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July 2007

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


Design Guide Renovation

It may be the must-read of the summer of 2007. Updated, reworked, and newly reader-friendly, it is the U.S. Courts Design Guide. OK, so you won’t see it on many beach blankets — but for those working in courthouse design and renovations, it’s the book to read.

The original Design Guide was produced in 1991, and while revisions have been made continuously since, the last major overhaul was in 1997. In terms of construction and technology, that made the Guide’s standards perilously out-of-date.

So what changed?

“We’ve made the Design Guide easier to use and understand,” says Chief Judge Joseph F. Bataillon, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Space and Facilities. “Architects and engineers have complained that the way the old Guide was structured and amended made it difficult to use. For example, if you wanted to know about standards for HVAC or lighting, you had to look in half a dozen different sections. Even the General Services Administration was having trouble.”

The new Design Guide has added chapters to orient judges and unit executives who may never previously have worked on a construction project.

But if you only read it for the organizational changes, you’d be missing the point. The new Guide reflects the Judiciary’s hard-eyed look at controlling costs and examining existing space standards.

“We needed to be sure our space requirements reflect changes in the way the Judiciary does business,” said Batallion. “We looked at everything—chambers, courtrooms, libraries, staff offices, even public spaces.”

Recommendations for cutting construction costs came from the people who knew best—GSA architects, judges, circuit executives, appellate, district and bankruptcy court clerks, probation and pretrial services officers, staff attorneys, circuit librarians, federal public defenders, and project managers. Everyone brought something to the table.

For example, all judges chambers conference rooms were downsized for consistency. All judges’ chambers will now have standardized layouts in each new courthouse. Circuit executives and librarians downsized their office and library square footage. With more cases being filed electronically, clerks of court reduced filing space and public intake areas to make room for additional computers and records examination space. All of which saves money.

“One of the big considerations is design excellence,” said Bataillon. “Understandably, because a federal courthouse should be a concrete and mortar symbol of American justice in the community. And their recommendations on the size of atriums and courtyards and other public spaces in the courthouse reflect those considerations. We worked with them to change criteria on the relative size of public versus private space. We still have impressive public space, but now it cannot exceed efficiency.”

GSA also helped the Committee revamp the recommendations on courthouse interiors from wall finishes to floors. “Now once a design aesthetic is selected for courthouse interiors, it becomes the building standard and that level of finish is maintained for the lifetime of the courthouse,” said Bataillon. “This not only saves money, it maintains the integrity of the original design.”

Criteria for acoustics and lighting were revamped. Former Design Guide performance level criteria on acoustics had proven too high, and these were assessed downward without any negative impact. Standards for lighting were refined to take a more practical consideration of reflective courtroom surfaces, sightlines, and task lighting.

GSA donated space for the AO to construct mock-ups of courtrooms to test updated recommendations on ease of access by people with disabilities, with the assistance of the Courthouse Access Advisory Committee of the U.S. Access Board.

What’s next on the list for revision? Bataillon says the Committee will look at standards for repairs and alterations. “We have many courthouses built to the standards of the 1991 and 1997 Design Guides,” he said. “The question will be, must renovations to a single floor meet 2007 guidelines, the 1997, or the pre-1991 standards of the rest of the courthouse.”

The new Design Guide is currently in production and will be available soon. Contact Kathleen Desmond at kathleen_desmond@ao.uscourts.gov for more information.