Court's in Session

Just about a decade ago, the U.S. government declared a "judicial emergency." No, there was not a constitutional crisis. Rather, the nation's federal courts were determined to be "out of space." Thus began the federal government's ambitious courthouse reconstruction program with a mandate for the General Services Administration to build 160 new facilities over a 10-year period.


Just about a decade ago, the U.S. government declared a "judicial emergency." No, there was not a constitutional crisis. Rather, the nation's federal courts were determined to be "out of space." Thus began the federal government's ambitious courthouse reconstruction program with a mandate for the General Services Administration to build 160 new facilities over a 10-year period. "The courthouses we are building today represent many of our city's future landmarks," states Rob Andrukonis, AIA, director of GSA's courthouse program. "They are the means of representing the federal government for probably the next century, if not two centuries. They have to be designed right."

With that directive, GSA has gone so far as to set the bar in the design community, especially where sustainability is concerned. In fact, as the agency responsible for operating all the federal government's buildings, GSA has established a design policy requiring all new facilities to not only meet the sustainable design criteria of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, but also achieve no less than Silver certification.

"Our buildings were already relatively sustainable, but we felt with a little more effort, we could achieve the Silver rating," explains David Eakin, P.E., GSA's chief engineer.

"GSA has really taken a leadership role in building design in this country," says Tom B. Moore, P.E., president of the RMH Group, Lakewood, Colo. RMH designed the Alfred A. Arraj U.S. Courthouse in Denver.

Money, of course, often dictates whether owners choose to pursue a green strategy. GSA determined that by increasing its project budgets by just 2.5%, Silver-rated LEED buildings were achievable. And judging from the myriad of projects either in progress or completed—47 new facilities have been constructed to date—the courthouse program has proven to be quite a success.

But money remains the issue. Recent funding shortfalls are slowing what's been an active market. For example, the U.S. courts construction program was appropriated $556.6 million in 2002, but last year it received just $392.3 million. And this year, a little more than $200 million has been allocated (see "Funding from the Feds," p. 32). "The original gentlemen's agreement was that the program would receive $500 million a year, but that hasn't happened," notes Andrukonis.

Another ongoing funding concern is that as the program stretches out, projects completed earlier will begin coming back on line for expansion. "It's like a big house," notes Andrukonis. "By the time you paint every room, it's time to start again."

For the record, GSA's courthouses are intended, from the start of design, to meet that particular court's needs for at least the next 15 years.

Catch up, however, may not be an issue in the short term.

"It's been a tough year," says Mary McHatton, vice president of Turner Construction Company's justice division, Indianapolis. Turner recently completed Atlanta's City Courthouse and is currently building the Escambia County Courthouse renovation in Pensacola, Fla. "There has been a lack of revenue coming in, and states are hard-pressed to meet the necessities of running a state government," says McHatten.

Tim Groover, P.E., a senior vice president with Wiley & Wilson, Lynchburg, Va., concurs. The firm is working on a number of county and municipal courthouse projects in Virginia ranging from new construction to HVAC upgrades to master planning.

"There's a tremendous need for buildings in the public sector, "but there are also very limited funds," says Groover.

Steve Loomis, AIA, a commonwealth peer and senior associate with HSMM's Virginia Beach office, couldn't agree more. "Everyone was crying the blues about the poor growth [in the local public sector] this past year," he says.

As a result, HSMM's work is more diverse with jobs as far away as Salt Lake City and West Jordan, Utah, as well as in neighboring North Carolina.

Some regions, however, are doing all right. "[In Florida] we don't see any end in sight," notes Tom Munson, RCDD, the division director of communications and technology for TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando. "It looks like almost every county in the state is doing something."

Even so, Groover adds, budgets are tight: "You're not seeing a lot of marble or mahogany."

Objection overruled

Groover raises an important point. Finishes are a very real issue, as judges tend to be very particular about what they want in their courtrooms. "If a judge wants mahogany paneling, he wants mahogany paneling and doesn't care what Congress thinks," jokes Peter Korda, P.E., CEO of Korda/Nemeth Engineering, Columbus, Ohio.

However, in all seriousness, he says, this is a challenge because judges are used to having their way.

"They've been appointed for life, and they don't particularly understand budget constraints," says Korda.

GSA, unfortunately, finds itself in the difficult position of navigating between Congress and the courts. But there are other parties to please, as well: Judges Security Services and the U.S. Marshall Services.

"A lot of sets of eyes look at the drawings," says Mark S. Rudiger, LC, a lighting designer with RMH.

Further complicating matters is that courthouses require unique functional requirements.

"You have a mixture of use and function under one roof—judges' chambers, courtrooms, jury assembly rooms, deliberation rooms, holding cells, public corridors and spaces and general offices," explains Steve Bickmore, P.E., a building system division manager with RMH.

Consequently, adds Loomis, courthouse designs must accommodate the "three Ps": separate circulation patterns for the public, private court officer business and the prisoners themselves. For example, service equipment must be located in private corridors for security, aesthetic and acoustic reasons. M/E equipment, similarly, cannot be accessible to the public, especially because it's not uncommon for unscrupulous characters to frequent these facilities. "It's a sad state of affairs, but we need to treat it as if someone is always trying to do us harm," admits Munson.

From a practical perspective, according to Boyd Morgenthaler, P.E., a principal mechanical engineer with AMC Engineers, Anchorage, making the geometry work to fit everything is one of the biggest challenges. "You're squeezed for acceptable areas on the floor plan where you can locate the equipment," he says.

That's why private corridors tend to be crowded with equipment. In turn, these spaces need to be designed with higher floor-to-floor heights, adds Morgenthaler's AMC colleague Dave Adams, a P.E. and principal electrical engineer with the firm. Aesthetically, the public thruways of these stately facilities are expected to present a dignified, honorable appearance. Acoustics are also important, as the judge and jury must be able to hear proceedings clearly, and all cases are recorded. So even when the equipment is located outside the courtroom, precautions must be taken to contain sound.

Additional audio/visual needs include lighting systems to facilitate video presentations and testimony, as well as accommodate the media's video and broadcasting equipment. For example, wall-wash type systems, indirect lighting with good cutoff characteristics and parabolic downlights are commonly specified to meet these needs, says Pat Cusick, P.E., an associate electrical engineer with AMC.

Yet another unique design consideration, says Adams, is the fact that courthouses, as codified by the International Building Code, have three different occupancy requirements: A, assembly; B, office; and I, institutional, with each having different requirements.

For instance, a courtroom might host as many as 100 people, but at other times, only five. Between cases, these rooms can sit idle for days at a time. Consequently, HVAC systems must accommodate these variations.

The Silver medal

As if courthouses didn't have enough design intricacies, GSA's Silver LEED certification requirement adds a whole new dimension. One of the most common sustainable systems going into federal courthouse buildings these days is underfloor air distribution. While these systems are great for scoring LEED points, Kim Shinn, P.E., a principal and senior mechanical engineer with TLC's Nashville office, notes that designers must take into account that UFAD systems transmit sound a little too easily. One way to minimize this problem, he says, is to utilize acoustic partitions and baffles. However, the solution does add to the system's up-front capital costs.

Other LEED-friendly HVAC systems being installed in courts include two-stage evaporative cooling, dedicated variable-air-volume ventilation systems, heat recovery, variable-frequency drives, CO2 monitoring and refrigeration devoid of CFCs, HFCs and halon.

"With refrigerated cooling, electrical consumption spikes when you bring a chiller on," explains Shinn. "However, with two-stage evaporative cooling, we're just bringing fans on yet providing the same level of comfort as refrigerated cooling."

James L. Standish, P.E., a senior vice president at Flack + Kurtz, New York, explains that dedicated VAV ventilation systems can track the current population in the courthouse, which can vary dramatically. In turn, the building automation system can respond accordingly by sensing CO 2 levels in courtrooms and other assembly areas.

By programming in a night purge cycle, Standish adds, justice facilities can be pre-cooled with cool evening air, effectively lightening the courthouse's cooling requirements the following morning.

As for plumbing, Standish says LEED encourages systems such as low-flow fixtures, drip irrigation systems and water retention systems, which save rainwater for use as make-up water for the cooling towers.

In the realm of lighting, LEED-certified courthouses are making use of dimming and switching controls, as well as daylighting, even though it can be a challenge to work these systems into a design. "Courthouses are traditionally square, so the interior space is partitioned into private offices, and they don't get daylight," Shinn explains.

Abandoning daylighting, however, means throwing away important LEED credits. Instead, Shinn recommends incorporating inner courtyards or deep atriums.

M/E systems, however, are just a drop in the bucket, according to Shinn's colleague Mark A. Gelfo, P.E., a principal and director at TLC's Jacksonville office. "Green building design is a lot more than just the HVAC system," he claims. "Site selection, architectural design, materials selection and construction methods are also a big part of the picture."

Also, while on the surface, LEED appears to be a fairly standard program, not all accreditations are created equal. For instance, with regards to energy efficiency, LEED certified buildings must meet either the local energy code or ASHRAE 90.1. However, as AMC electrical engineer Matt Rudisill, P.E., explains, local codes are frequently less stringent than ASHRAE, and in Alaska, where AMC does the vast majority of its work, there is no local energy code. Consequently, all LEED buildings there have no choice but to comply with the ASHRAE standard.

In addition to LEED, courthouse projects also follow the GSA's U.S. Courts Design Guide. Although it's an excellent document, AMC's Morgenthaler says meeting the requirements of both this guide and ASHRAE 90.1 is no simple task.

Ideal projects?

In general, even though a LEED building requires more effort, engineers seem to embrace the opportunity, as these projects tend to be of a higher quality. "In reality, what LEED means for M/E engineers is it forces the owner and architect to focus more on the mechanical and electrical systems earlier in the project, which is a good thing," explains Morgenthaler. "This gives us more of an opportunity to talk about space requirements and life-cycle costs."

In a similar vein, some engineers, like Standish, particularly enjoy working on government projects. "I find it quite rewarding because the objective that the government is looking for is not to value engineer systems from the get-go," he says. "They're looking for highly reliable, efficient buildings. This is an engineer's ideal project."

Top security

As courthouses often have to house hardened criminals awaiting hearings and trials, it's not surprising that extra security measures—duress alarms and bullet-proof glass—must be built in. However, in this era of terrorism, security goes well beyond interior operations.

"There's a real effort to design safer, more secure buildings," says Mark Gelfo, P.E. and principal with the Jacksonville office of TLC. "And we're talking not only traditional security systems, but also physical concerns, such as limiting vehicular access—physical barriers to prevent a truck from driving up in front of the courthouse."

In addition, says Peter Korda, P.E., CEO of Korda/Nemeth Engineering, Columbus, Ohio, building perimeters are generally required to be no less than 100 ft. back from the nearest public street.

Courthouses also require adequate space in the building entrance area to prevent entrants from having to wait outside in line for security check. "The best way to accomplish this," says James Standish, P.E., Flack + Kurtz, "is to perform a detailed traffic study and account for future growth. To provide adequate queuing, we develop security pavilions and appendages in existing buildings."

Another fairly recent change affecting courthouse design is the requirement to locate air intakes away from street level. According to Gelfo, designers are used to setting up systems to pull air through the sidewalls, but because the air intakes are now going on the roof, the air handlers are either being located nearby with supply and return air going down to the floors in chases, or fresh and relief air is being ducted down to air handlers located on the floors.

One other thing that has become standard for these projects is that all security design documents must be returned to the GSA at the end of the project.

All in all, the mechanical and electrical systems going into courthouses for security purposes tend to be more cutting-edge, which is something Standish appreciates since he can take the technological knowledge gained from working with these systems and share it with his clients in other market sectors.

Funding from the Feds

Included in the 2004 federal budget was funding totaling just over $200 million for the following federal courthouse projects:

Anniston, Ala.—site and design

Charlotte, N.C.—site and design

Greenville, S.C.—site and design

Harrisburg, Penn.—site and design

Los Angeles—design and partial construction

Orlando—additional construction funding

San Antonio—design

Toledo, Ohio—site and design

A New Approach to Ventilation

Motivated by the General Service Administration's sustainable design goals, federal courthouses have begun incorporating outdoor air ventilation systems with small dedicated air-handling units—a significant departure from traditional HVAC design.

"What you gain is a dramatic improvement in the ability to control outdoor air, mold, humidity and water penetration," explains David Eakin, P.E., GSA's chief engineer.

One difficulty with a traditional ventilation system is that it's tough to control the mix of return and ventilation air, even with the use of dampers and air control monitors. In addition, Eakin explains it's very difficult to slightly pressurize the building at night using large air handlers in an efficient manner. On the other hand, this preferred ventilation system effectively pressurizes the building by bringing in more outdoor air than what is exhausted.

"The relatively dry air dries out the wet envelope and enables you to control moisture," says Eakin.

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