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Federal Courthouse

September 23, 2004

Rethinking the courthouse from inside out

  • Designers seek to shine light on the judicial process — with windows

    Photos by Frank Ooms
    The courthouse’s office wing flanks the courtroom tower. The structure includes column-free, clear-span floors that let in natural light, a feature that contributes to the building’s sustainability goals.

    Rarely does a community have the opportunity to usher in a significant new public building designed to last 200 years. In creating the U.S. Federal Courthouse, designers at NBBJ confronted a range of challenges unique to our age, but with implications for the far distant future.

    This was a chance to rethink the function of the courthouse from the inside out -- to question traditional expectations not only for what makes an enduring icon of democracy and civic stability, but also for what makes the system work.

    Despite rising concerns for security, it was serendipitous to do this project now. When Congress gave the go-ahead in 1998, NBBJ and the U.S. General Services Administration were of like minds to collaborate and achieve innovation. According to the GSA's new level of stewardship for design excellence, a priority for workplace design matched the mandate to "give contemporary form and meaning to the nation's democratic values."

    In recent years, courthouses have been transformed into behemoth structures that seem to preclude an intimate relationship between the justice system and the public.

    By contrast, NBBJ's design priority was to overcome that barrier, emphasizing openness and a direct connection between the individual citizen and the federal courtroom in the pursuit of justice. Office functions and judicial chambers are expressed independently from the courtroom tower in order to demystify our modern large scale courthouse.

    Design components

    The structure has three primary components: Courtroom tower, judicial chambers, and office bar. The tower symbolizes the strength of the federal judicial process, but creates a window through which the public can sense the courtrooms and justice at work.

    The courthouse is the nation’s first to include standard-size courtrooms. The setup cuts costs by requiring fewer courtrooms, which — counter to tradition — the judges will share.

    One of only a few in the country made of non-reflective low-iron glass, the highly transparent curtain wall represents public visibility and access to the judicial process. The transparency also acts as a counterpoint to the strength and permanence of the adjacent solid wall elements.

    At the base of the tower, a portico and spacious lobby welcome the public. The tower is flanked by the judicial chambers and the office bar. The office bar is a horizontal element that not only differentiates its purpose from the courtrooms, but relates it, along with the building as a whole, to the surrounding community.

    The building's entrance portico, a prominent structure 13 meters tall with slender sculptural columns, supports the covered entrance and reinforces the federal presence while natural daylight enters from the sides and top to merge the boundary between the interior and exterior.

    Four sets of doors provide easy access to the lobby, separated into non-secure and secure areas by a reflecting pool that permits a clear view of the entire space. The pool is another welcoming feature that guides the public through the security checkpoint.

    A beautifully landscaped plaza with birch trees and reflecting pools provides a transition from the busy street to the quiet dignity of the courthouse. Stacking the courtrooms two per floor into a tower enabled the design team to provide 1,000 percent more open space on the site than is required by the local zoning code.

    And the courthouse's public cafeteria has been located outside the building's secure perimeter to promote a direct orientation and access to the community — a nationwide first.

    Character and function

    Beginning with the programming and research phase, a special enhanced office programming effort convened to realize innovative workplace planning and design solutions.

    lobby wall
    A reflecting pool in the lobby walls off the secure area of the courthouse without blocking the view. The barrier helps guide visitors to the security checkpoint.

    The design team organized a questionnaire for the U.S. District Court judges on topics such as the law, symbols and society, and the desired character and function of the district court. The goal was to understand each unit's culture, business goals and future direction so that the physical environment could directly support their needs.

    The process married the courts with private sector solutions that create high-performance environments and attract the best employees, stimulate creativity and increase productivity.

    Based on the judges' responses, this courthouse is the first in the nation to include universally sized district and magistrate courtrooms, allowing greater flexibility and requiring fewer courtrooms.

    Counter to tradition, the judges now will share courtrooms, with each courtroom floor containing three judicial chambers adjacent to two courtrooms. Also, rather than designating an individual library for each judge as in the past, the courthouse features shared judicial libraries -- one per floor -- saving additional space (which can be used to accommodate externs) and the expense of duplicating books.

    In turn, the office bar is a unique building feature intended to establish an identity and presence for judicial administrative functions, as well as other federal agencies independent of the judiciary.

    Acknowledging the value of everyone's contribution to the system, spaces within the office bar feature column-free, clear-span floors and access to daylight.

    Security and openness

    Security needs have been met with creative strategies conceived to emphasize an image of open access.

    Site perimeter security has been achieved with the use of landscape buffers, courthouse steps, reinforced tree guards and low-height bollards designed as seating elements.

    Upon entry, an expansive public lobby conveys the importance of the courthouse to the public without perceived physical barriers. The security barriers include a reflecting pool, public artwork and an invisible infrared security curtain.

    Steel cables run parallel to the building's superstructure to prohibit progressive collapse in the event of a blast.


    NBBJ's intention to develop an expansive curtain wall, taking advantage of the region's pale sun, also led to an investigation of the courthouse's full "green" potential.

    This study suggested the use of pre-cast concrete instead of more costly stone. By saving cost on the exterior cladding, it was possible to utilize a sophisticated glazing system in keeping with an environmentally progressive building that maximizes daylighting.

    The curved form of the courtroom ceiling opens toward the perimeter circulation zones. Daylight is bounced deep into the courtroom space by the light shelf on the exterior wall, and then diffused by the louvers of the courtroom wall.

    For the office bar, the distance between exterior windows and interior working space is minimized to take advantage of natural light.

    Additionally, a displacement ventilation system, in which cool air is introduced slowly at the floor level and rises only up to 8 feet, is part of an active strategy that will keep energy consumption to a minimum. A proven practice in Europe, this solution is still new in the United States and confirms the GSA's commitment to innovation in this project. Over the long term, it will greatly reduce the cost of operations.

    The quality, flexibility and durability of the new U.S. Courthouse will uphold the building's need to express the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of our national government. Its elegant appearance combined with openness and a conscious respect for the environment will reinforce the public mandate for this courthouse to last 200 years.

    William Bain and Steven McConnell are partners at NBBJ. James Tully is a senior associate. Other contributors includes Kay Compton, Christopher Larson and Lori Walker.

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