Courthouse Design: An Essential Balancing Act for the Health of Our Democracy

When most people think about courthouse design, you don’t think much about the ability to see jurors’ facial expressions, the height of the judge’s bench, or how to get in and out of the courtroom.

But architects like Carol Lanham, civic principal, and Kate Diamond, civic design director and design principal in HDR’s Los Angeles architecture studio, think about them with unbridled passion. This passion came through in a webinar titled Courts: Design for the Rule of Law. It highlighted some of the amazing courthouse projects that HDR has worked on, while also taking a behind-the-scenes look into what goes into courthouse design.

Below is a Q & A with Carol and Kate based on the information provided in the webinar.

Q: What is first taken into consideration when designing a courthouse?

CL: Every state and municipality is different, so the first thing you have to understand is the court’s structure: how they conduct their operations, including how often each level of court meets. Every level has its own judges, for example. Can they share space? Do they make decisions together, or is it a jury-based trial system? And how many courtrooms do they need?

KD: Then, once you get into designing the space, the courtroom is at the core and circulation is key. There are three separate circulation paths: One path for the public; a private path for judges and some jury deliberations; and a secure circulation path for inmates and individuals in custody.

Q: What are other factors that impact the design?

CL: Security. You’ll find metal detectors and X-ray machines at the entrance to every courthouse. The entrance and lobby are the public’s first impression of the building, so it’s important that these machines are incorporated well. The judge’s security is important in every jurisdiction. These men and women are making life-altering decisions, so their private chambers and courtroom access should be designed so there are no accidental interactions with affected family members or the general public. Security may need to be present in the clerk’s office as well since the public has access. Lastly, there needs to be security in the holding facilities for those appearing at arraignment hearings or trials.

KD: Daylight. From everyone waiting for their day in court, to jurors, and even attorneys — everyone is stressed. Among the responsibilities of courthouse design is to create environments that not only address functional and security requirements, but reduce that inherent stress. Human beings do better, make better decisions and are more effective when they have access to daylight. A day-lit waiting area with a view reduces the stress of those waiting for their day in court. Design solutions for interior courtrooms include bringing daylight over exterior corridors and bouncing light in. But you don’t want to backlight the jury so much that the attorney (and judge) can’t read the expressions on their faces. If my fate ever hung on the deliberation of a jury I would want them to have daylight in the room! And the sun can be harsh on the woodwork that is commonly found in courtrooms. So there is a balancing act among glare, daylight and all of the parts and pieces that go into courthouse design.

CL: Technology. There is a lot of electronic equipment and infrastructure required so computers can “talk” to each other in a courtroom. The attorney tables have data ports so they can present electronic evidence. This information has to transfer to the judge’s and clerk’s computers simultaneously with TV monitors so the jury, witnesses and opposing counsel can see what’s being presented. Not to mention the ability to access electronically filed documents, annotation monitors, microphones, speakers, security cameras, etc. A courtroom should be dignified and elegant. No one wants to see a bunch of cords stringing all over the place. A lot of judges don’t even like their computer monitors to stick up over the top of the bench! It takes a lot of work and coordination to make this very advanced system work.

Q: What is important to keep in mind about the users of the space?

CL: In the federal system, judges are appointed for life, and they will ‘live’ and work in this space for years. While their input is infinitely valuable, we also have to be responsible stewards of public tax dollars, so we’re careful not to design highly customized courtrooms. We use multiple tools, including courtroom models, three-dimensional computer walk-throughs and full-scale bench mock-ups, to make sure the courtroom will work for multiple judges. Only after they have kicked the tires and approved the design do we finalise the drawings.

Q: What is important to keep in mind about the users of the space?

KD: The vast majority of cases are settled without going through court proceedings. But when there is a trial, this is the moment when the courtroom becomes a truly critical — perhaps even life or death — theatrical performance with a full cast of characters. The judge is there to oversee the court experience; the jury deliberates and makes decisions; there are the attorneys, the plaintiff and the defendant; and there is the public. When we design a courthouse, it’s humbling to think about the importance of this place to the people who walk through the doors. The design should deliver open, beautiful, safe and accessible spaces that are essential to the health of our democracy.

Civic Principal
Civic Design Director
Insight Topic