How do you judge a building’s performance? As the team here at ECO-STRUCTURE learned in putting together our March/April issue ( online now and hitting mailboxes tomorrow), when it comes to government facilities, performance isn’t just evaluated by examining functionality, energy use, or water use. It’s also a matter of national security. Earlier this year, members of the design community gathered in Washington, D.C., to recognize the winners of the General Services Administration’s 2010 Design Awards. Since 1990, every two years the GSA has gathered a panel of practitioners from the architecture, construction, design, engineering, and landscape fields to review recent federal architecture and celebrate, according to GSA public building service commissioner Robert A. Peck, “buildings worthy of the American people.”

This year, five of the 10 winning projects were land ports of entry (LPOEs), recently completed or in-progress gateways along the Mexican and Canadian borders. This facility type provides an intriguing design challenge.

When it comes to function, these stations have to be able to process thousands of commercial and noncommercial, or passenger, vehicles per year, as well as pedestrian traffic (typically of a higher volume on the southern ports than on the northern ports, which tend to be more vehicular-oriented). They have to be operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Run under the auspices of the GSA along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they have to be highly secure, and must be designed to continue running in worst-case scenarios. At a basic level, these requirements would most lend themselves to bunkerlike, institutional structures—functional and efficient, but hardly inspiring and welcoming.

Adding to the complexity, these ports must be designed to the level of LEED Gold certification, per GSA requirements—previous GSA requirements mandated design to meet the level of LEED Silver certification—and, under the GSA’s Design Excellence program, must also take aesthetics into consideration. (For some insight on what, exactly, constitutes design excellence, read "Border Inspection," an online Q&A with Peck and representatives of Customs and Border Protections and the Office of Field Operations.) What’s more, as Design Awards jury chair Billie Tsien, principal of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, noted in the January presentation, these places also represent the face of the United States to its many visitors. “What,” she asked, “does this architecture say about the values of this country?”

Coincidentally, last week, just as we finished shipping our issue to the printer, I attended a lunchtime briefing on Capitol Hill by the High-Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition, where the subject of security, sustainability, and the image it presents was again the focus of discussion. The coalition was established by ASHRAE to heighten awareness of congressional policymakers regarding the impact buildings have on our health, safety, and welfare, and the opportunities to design, construction and operate high-performance buildings to address these impacts, and this briefing in particular was looking at sustainability in regards to U.S. embassies. In briefing congressional staffers about recent embassy designs and specific concerns with these facilities, the conversation once again gravitated back to that overreaching question: What do these spaces say about the nation they represent?

On that note, I encourage you to take a look at the five Design Award–winning LPOEs profiled in our feature “Red, White, Blue, and Green” and let me know: What do you think these new ports say about the U.S.? Comment below, send me an email at, post on ECO-STRUCTURE’s Facebook wall, or shoot us a tweet (@ecostructure) with your thoughts.