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The port of the future: Secure, sustainable, and welcoming

July 08, 2021

By Bill Ferris, Jr.

Border-crossing facilities are essential to trade and travel between the US, Mexico, and Canada. How does design help clients and users?

Defining the “port of the future” isn’t easy. Designing one is even more challenging.

On an average day—before the pandemic—more than 350,000 vehicles, 135,000 pedestrians, and 30,000 trucks passed through US border crossings with Mexico and Canada. Those border crossings simultaneously are a welcoming environment for guests and returning citizens and a beacon of safety and security.

The US General Services Administration (GSA) is expanding and modernizing land port of entry (LPOE) facilities to meet the needs of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Those facilities help facilitate trade and travel, while also being highly sustainable facilities that are welcoming portals between countries. For some people, an LPOE is part of their daily commute and it functions more like a subway station than the connection point for two nations. Students and workers want to get through the process as quickly as possible.

Other LPOE users are visitors. Entering the facility is their “welcome moment” and maybe their first look at a new country. That comes with a measure of anxiety and excitement. As the “front door” to the country, a welcoming and inspiring design is critical.

The San Ysidro LPOE in southern California connects two communities separated by the US-Mexican border. The new facility embraces the port of the future for the U.S. General Services Administration.

More than just an entry/exit point

While border crossings are a way in and out of a country, that definition is incomplete. The San Ysidro LPOE in southern California connects two communities that, although on different sides of the US-Mexico border, are united by a singular social, economic, and cultural fabric. For those using the border crossing regularly, the impacts of delays and disruptions are immediate: Missed wages for employees, lost capacity for businesses, missed classes for students, and time apart for families.

It was inspiring to work with a talented design/build team, which included Hensel-Phelps as the contractor. Our team was a diverse collection of professionals that included immigrants—some from Mexico, others who have lived on multiple continents, and several who have worked on a variety of LPOEs. Sometimes, we had heated debates. But debate creates great design. And, in working to create the port of the future, great design was paramount.

As the economies of the US and Mexico become increasingly closer and populations grow, demand on border crossings will increase. All LPOE facilities, regardless of size, must address three priorities:

  1. A better experience for travelers
  2. Improved efficiency and performance
  3. Enhanced safety and security

Looking back on our work at the San Ysidro LPOE, we truly feel like we designed a facility that addresses all three while improving the lives of people on both sides of the border.

1. Improving the experience for travelers: Make it enjoyable

Ultimately, a border crossing is about people—those who work at the facility and those coming through it.

For commuters, the goal was to create a facility that infused their journey with dignity. The team designed a series of experiences that began at the international border. A wide, light-filled serpentine walkway covered by a photovoltaic canopy provides the northbound/inbound visitors with a dignified exterior queuing area stretching from the border to the East Pedestrian processing building where the inspections occur. There, they are welcomed into the building through a monumental entry portal, with three pivot doors nearly 30 feet tall. 

A wide, light-filled serpentine walkway that is covered by a photovoltaic canopy provides the northbound visitors at the San Ysidro LPOE with a pleasant queuing area, while also helping the facility meet its sustainability goals.

Balancing security and design were critical to the success of the San Ysidro LPOE project. Stantec and Hensel-Phelps worked together on the design-build project.

2. Improving efficiency and decreasing costs: It’s all about sustainability

Are design and cost naturally opposed? Not if you look at the bigger picture and design a space that supports both the environment and the occupant. Given the operational nature of the facility, our team identified that the lowest life-cycle cost for the project would come from significant energy and water savings, along with other sustainable design strategies.

Quite simply, the port of the future should be sustainable. For Phase 2 of the San Ysidro LPOE, this goal was ambitious—designing and constructing the first government-owned, 24-hour/365-day facility with LEED Platinum standards and low water and energy use targets.

The team had to meet GSA’s Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings. We did this with thoughtful and innovative energy and water reducing strategies, including:

  • Fan-assisted night purge in conjunction with thermal mass
  • Displacement ventilation
  • Heat recovery, solar thermal domestic hot water
  • Building envelope optimization that employed external solar shading, daylight, and occupancy sensors
  • 40% reduction in lighting power density
  • Renewable energy is generated onsite using photovoltaic panels, many of which are strategically designed as shade structures
  • Water-reduction techniques including low-flow fixtures and use of reclaimed water, specifically for the irrigation system, which uses 100% reclaimed water

Taken together, we created a building that not only honors its visitors and occupants but that also respects the land that it is a part of. 

Ultimately, a border crossing is about people—those who work at the facility and those coming through it.

3. Security and processing: Safety first is the priority

All US Federal buildings, which include border-crossing facilities, take safety and security seriously. At a secure border facility, this is even more important. So, we wanted to truly understand what that meant first-hand.

Meeting with the officers, walking the grounds, and viewing the site as a visitor gave us a much better understanding of how to balance security and design—and in fact they were often the same thing. The team embraced prevention measures through environmental design, making the building itself the first measure of protection. Clear lines of visibility for surveillance of all parts of the public area improve the safety of visitors and occupants. Clearly defined paths of public travel through the buildings provide natural access control and clear separation of the secure areas from the public areas to dissuade potential intruders.

Additionally, our team set out to create a space that allowed CBP to do their best work. If officers are engaged and invigorated at work, they are more likely to be situationally aware—another way to boost security. For San Ysidro LPOE, this translated into an interior architecture comparable to a corporate workspace. 

Using a virtual reality model, designers and the site’s tenants could view the important sight lines they required.

We incorporated a virtual reality (VR) model, allowing officers to “walk” through their new workplace before it was built. With the VR model, designers and the site’s tenants could view the important sight lines they required. The VR experience also revealed blind spots, giving the design team time to modify and provide the client exactly what they wanted. This feedback allowed us to integrate security into the facility’s physical design.

While VR may be commonplace now, at the time—and particularly for this type of facility—it was a novel approach. It clearly proved its value, resulting in a building where security and ease of travel don’t conflict but work in harmony.

Gateways to effective and efficient travel

Creating a sustainable, efficient, safe, and inviting border-crossing facility is not easy. Creating one at the busiest LPOE in the western hemisphere—that was a monumental challenge.

But these border facilities—spread along nearly 7,500 miles—and the people who use them are an essential part of the lifeblood of the US, Mexico, and Canada. We all long for the post-pandemic time when all the border crossings are open and free flowing. At that time, we will see the port of the future—and all these port facilities—serving as a gateway for effective and efficient travel.

  • Bill Ferris, Jr.

    Bill is a transportation engineer who is as passionate about designing solutions for his clients as he is about the game of golf.

    Contact Bill
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