Across the country, courthouses, or judicial centers as they are sometimes called, are seen as prominent sources of civic pride. As populations grow while government budgets shrink, more stress is put on the courts and their functions. Courthouses are running out of space to effectively conduct business, and the need for improved and secured facilities has never been higher.

An increasing number of local and state governments are looking to expand the space needed to conduct judicial business, whether through renovation or the construction of new facilities. While the function of a county courthouse differs from that of a state appellate court, over the last two decades three specific trends have arisen among both types of judicial design: public and employee safety, integrated technology and the ability to address and plan for future growth.

Designing with Safety in Mind

In April of 1995, a truck bomb took out nearly one-third of downtown Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Security and safety concerns, especially for judicial centers, were brought to the forefront of public discourse and needed to be addressed in a way that placed emphasis on building security and circulation moving forward. Since then, the federal government has increased safety standards for nearly all government buildings, leading design professionals to find ways to successfully integrate safety and security protocols throughout building designs and plans.

Matthew J. Perry U.S. Federal Courthouse, Columbia SCWith a portfolio that includes the new $105 million Georgia Judicial Complex, which recently broke ground, the Matthew J. Perry U.S. Federal Courthouse, Horry County Judicial and Administration Complex, and the historic John C. Godbold Federal Building and Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals, Stevens & Wilkinson, a full-service architecture, engineering and interior design firm, has diligently worked to perfect the security design process, especially as it pertains to judicial centers.

When working on the Georgia Judicial Complex in Atlanta, Bill Clark, AIA, LEED AP, principal and president of Stevens & Wilkinson’s Georgia office, recalls working with the state and federal governments to decide which safety standards best protected the users of the new building.

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“At the time, the State of Georgia had no specific security requirements for court-based buildings,” said Clark. “We went back to April of 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, and began to list each of the security issues we knew we needed to address. From there a plan was developed; one that succinctly addressed each of the important security measures needed and one that was then implemented throughout each design phase.”

Clark had to not only design the building to be as safe as possible, but also work within the confines of a very strict budget. “It is always a balancing act when having to maneuver through what the client wants based on the federal standards versus what the state can afford.” said Clark. Since cutting back on safety measures is never an option, Clark said he worked with the client to develop creative solutions that fit within budget and satisfied all safety and security concerns.

Safety solutions for the Georgia Justice Center included locating the building far back from the curb to a safe “stand-off” distance, increasing intake security to match federal regulations and designing a system of retractable bollards and barrier walls that prevent vehicles from running into the buildings.

Often, safety can be addressed with an intentional layout and design. Ashby Gressette, AIA, principal and president of Stevens & Wilkinson, said he often uses a floor plan on county courthouses that limits interaction between the public and senior court officials, such as judges and court clerks. Public space is typically secured by metal detectors and security checkpoints, while judges and senior staff are given their own secured entrances and parking areas.

In most county courthouses, separate space is also planned for sheriffs and detainees. In the new Florence County, S.C. 

Florence County SC Judicial Complex

courthouse, which is currently under construction, additional security measures were incorporated for detainees, including

separate driveways, entrances and holding cells. “The only place we want members of the public, court officials and detainees to meet is in the courtroom,” Gressette said.

Gressette, who also has led the design of several new facilities and historic courthouse renovations, explained that another way to help maintain security is to limit the number of building entrances.

“Security is number one when you’re used to an unsecured facility, especially when you are coming from a historic building that was built in the late 1920s or early 1930s,” he said. “Most older county buildings have several entrances, which is not safe. Multiple entrances mean the public has a number of ways to enter the facility. This is why the goal of most county courthouse facilities is to funnel everyone through one door so they can be screened, even employees.”

To further protect the people inside the building, Gressette recommends the following design: jury and judges’ chambers in the back with courtrooms in the center and administrative rooms and public areas on the outside.

“This protects the courtrooms, which are all located at the heart, or core, of the building,” said Gressette. In his design of the Florence County Judicial Center Gressette used a “bar” layout in which pairs of courtrooms are serviced by a high-security core.

Parking is also a safety measure that design professionals take into consideration when developing judicial centers. Explosives, access to the building from above-ground parking decks and possible parking deck assaults of clerks, judges or justices are all possible threats.

According to Gressette, limited-access underground parking decks often are built for senior judicial staff to ensure their safety as they walk to and from their cars. This helps prevent harm or hassle from disgruntled members of the public.

Technology in the Courtroom

Technological advances in surveillance and safety systems also heavily lend themselves to the design of safer judicial centers.

“The level of access-controls and other security features that are required in courthouses, due to their occupants, typically exceeds those in other government buildings,” said Mark Nicolai, senior electrical designer at Stevens & Wilkinson, who specializes in courthouse design. “We typically include Integrated IP-Based Security Systems (ISS) in these buildings,” he said. The ISS integrates access control, alarm monitoring, intercom and closed-circuit television systems.

Not only does new technology affect the way safety systems are designed in judicial centers, but it has changed the way courts conduct business.

“Over the last few years, there has been a big shift to go paperless in courtrooms,” said Gressette. While this means less space is needed for paper storage, more considerations have to be made for the integration of electronics in offices, meeting spaces and courtrooms as everyone who uses these devices to review evidence will need electrical outlets, internet access (wifi or otherwise) and/or cellular signals.

Audio-Visual systems are also likely to be included in new courtrooms. “These include sound reinforcement and recording,” said Nicolai. “They allow the courts to utilize electronic evidence presentation with real-time annotations, as well as video conferencing for remote bond hearings.”

The dependence on technology to relay courthouse communication has risen in the last decade and the technology is ever changing. To keep up with these changes, both Clark and Gressette said that their teams often wait until the last minute to purchase or install technology. “Things change so quickly,” said Clark.

Nicolai said that while technology does change constantly, “this typically means that the medium that is used to transport the information changes.” Since future technological changes are a given, Nicolai said he designs internal electrical systems that are “intentionally designed to allow for this growth.”

Designing for the Future

As population and the desire for additional security and technology continues to grow, so does the need for new judicial centers; judicial centers that should not quickly be outgrown.

“Good planners design for the future,” said Gressette. “A judicial center that needs seven courtrooms now may need eight in 20 years.”

Stevens & Wilkinson, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, RAMSA, State of Georgia Judicial Complex, Atlanta GAAccording to Clark, the Georgia Judicial Complex was designed to accommodate growth for 50 years. To ensure the building will maintain the space needed to grow, government departments not associated with the courts occupy what is considered extra office and meeting space. When more room is needed, those non-court functions will be asked to relocate to another government building.

Looking at estimated population growth is often the most influential metric in deciding the appropriate size of a judicial center. Additional elements are studied to ensure there is room for the type of courts needed in a community, especially for smaller county-level judicial centers. “Demographics and aging population have a direct impact on the kind of cases we see in courthouses,” Clark said.

With the increasing strain on judicial centers across the country, new or additional space will soon be needed. As these new centers are built, there is an opportunity to move security and technology to the forefront of design considerations. These modernization’s can not only make the courts run more safely and efficiently, but also can be used to ensure these important symbols of justice stand for decades.

About Stevens & Wilkinson:

Founded in 1919, Stevens & Wilkinson is a full-service architecture, engineering and interior design firm committed to providing clients with “Smart Design Solutions.” The firm’s combined design capabilities lead to projects executed with creative, innovative and holistic design solutions. Learn more:

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