U.S. Land Port of Entry
A Port in the Storm: Julie Snow Architects' U.S. Land Port of Entry in the wetlands and woods of Northern Minnesota beckons travelers like a light at the end of a tunnel.
In northern Minnesota, the border between the United States and Canada is rendered nearly indistinguishable—miles and miles of marsh, prairie, and woods. The vast land lies so flat that it inspired a contractor working on the U.S. Land Port of Entry in Warroad to remark that if your dog ran away here, you could see him run away for three days.
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In response to this setting, Minneapolis-based Julie Snow Architects designed Warroad’s new port of entry facility as a “warm, glowing threshold,” a beacon for travelers in the long, harsh winters, says Matthew Kreilich, lead designer on the project. The result—a sleek, low-lying building with stained cedar siding and spans of glass—must be an unusual sight for a traveler expecting a prosaic government checkpoint with a program inherently at odds with it self: a temporary prison, a tollbooth, a gateway.
“We felt that it was really important to have a presence in this landscape because it’s so vast,” says Kreilich. The firm won the U.S. General Services Administration contract to design the 40,000-square-foot facility and, nearly a year after its completion in February 2010, it took home multiple GSA Design Awards and citations. (At publication time, the project was on track to receive LEED-Silver certification as well.)
The T-shaped facility encompasses three separate buildings connected by canopies. Typically, primary inspection areas and outbound inspection areas at ports of entry are kept distinct, but the architects wanted officers to be able to move between buildings more easily and comfortably in bad weather. “That was something we had to push for,” says Kreilich, referring to what he calls a protected “microclimate.” The primary officers’ building to the east contains conference rooms, holding cells, offices, and support spaces. Inbound vehicles pass between the primary building and a commercial inspection building to the west. As they do, a 16-foot-high cedar canopy the color of Grade-B maple syrup envelops them. (Most of the sustainably harvested cedar siding covering the facade is stained black, enhancing the glow of the maple-stained canopies and interiors.) A third building, forming the stem of the “T,” is an enclosed garage for secondary inspections and a firing range to allow officers to keep up required proficiency.
Warroad’s original 3,000-square-foot port was built in 1950 to accommodate two checkpoint officers. By 2005, when Julie Snow Architects began work on the project, the little port was long overdue for an upgrade. As Kreilich explains, it didn’t have a commercial inspection area, forcing truck drivers to pull over, walk across the highway, and process papers. Officers also needed to navigate traffic to inspect the trucks. The port’s location in a large wetland meant flooding in the basement. And security requirements have changed and intensified. “This port was simply not up to operating standards,” says Kreilich.
The team decided that the soil conditions at the then-current site were not suitable for a new port. “It was essentially a building on a lake. The soil we’d have to bring in and remove [to make the building work] just didn’t make sense,” says Kreilich. Instead, the existing border was kept open while the new port was built about three-quarters of a mile to the south at a higher elevation. Still, an undulating bog surrounded the building site—about 65 percent of the 13 acres was wetland, requiring wetland delineation. The team installed an impervious geo-fabric cap over 10 acres so that all stormwater would run off the site, explains D’Arcy Gravelle, the geotechnical engineer and vice president of Key Engineering Group’s Environmental Division. The design team added landscape features that look like wetlands but are actually stormwater detention basins that clean out salt and particulates before the water leaves the site.
Kreilich says that water filtration was important to the design process from the beginning because of how many pollutants vehicular traffic could produce and leak back into the wetland. Conveniently, geothermal wells work wonderfully in wetland areas where groundwater is in abundance and keeps the earth’s temperature at an ideal level for heating and cooling. But the team ran into trouble when it went to install the 100 wells. Where they had conducted a site investigation, bedrock was about 100 feet below grade. Where they actually advanced the wells, bedrock was 40 feet below grade.
“The drill rigs were having problems with advancing because there were some spots where they were getting tons of water, which became an issue,” says Gravelle. “The bedrock was fractured. It took us twice as long as we anticipated and budgeted for.” In the end, a larger drill rig and different drilling methods were used to install the wells 150 feet below the ground. Although there were challenges with this method, there would have been significant costs associated with bringing a natural gas pipeline to the site from the town of Warroad, about six miles away. “The geothermal allowed for more independence. We took advantage of the existing conditions,” added Kreilich.
The architects also maximized use of the local abundance of, and pride in, hardwood. Warroad is home to Marvin Windows and Doors and, until recently, Christian wooden hockey sticks (brothers Bill and Roger Christian, members of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, founded the company in 1964). “This was a culture that understood how to build with wood,” says Kreilich, and the architects wanted to honor that. “In early conversations with officers at the port, some said jokingly that they wanted it to be like a log cabin with wood and stone. It had to be something that was of this place but done in thoughtful way.”
Required security measures were sensitively integrated to keep the building transparent and welcoming. Subtle shifts in elevation and inflections in the facade may have practical purposes, like crash protection, but the architects rendered them in a way that avoids a fortresslike feel.
Security measures also explain why the facility consumes more energy than a typical office building. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has extensive site lighting and a snowmelt system—portions of the exterior concrete are heated to provide a safe inspection zone, say the architects.
“[Ports of entry] are highly functioning buildings with very specific programs,” says Kreilich. “I don’t know how many different design guides I had at my desk. [The goal was to] take all of that information and put it together in a way that can still create a beautiful building.”
The port officers think the goal was achieved, says Warroad Port Director Brian King, who also worked at the old and limited facility. He rattled off a sizeable list of benefits offered by the new building that makes his and his colleagues’ jobs easier and more efficient. What about beauty? “You just get a lot of ’Wow, this is really nice.’ We wow a lot of people. We wowed a lot of people before, but for the wrong reasons,” says King.