design-build, there's so much left open that contractors can basically do what they want," says Tim Felchlin, who helped prepare the bridging documents while at Siegel Diamond and was later hired by GSA/CBSA as a consultant. "The bridging delivery sets the design and performance parameters to ensure that the contractor will provide a certain level of quality product."

Felchlin, now managing principal with tBP/Architecture, Los Angeles, says the bridging approach worked fairly well, with the exception of a few "questionable" material and product substitutions, including lighting systems and stone.

Two countries, seven agencies

Accommodating the space needs of seven agencies from two countries under one roof was a major challenge, says Felchlin.

"Most of the departments wanted to be on the ground level," says Felchlin. "But we could not get everyone into the building where they wanted to be without using up too much of the site."

The design team took advantage of the sloping nature of the site to develop a stepped, three-story structure that provides ground-level entryways for both countries — for Canadian agencies on the main port first floor on the east side, for U.S. agencies on the second level on the west end.

Gun laws threw the design team for a few loops during planning and design. Most shared features, including the lunch room, locker rooms, and restrooms, had to be located on the U.S. side, because U.S. agents — who carry guns — cannot cross the Canadian border, where agents are unarmed. A shared atrium stairway that straddled the border had to be moved to the U.S. side because U.S. agents would have momentarily crossed the Canadian border at the bottom.

While Lach acknowledges that the border station may not be the greenest building in GSA's collection, he suggests that the challenges posed by the joint nature of the project make it one of the more intriguing Federal sustainable projects.

Consultant Tim Felchlin would go a bit farther in praising the building's sustainability. "The complex is much larger than the average border station, but not as large as if they built separate stations on either side of the border," he says. "By having both governments together, energy, water, and other resources were reduced."