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February 2007

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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 overhaul?

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 Guide changes?

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?

A:When 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?

A:Congress 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 substantially.

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.

Q:The moratorium on courthouse construction, which began in 2004, ended in 2006. What did the moratorium accomplish? And what happens now?

A:The 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.

Q:The General Services Administration builds our courthouses; we’re their major tenant. How are we getting along with our landlord?

A:From 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?

A:We 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.

Q: 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?

A:I 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.