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    How Analysis Drives Courthouse Design

    by Keith Fentress / October 27, 2016

    Anyone seeing the façade of just about any major courthouse in any U.S. city would recognize the significant impact of architectural inspiration in the design and construction of these buildings. Classic Jeffersonian, Romanesque, neoclassical, Italianate, Mediterranean, contemporary, art deco – the list of architectural styles that architects have used in courthouse design is impressive. But behind the striking designs is a lesser-known element of courthouse construction – the analytical planning that fuels the creative architectural engine.

    In a previous post, we discussed the conceptual synergies and superior results that come from blending architecture and analysis to assess courthouse needs. Today, we’ll discuss some of the important specifics of analytical planning for courthouses used by courthouse planners. This planning includes two important components: (1) the use of historical and projected data to establish a framework and scale for a courthouse design; and (2) the valued input from court personnel who are the primary stakeholders in the courthouse design and who have the expertise to validate the data.

    “Make No Little Plans”

    At the turn of the 20th century, Daniel Burnham, widely regarded as the father of urban planning, famously said:

    “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

    courthouse design sun

    As courthouse planners we strive to aim high in our work, knowing that the results – courthouses – will serve the public interest for generations. But it’s equally important to remember the other factor that often influences courthouse planning – the need for responsible fiscal awareness, especially when budgets are tight – and to develop courthouse plans that are appropriately sized and properly meet the current and future needs of the court.
    This can sometimes be a difficult balance to achieve, but this is where effective analytical planning really shines.

    Courthouse Planning – It Takes a Team

    This analysis really begins with the data and an understanding of the information that impacts the workload of a court. This includes demographic and economic data, crime trends, and justice system initiatives. The data, paired with forecasts for future caseload and personnel, form the basis for a courthouse plan that accurately reflects the court’s current and projected needs.

    The data and projections can’t be developed and analyzed in a vacuum because there are other factors that affect the workload of a court and its future needs. This second piece – input from the people who work in the court each day – is critical in the planning process. This step involves reviewing and validating, or revising, the data with stakeholders that include judges, clerk of court and clerk’s office staff, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, probation and parole officers, and courthouse security representatives. These experts are really the key players on the planning team and tapping into their knowledge and experience is essential. As Kenneth Blanchard, author and management expert said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

    Gathering input from stakeholders involves in-person planning sessions with the people who are directly affected by the plan. We typically begin by discussing the quantitative data that have been developed and analyzed for the particular court, then ask for the professional experiences that reveal a less quantitative, more interpersonal image of the court. This helps us to hone the data and develop ideas that can be turned into action.

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    There are other benefits to involving the stakeholders of the plan, as well. As planners, we learn important information about the court’s operations and gain an understanding of how they actually work (which varies from court to court, despite the similar nature of the work). For the court representatives, this is an opportunity to learn about the planning issues and the courthouse design and planning process.

    Analysts call this process transactive planning, which is a group of people sitting around a table, gathering information and sharing ideas, a step that is an essential part of the planning process. I’ve learned over the years that plans that are developed without the consensus of the court tend to result in ineffectual solutions, while strategies that have the support of the key personnel during the planning process result in outcomes that are beneficial and successful.

    The Process in Practice: Real-Life Examples

    courthouse design people

    Demographic and Economic Data: I’m currently working on a courthouse plan for a rural Virginia jurisdiction. Before our first visit to the city, we prepared a trends analysis and forecasts for demographics, economics, caseload, and personnel as the starting point for our discussion with the court personnel. In particular, we analyzed the U.S. Census data for the area and used a geographic information system to illustrate the trends we had identified. The data revealed only a moderate growth trend in one metropolitan statistical area where the court is located. It also showed that the overall jurisdiction was experiencing a decreasing population growth and even declines in some areas as the broader region was struggling to find industries to replace its historic economic base, including the coal mining and textile industries.

    However, these census projections are based solely on historical growth and don’t take economic and other trends into account. During our on-site planning session, we presented these population projections that were based on sluggish census trends and that showed the need for only a modest increase in future personnel and caseload for the court. But in our discussions, we learned that although the region has been historically defined as a rural area, its sole centrally-located city has been experiencing an increase in the number of high-tech firms relocating to or starting up in the city, largely due to the expansion of local universities. Strong increases in tourism, retail and commercial sector growth, as well as substantial industrial development growth had also added to the expansion impact of the high-tech firms.

    These discussions with the clerk of court and other court managers helped justify why population could likely grow beyond what was projected, and explain the rationale for a larger court presence in response to the growth. If the population trends had been the only factor we considered, we would have painted a different and largely incorrect picture as the basis for projecting demand in the jurisdiction. Instead, this transactive planning practice allowed us to reassess and adjust the assumptions about projected caseload and staffing that ultimately resulted in a far more accurate plan for the court.


    Crime Trends and Justice System Initiatives: In addition to demographic and economic data, crime trends can also have a tremendous impact on courthouse design planning, especially the future caseload and the judgeships and personnel required to handle the work. Just as with the demographic and economic data, gaining feedback from court stakeholders on the crime trends is essential.

    We recently conducted a needs assessment for a court jurisdiction on the southwest border of the U.S. The court was operating under a hiring freeze but the criminal caseload had soared to historical highs in the four most recent years. During the planning session, court managers provided important details about the factors behind the skyrocketing caseload – primarily increased border enforcement and the resulting immigration and drug trafficking caseload. While talking through these recent trends with the court and with representatives from the related law enforcement agencies, it became clear that the caseload projections and resulting judgeship and personnel projections needed to reflect the aggressive growth that was occurring, as immigration-related crime was clearly not going away in the jurisdiction. But we also needed to take into account the fact that enforcement initiatives and priorities could change at any time, which could slow the caseload growth and the resulting need for more personnel over time. Without the perspective from the people who actually worked in the court and within the jurisdiction, our forecasts and resulting plans might have turned out to be far more excessive than what they really needed, or could afford.

    The Real Foundation of the Courthouse Design

    So, the next time you walk past a courthouse and admire the impressive architectural style and striking façade, take a minute to think about the other less visible aspect of the design. After all, it’s our quantitative data, bolstered and validated by the qualitative feedback from the on-the-ground experts – the people who actually work in the court and know its operations firsthand – that provide the real foundation for the architects and their stunning masterpieces.


    Tags: Courthouse Planning

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    Keith Fentress

    Keith Fentress

    Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, snorkeling, and fly fishing. He also enjoys martial arts and playing the saxophone.