HDR Hidalgo County Courthouse

5 Key Elements of Courthouse Design

Continuing the conversation around courthouse design, Kate Diamond describes key elements, challenges and recommendations to consider in their design.

Courthouse Security

When I think about the meaning of accessible justice in our democracy, it breaks my heart that security is often the first thing people associate with entering a courthouse. In virtually every courthouse today, you’ll find metal detectors and X-ray machines at the entrance. Design is a powerful tool to mitigate both the actual experience of entering through security and creating a positive first impression of arrival into the courthouse lobby. Using Frank Lloyd Wright’s trick of compression and release often works to frame the security equipment in a lower ceilinged “threshold” space that opens up into a memorable high volume civic lobby where visitors can orient themselves to the courthouse. Once inside the courthouse, with public circulation entirely separate from both the restricted and the secure circulation systems, the goal should be to provide clarity of wayfinding, daylight and views to reduce stress while discretely maintaining sightlines for security oversight.

While we want to minimize the visual impact of intrusive security at the entry, one aspect that cannot be emphasized enough is the importance of judges’ security. These men and women are making life-altering decisions. Every access point — from their arrival, to secured parking, to private elevators up to their chambers and courtroom — should be designed in a way that prevents accidental interactions with the general public. For them, security starts with passive architectural moves that maintain sightlines, adds unobtrusive separation barriers at the public counters and extends to duress alarms and active security measures in the holding areas.

Integrated security checkpoint, Hidalgo County Courthouse

Courthouse Technology

It is incredible how technology is changing the way modern courts function. There’s a lot of electronic equipment and infrastructure required so computers can “talk” to each other in a courtroom, so that multiple courts’ calendars can be updated daily and posted through digital signage, and so that documents can be filed electronically. 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.  

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, so it takes a lot of work and coordination to make this very advanced system work. In some court systems, digital jury check-in is reducing or even eliminating the need for large jury assembly spaces. Some of the more controversial uses of technology include video arraignment, other forms of video participation in trials, and the future impact of voice recording in addition to or in lieu of traditional court reporters transcripts.

What is very clear is that technology is continually evolving, so designing a robust and accessible infrastructure that can accommodate inevitable change without disrupting court operations is a critical responsibility. 

Courthouse Sustainability

An important consideration for all buildings we design, sustainability takes on an added layer of meaning in justice design. When we talk about sustainable justice we really want to emphasize the triple bottom-line of equity – economy – environment. As long standing civic investments, we serve our clients best by designing facilities that serve their entire community, delivering economically both in terms of first and lifetime costs, all while protecting both people and the planet.

Daylight is particularly important in courthouse design. Everyone waiting for their day in court — defendants, family members, civil litigants, jurors and even attorneys — 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. 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.

All in all, if my fate ever hung on the deliberation of a jury I would want them to have daylight in the room!

Daylighting as seen in Ellis County Courthouse

Courthouse Accessibility

I started this conversation about court design lamenting the impact that security has on the process of entering the courthouse, so I want to end on some additional ideas about making justice accessible to all. Often when we think about court design in the United States, we think about the neoclassical style of the Supreme Court building with its formal entrance to the “temple” and the imposing stairs. While there is value in referencing shared cultural memory, there are also several challenges with this model.

First of all it harkens back to a time when many Americans — minorities, women, differently able-bodied — did not have equal access to justice. The Americans with Disabilities Act is civil rights legislation that directly impacts the design of the built environment. Incorporating an accessible path of travel that is either a complete replacement for stairs or is truly equally visible, attractive and desirable is a great application of Universal Design that serves not only mobility challenged users of the courthouse but mothers with strollers and attorneys with heavy wheeled cases for their files. Often this reduces the height of the plinth that elevates the courthouse making the entrance less terrifying and more welcoming while maintaining the traditional opportunities to resolve disputes “on the courthouse steps” and avoid going to trial. Universal Design should also be taken into the courtroom itself with ramped access to key elements within the well.

Courthouse Style

Finally, as both an architect who believes in contemporary design a GSA Design Excellence Peer, I can’t help but paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s brilliant Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. Courthouse design should reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the Judiciary. Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought. Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located…Designs shall adhere to sound construction practice and utilize materials, methods and equipment of proven dependability. Buildings shall be economical to build, operate, and maintain, and should be accessible to the handicapped.” If you haven’t read the full report, I recommend that you take the time to visit GSA's page on the "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture." The report may have been published in 1961, but it is still inspiring.

Hidalgo County Courthouse, Edinburg, Texas

Civic Design Director