This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.
Interview: The Changing Face of Federal Courthouse Construction
Q:A new edition of the U.S.
Courts Design Guide was
recently completed. Why the major
A:It’s been almost 10 years since
we’ve done a comprehensive review of the U.S. Courts Design
Guide. We needed to be sure that our
space requirements reflected changes
in the way we do business.
Also, architects and engineers
have indicated that the Design
Guide, as it was formulated and
amended over the years, is difficult
to use. You’d have to read the core
document and then all the amendments to figure out the changes. GSA
was having trouble with that and
there was considerable disagreement as to what constituted
deviations from the guidelines’ space standards. If GSA reported what
appeared to be deviations from the Guide, then of course Congress would
think that we were asking for more space than was appropriate, when in
fact it was in exact accordance with the amended Design Guide. To solve
those problems and to make the document easier to use and understand, we
decided that it needed to be revamped.
Q:What are some of the aspects
of courthouse construction and
renovation that will be affected by the
A:We reduced space in judges’ chambers, particularly with regard to conference rooms.
We also looked to the private sector, primarily the legal
business, to see how they handle staff needs for space. Because of
computerization and some innovations in office furniture, we were able
to reduce staff space.
We changed the amount of shelving for books in chambers
and reduced the sizes of libraries in buildings. Because of
computerization and the preference for electronic research, library and
bookshelf demands have been reduced. In courts implementing CM/ECF, the
storage requirements have been reduced. So we reduced storage space and
shelving there too.
None of this came without a great deal of work by our
Design Guide working group, our committee and staff who researched these
issues and documented them for the Conference and for our committee.
Q:Does this mean we’re going to see substantially smaller courthouses being built?
A:We’ll see smaller courthouses being built because our space
requirements for staff and chambers are somewhat reduced. But when we
re-did the Design Guide, we looked at courthouses to figure out what is
the appropriate ratio between public and office space. Some of the
courthouses we’ve built in the past have had more public space than
office space. We need dignified and impressive buildings. But we’re
paying rent to GSA for this public space, and it may be more expensive
than we can afford. During the redraft of the Design Guide, we decided
to create a ratio of public to private space based on what we think is
best practice. As a result, the architects and judges involved in the
design process will have a realistic understanding about how much
building space is acceptable and how much public space comes with it.
Q:How are the courts involved in courthouse planning and construction?
the design architect team is selected, the court has one of five votes
that select the design architect. In some cases the court’s views have
not been adequately addressed. We’ve worked a long time with GSA to make
sure our voice is heard. Now the judge who is part of the design
selection team may have the assistance of the local court’s building
expert, and the circuit architect, as well as input from experts at the
Administrative Office Space and Facilities Division.
We emphasize that courthouses need to be designed
primarily from the inside out. In other words: determine the function of
a courthouse and the functions that need to be preserved, and after
that let’s talk about architectural achievements. Our committee’s
commitment is to be sure that courthouses are functional and operational
for the courts—and then architecturally significant.
Q:What is the Judiciary doing to control rent costs?
has indicated to us, in no uncertain terms, that we have to be much
more mindful of the costs that are involved in maintaining, improving
and increasing the size of our real property.
We’re doing it on a number of fronts. First of all,
the Conference has set budget caps for the coming years. We’re trying to
control rent to no more than an average annual 4.9 percent increase.
Then the question is, how do we implement that fiscal
control? The circuit judicial councils have the statutory responsibility
to determine the need for space. We’re trying to implement a process
whereby circuit councils are given more fiscal responsibility for the
rent in their circuits. Each circuit would be given a shadow allotment
for rent. The local court, in cooperation with GSA, or on their own,
would decide their space needs. They would bring that request to the
circuit judicial council. The circuit council would have to decide
whether the space is needed and affordable. Under the new budget caps,
the fiscal role of the circuit judicial councils increases
It will be incumbent upon the circuit councils to make
sure that they spend their dollars as wisely as possible. I think this
is a sea change from how we’ve done business in the past. Effectively,
we will be decentralizing our real estate budget to the circuit
councils. The circuit councils and their respective space and facilities
committees will have much more responsibility with respect to their
real property inventory, prioritizing within their circuits what needs
to be built, what can be
delayed or deferred or culled, and deciding between new
construction and renovation. Frankly, those decisions can be better made
at the circuit level than any place else. We’re confident the circuit
councils will be able to fulfill this new role.
moratorium on courthouse construction, which began in 2004, ended in
2006. What did the moratorium accomplish? And what happens now?
moratorium accomplished a number of things. It kept our rent bill in
check for those two years and it made it possible for us to keep staff
that we may not have otherwise been able to keep under a tight budget.
Just as importantly, it gave us an opportunity to
re-evaluate our rent bill with GSA. When we did that, we started to
check comparable rents around the country and found that in some GSA
regions there was substantial variance between what was considered fair
market value and what GSA was charging us. We also found there were some
discrepancies as far as space measurement is concerned. GSA has been
very cooperative in correcting those discrepancies. The courts in New
York deserve a lot of credit for getting the ball rolling in this
regard. Through their extraordinary efforts we came to realize the
magnitude of those rental discrepancies.
We also talked to GSA about their return on investment
pricing policy and have renegotiated downward that return on investment
interest rate, further reducing our rent obligations.
We also discussed with GSA what our needs are when
deciding whether to build a new building or to engage in a repair and
alteration (R&A) project. They had their own assessment tool, but it
was not completely in-tune with what we needed. We’re now working very
hard with GSA to be on the same page in assessing our need to acquire
new property or to enhance current property for those buildings that
have not yet received any funding.
General Services Administration builds our courthouses; we’re their
major tenant. How are we getting along with our landlord?
a national standpoint I have to say that GSA has made a great
commitment to the courts to resolve our issues and concerns. We’ve met
with GSA’s Administrator, its Public Buildings Commissioner, and its
upper management. We are sharing more information and institutionalizing
processes that will make both of us more effective space managers.
GSA has been very good about attempting to work out these
problems. It benefits all of us when we work together cooperatively.
GSA also has taken steps to bring more uniformity to the way it manages
its property nationally. With the rent cap initiative, we’re doing the
same thing. It seems to me we have the infrastructure in place to make
our road with GSA in the future much smoother.
Q:You mentioned rent validation efforts. Is that something the Judiciary is pursuing?
initiated and GSA has cooperated with rent validation. We call it Phase
I and Phase II of our rent validation process. In Phase I we’re looking
at our rent and whether GSA is charging us appropriately. Is our rent
reflecting the amount of square feet that we actually occupy? In Phase
II, we determine whether we’re paying fair market rent for the property
that we have. Ultimately, we will institute an ongoing process which
incorporates both phases.
Also, if there’s a problem between GSA and us concerning
fair market rent, we need to have a process that allows us to reasonably
negotiate any differences. GSA has been committed to resolving all
these issues and has streamlined the appeals process to make it easier
to work out our differences.
What is the status of the FY 07 funding for courthouse construction?
A:Our committee has submitted a Five-Year Courthouse Construction Plan to
the Judicial Conference for approval in March 2007. That Five-Year Plan
includes the 19 courthouses that have already received some funding
from Congress. Our goal is to complete construction of these projects.
We’ve tried to reduce our expectations as far as the
annual budget allocation for courthouse construction, from $500 million
per year to approximately $350-400 million per year. With that
understanding, we should be able to get all 19 projects completed.
There are an additional 33 proposed courthouse projects
which were on the old Five-Year Plan, but not yet funded. These projects
will have to be re-evaluated under a modified planning process to
determine whether we need new courthouses, repairs or alterations, or
some other improvements. We can then begin to put some of these new
courthouse projects in the queue for future congressional funding.
Q:What does the future of courthouse construction look like? Will there be fewer courthouses?
don’t think so. We won’t be able to build as many courthouses as we may
want, but that has always been a budgetary function of Congress. They
decide whether we get new courthouses. In the past, we asked Congress to
fund courthouses at the rate of &336;500 million a year, and they didn’t
fund us at that rate. That’s why the Five-Year Plan backed up as badly
as it did. Now we’re establishing an annual budgeting level that,
hopefully, is more palatable to Congress and more in keeping with its
recent historic funding—$350 million to $400 million a year.