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May 2005

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Award Honors Construction Excellence in Seattle

The General Services Administration Design Awards Program, held every two years, honors “the best of the best” of the federal projects designed and constructed by GSA. For the 2004 Biennial Design Awards, 143 projects were submitted; 16 projects were selected for awards. Seven U.S. courthouses received citations, but only one received honors: the new courthouse in Seattle, Washington.

In recognizing the courthouse for its Construction Excellence, the jury of private sector professionals noted, “The 390-foot-high U.S. Courthouse in Seattle with its iconic copper roof was completed on time and on budget, despite significant unexpected challenges that included record inclement weather, a labor strike, the departure of the major joint-venture partner, and contaminated soils.”

Chief Judge Robert S. Lasnik (W.D. Wash.) just says, “It was an epic.” The weather was probably normal for Seattle. (“Our weather isn’t bad,” said Clerk of Court Bruce Rifkin, “but it rains, which is bad for construction schedules.”) The rest of the hurdles, however, were all too real. The potentially most disruptive event occurred when the international company partnering with a smaller local company to build the courthouse went bankrupt. “I give GSA a lot of credit,” said Rifkin, “they kept the project moving and maintained the quality of the work—we never missed a beat.”

It took five years to find an appropriate site, then funding was held up. Finally, funding in hand, the court realized construction bids were nearly $17 million over available funding. “We looked at costs, estimates, and what we could cut. And we negotiated the contract within the appropriated funding,” said Rifkin. “In the end, we didn’t feel we gave up things critical to the building.”

The courthouse had an important advocate: Judge Carolyn R. Dimmick (W.D. Wash.). “Judge Dimmick was essential to construction,” said Lasnik. “She was on-site all the time.”

She began by paring down what the court wanted in its courthouse to fit the funding.

“We had to rethink and re-plan to come in on budget,” Dimmick said, “but we didn’t change the quality or efficiency of the building.”

The number of courtrooms was cut; “but we made them all the same size, so that any judge could use any courtroom,” said Dimmick. Book shelf space was taken from judges’ chambers, so three chambers now share a library. This also cut down on book purchases.

Adds Dimmick, “We stayed with modest materials inside the courthouse. But the interiors are just as lovely as the exterior. In fact, the interior also received a design award from GSA.”

One of Dimmick’s favorite areas is the courthouse entry, where a reflection pool also serves as a security barrier. Because of its placement, the public can walk in and see the courthouse without going through security.

A key to success was Dimmick’s efforts to involve her fellow judges in design decisions. For example, judges viewed a mock-up of a courtroom set-up in a local warehouse and approved the sightlines from bench to jury box before construction began. “Usually, judges move into a new courthouse and complain,” said Lasnik. “She forced us to deal with issues during the planning process. She made sure we were consulted.”

Adds Rifkin, “She had the cooperation of the judges. She knew what issues to consult them on, and in turn, they respected her taste and her decisions.”

Interviewed the same day a high-profile terrorist was sentenced in the courthouse, Lasnik said, “This really is a marvelous building, where good design and security are built into it.

At the same time, it’s not a fortress that says stay away. On a sunny day, people use the seating in our public plaza outside. Our courthouse café is open to the public and attracts people from the neighborhood. It’s a stunning building that adds to the city.”

Seven federal courthouses received citations in the 2004 Biennial Design Awards. For a look at these courthouse projects visit www.uscourts.gov/ttb/may05ttb/designawards.html.