The grim halls of Ellis Island may be part of American history, but it’s not as if recent immigrants have been greeted with the warmest of welcomes. In many of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service centers, holding cells for deportees were in the same complex as the interview booths for immigrants. But the two functions were decoupled in 2003, creating a new bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This development also paved the way for new, customer-oriented centers, complete with self-service kiosks and expansive waiting areas. One of the first of the new USCIS centers, in Orlando, Fla., shows that it is possible to create a 43,000-square-foot space that is stylish, comfortable, and sustainable—as well as capable of withstanding the wear-and-tear of 300 visitors per day.

“This was a very different type of building for us—no more gray walls and blue carpet,” says Jennifer Killeen, facilities project manager at USCIS. “We wanted to create a facility that was very welcoming.”

The development team included architecture firm Leo A Daly, which had experience designing government buildings as well as significant LEED chops (14 certified and 48 registered projects, to date). The U.S. General Services Administration mandates that new federal buildings have LEED Silver certification as a goal, and encourages projects to aim higher; the building Leo A Daly designed received LEED Gold. “This project gave us the opportunity to see what different green aspects worked best for a customer-service facility, such as the natural materials and the natural lighting,” says Killeen. “We’ve been inspired to incorporate similar solutions in other facilities.”

“It was a real pleasure to work with [Leo A Daly], and the person who handled the documentation and certification for LEED was in-house, which really benefited us as an agency,” Killeen continues. “We’d run an idea by them and they were able to process it much more quickly, and we got certified more quickly.”

The development team proposed a site that was adjacent to a wetlands preserve but near major roads, which satisfied USCIS’s requirements for an accessible yet secluded location. The site is adjacent to a protected wetland, so the architects placed 30 feet of paving between the building and the edge of the site to form a runoff buffer zone.

The most critical design decision that the architects made was to optimize natural lighting—which would create a welcoming feeling as well as boost the project’s LEED score. In preparation for its new centers, USCIS had created a building template, which specified the different functions and spaces. But the layout was rather monolithic, with a row of offices that wrapped around the waiting area. The team at Leo A Daly essentially “unwrapped” that block of offices, creating a wing that juts out on one end. The waiting area now has a view of the outdoors that overlooks a courtyard planted with palms.

“The challenge was with the solar exposure, because with all the sunlight hitting the building there were pretty significant heat loads,” says project architect James Leach. “So we elongated the building to increase the north and south exposures. But the best thing we did was to peel open a section to create a nice daylit lobby, since that’s where the clients spend a majority of their time, waiting for their appointments.”

To shield the spaces from direct sunlight, the team added a butterfly roof with a wide overhang. It gives a commanding presence to what could have easily been a dull, utilitarian building. Inside, every space, even those without windows, has natural lighting: There are Solatube tubular daylighting modules throughout the space, at least one in every interior office, and a bank of offices near the center has two north-facing roof monitors, commonly used in factories, to let in a view of the sky as well as light.

The interior finishes also were chosen with an eye towards their aesthetic friendliness, as well as their eco-friendliness. Exposed concrete floors and steel framing have an elemental beauty and require no extra finishes. In the lobby, a ceiling of FSC-certified Douglas fir warms up the otherwise cold palette of concrete, steel, and glass. In the lobby’s waiting area, the team experimented with something new for a government building: a cork floor. “We were looking for something that had sound-control properties similar to carpet, but was also extremely durable and easy to clean,” says interior designer Nancy Novak of Leo A Daly. The USCIS’s Killeen testifies that after two years, the cork has held up extremely well.

Other thoughtful touches include the use of deep red as an accent color: Many of the immigrants to this part of the country are Hispanic and red is a welcoming color in many Latino cultures. In addition, a bold clay masonry wall that defines the entrance to the building is a reference to the Spanish Colonial architectural heritage of the Orlando area. Leo A Daly staff also came up with the idea of creating a large “mural” out of wood—FSC-certified, of course—from trees native to each of the six populated continents. The piece provides a rich textural element in the waiting area while beautifully underscoring the process of immigration. “Everyone on the team talked about how they wanted the experience to be memorable for people who were coming here to become citizens,” Novak says. “We wanted to create a building that had some sense of value and dignity, a building that would represent the nation well.”

Lydia Lee writes about architecture and sustainability from Menlo Park, Calif.

Green team

Architect, civil engineer, electrical engineer, interior designer, mechanical engineer, structural engineer: Nancy Novak, Michael Brady, Jessica Errett, Mike Ginsburg, Andrew Johnson, Kelly Carman, Elizabeth Hunter, Leo A Daly,

Client/owner: Jennifer Killeen, GSA,

General contractor: W.G. Mills,

Geotechnical engineer: Nodarse & Associates,

Landscape architect: Anderson Lesniak,

Sustainability coordinator: Chris Rupert, Leo A Daly

Materials and Sources

Carpet: Constantine Commercial,

Ceilings: Armstrong,

Cladding: Alucobond,

Curtainwalls: United States Aluminum,

Flooring: poured-in-place concrete; Unicork,

Glass: PPG Industries,

HVAC: Trane,

Lighting control systems: SESCO Lighting,

Lighting: Solatube International,

Masonry, concrete, and stone: Sandkuhl Clay Works,

Millwork: Environ Biocomposites,

Roofing: Firestone Building Products,