A new border station in Vermont optimizes operational performance while welcoming visitors to the U.S. with nods to the local landscape

By Joel Hoekstra

Derby Line, Vermont, lies slightly north of the 45th parallel, the typical boundary between Canada and the U.S. But its aberrant location—the result of a surveying error—isn’t the only thing that makes the 600-person village unique: Several of its streets flow uninterrupted into Quebec, connecting with avenues in the Canadian town of Stanstead. A handful of buildings in Derby Line actually straddle the border, and a thick line painted on the floor of the local opera house reminds users to, in essence, “mind the gap.”

Official entry into the U.S. requires a passport or other travel documents. For decades, southbound border traffic at Derby Line was handled by a U.S. border patrol team operating out of two small brick buildings located just west of I-91. But as the number of vehicles passing through increased over the years, the existing facilities—built during the Lyndon Johnson administration—seemed increasingly undersized and antiquated. Eventually, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) approved plans to replace the structures and chose Minneapolis-based HGA to design the new facility. “It was a particularly complex project because they wanted to keep the port operational during construction,” says HGA project architect Tom Clark, AIA. “We had to design a facility that could go up in phases and would not interfere with border traffic.”

The GSA considers several factors in evaluating plans for a land port of entry, says Glenn Rotondo, the Regional Commissioner for Public Buildings Service, GSA New England Region. In addition to being functional—that is, delivering a safe, streamlined experience for users—the ports should provide “a dignified entrance into the United States” as well as the best possible value to the federal government. Sustainability is also a priority: The GSA sets ambitious energy goals and aims to achieve LEED-Gold certification whenever possible, says Rotondo.

The new, 21,420-square-foot facility is composed of two buildings and a connecting canopy that covers primary inspection lanes for all passenger vehicles and commercial traffic. Bus traffic is accommodated in a separate lane on the east side of the facility. The entry to the building was designed to adhere to the rigorous design and security standards of U.S. customs and border protection.

The exterior design takes its cues from the Vermont landscape. Entrances and portals are framed by inwardly faceted walls lined with unfinished southern yellow pine that’s been thermally modified to improve durability. “Over time, the surface will patina into a soft gray that recalls the region’s covered bridges,” says HGA design principal Victor Pechaty, AIA. “Weathering will change the building.”

The outermost exterior walls are clad in precast concrete panels. Most of the panels are vertically striated, but some feature a more intricate pattern: As part of the GSA’s Art in Architecture program, a pair of Vermont-based artists, working closely with the architects, created wood formwork to produce concrete panels that evoke stands of sugar maples in an artfully abstract way. The artists also crafted natural-edge maple slabs for interior wall features to further celebrate Vermont’s natural resources.

Climate-risk analysis and resiliency studies were a critical part of the design process. Ultimately, the LEED-Gold facility was designed to exceed energy standards required by code and to perform optimally through anticipated changes in climate. Notably, the project was completed without shutting down the port for even a single minute.

Land ports of entry mark the borders between two nations, but Derby Line’s aesthetic qualities remind travelers that the beauty of exposed rock and dense forest can be found on either side. Rotondo appreciates the way in which the building meshes with the landscape. “The balance of the materials between stone and timber helps create a sense of durability and permanence,” he says. “But there’s also warmth and accessibility.”

“This gateway project has a clear diagram and organizes a complex set of border-station functions in a very compelling way. We were also really impressed with the dialogue between the concrete and the wood, with the latter material folded inward to shape welcoming portals, and with the degree to which the design seamlessly integrates all the security technology.”

Location: Derby Line, Vermont
Client: General Services Administration (GSA)
Architect and landscape architect: HGA
Energy modeling: HGA
Construction manager: DEW Construction
Size: 21,420 square feet
Completion: December 2018