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Recipe for Successful Courthouse Planning: Equal Parts Analysis and Architecture

by Keith Fentress / June 23, 2016



On the surface, the disciplines of architecture and advanced analytics might seem mutually exclusive. However, over 30 years of courthouse planning experience have proven to me that, like a well-designed building, effective courthouse planning requires a foundation. Analytics provides that foundation. Consider the following necessary steps in constructing or renovating a courthouse:

  • Assessing the existing courthouse to determine its condition and ability to promote the efficient administration of justice
  • Identifying opportunities to improve space to better support court operations
  • Identifying the limitations that would hinder, or even preclude, such improvements

Although these types of courthouse planning decisions are often viewed as the domain of architects, experience demonstrates that sound architectural decisions are best supported by credible analysis. Here is why I believe this to be true.

Courthouse Analysis

The goal of courthouse planning is to define the space needs of the court and related components, and then determine whether these needs can reasonably fit into the existing courthouse. Evaluating the quality of space and structural aspects, of course, fall under the architects’ domain.

However, determining the quantity of space needed to properly support court operations requires analytical expertise that falls into two categories: the drivers of court demand and forecasting future needs.

Drivers of Court Demand

There is a general logic underlying courthouse planning: courts do not generate their own work – rather, courts respond to the workload generated by the civic population, law enforcement, and prosecutorial priorities, attorneys, and legislative changes. Changes in society that increase (or decrease) the demand for court services – such as demographics, economic trends, employment, technology and new laws – lead to changes in court workload.

Changes in court workload, in turn, lead to changes in the number of judges and court personnel needed to manage the work. Changes in the number of judges and court personnel affect the quantity and functional attributes of space needed to support court operations.

Therefore, it is critical to first analyze and understand the drivers of court demand before the architect can take the results and translate them into space requirements.

Forecasting the Future

Another area requiring analysis is forecasting. Let’s face it, new courthouse construction or major renovation projects do not spring up overnight. It can take 10 years or more to plan, fund, design, and construct a major courthouse project; therefore, forecasting aspects of the court’s future is critical. The last thing any decision-maker wants is to complete a major courthouse project only to find that the facility remains overcrowded because future needs were not properly addressed.

This can and does happen, especially when the analytical portion of the planning effort takes a backseat to architectural considerations.

Blending Analysis and Architecture in Courthouse Planning

A balanced set of architectural and analytical skills are required to perform successful courthouse planning. Too often, the analytical side of this equation is overlooked in a profession that is dominated by architectural firms. In short, analysis supports architecture by quantifying the court’s space needs in a way that is credible and justifies the architectural conclusions.

Here are several scenarios commonly found in courthouses that illustrate how analysis can support architectural decisions:

Adding a Courtroom for a New Judge

Architectural – It is necessary to identify space in the courthouse with the correct horizontal and vertical dimensions and the critical restricted and secure circulation connections. Most importantly, the courtroom should be placed in an area that will allow for separate entry points from restricted and secure circulation paths dedicated to the judge and prisoner movement, respectively.

The prospective courtroom space should be free of columns or other obstructions that would inhibit sightlines. Incorporating natural day lighting is also preferable when considering the design of a new courtroom.

Analytical – Unless rectifying an existing courtroom shortage, the need for a new courtroom is based on the projected need for an additional judge. This need, in turn, is based on forecasted future workload – typically an increased volume of cases, proceedings, or trials – coupled with an allocation formula that measures the additional workload needed to signal the need for an additional judge.

The workload forecasts are developed using time series analysis, supplemented by planning assumptions from judges, court component managers, and other subject matter experts.

To provide a cross-check on the potential need for an additional judge, demographic, geographic, and economic trends are also analyzed to support the workload forecasts; this includes a detailed comparison of the court’s trends with trends from other regionally or demographically similar court jurisdictions. The rate of historic judgeship increases is also analyzed as a cross-check to verify that the timing is realistic for projecting a new judge.

Analysis Architecture and Courthouse Planning - Fentress Inc.

An existing courtroom that is too small for the court’s forecasted workload

Increasing the Amount of Secured Circulation for Prisoners

Architectural – It is necessary to identify opportunities to improve secured circulation for prisoner movement, from the point of entry into the courthouse, to the cellblock/holding cells (if any), and then to the courtroom. It is critical to ensure that prisoners do not cross pathways with the public, jurors, court personnel, or judges.

In multi-story buildings, this usually requires the addition of a dedicated elevator for vertical prisoner movement in addition to the dedicated secure circulation path between the courtroom and cellblock. If a courtroom is not in close proximity to the main cellblock, direct access to a smaller, secure holding area should be positioned adjacent to the courtroom.

Analytical – In this scenario, the analytical role involves estimating the volume of prisoner traffic within the courthouse. For example, forecasts could be developed for the number of prisoners transported to the courthouse each day, based upon data on criminal proceedings and trials, the forecasted number of defendants, the number of proceedings per case, the percentage of cases that extend to trial, and the length of time between case commencement and closure.

Analysis Architecture and Courthouse Planning Secure Cells - Fentress Inc.

A prisoner facility sized to meet a high volume of forecasted defendants

Calculating the Needed Amount of Courthouse Parking

Architectural – It is necessary to identify the volume of public parking, restricted parking for staff, and secure parking for judges.

Parking for judges and executives is typically either in an enclosed secure parking garage within the building, or in a restricted surface parking lot on the courthouse site. In urban areas, when on-site parking cannot be easily accommodated, the availability of parking for the public, jurors, and staff is often a contributing factor when considering the site for a new courthouse.

Analytical – In this scenario, the analytical role involves estimating the number of people who visit the courthouse. This number is often determined through a survey but can also be calculated by analyzing metrics such as: workload volume, number of proceedings, average participants and spectators per proceeding, number of jury days and jury assembly proceedings, average number of visitors to the court and other building occupants, and percentage of visitors who use public transportation.

Unsecured, restricted parking is usually limited to specific labor categories of court and related component personnel. The number of restricted spaces needed can be estimated based on the forecasted workload and personnel, and assumptions about future court services and the impact of technology. Secured parking is typically limited to judges; the number of secured spaces needed can be estimated based on a judge allocation formula coupled with forecasted future workload.

Analysis Architecture and Courthouse Planning Parking - Fentress Inc.

A restricted parking garage sized to anticipate the forecasted workload


As demonstrated by the above examples, addressing common space problems in courthouses requires a combination of court-specific architectural and analytical expertise. Court analytics include trend research, statistical analysis, and interfacing with judges and court managers via focus groups and interviews to develop reliable planning assumptions that are clearly documented. A planning process that features both a court-experienced architect and analyst enhances the credibility of the plan and the reliability of the results and recommendations.

A Final Thought

Several years ago, I was hired by a court to perform a courthouse planning study and develop a program of requirements. The courthouse was located in an area with a rapidly increasing law enforcement presence and corresponding high criminal caseload. The court also had a significant volume of family and juvenile cases. To say the least, the courthouse was overcrowded and getting worse.

As I started working on the planning effort, I asked the court if I could review the analysis that had been prepared prior to the design of the existing facility. Given the excessive overcrowding, I was shocked to learn that the building had only been in use for two years. I learned from the review that very little actual analysis had gone into the effort. The new courthouse was an adaptive reuse project to convert a vacant shopping facility into a courthouse. This was understandably an architectural challenge and, therefore, the analytical side was apparently minimized.

After nearly 10 years of waiting for the political process to allocate funds for the project and an additional four years devoted to design and construction, the doors of the new courthouse finally opened. However, during the interim timeframe, the caseload grew considerably, as did the number of judges, court personnel, court programs, and the corresponding need for space. As soon as the new courthouse opened, it was already out of space; this created operational inefficiency and organizational tension as some of the court and related components initially slated to move into the new facility were instead relocated to other buildings.

But the court learned a valuable lesson about the need for planning. Correspondingly, it was determined that my scope of work would be to help the court plan and program for 10-, 20-, and 30-year milestones based on a reliable forecast of future court demand including caseload, personnel, and space needs. Forecasting the future helped the court to get ahead of its growing demand and properly plan two additional phases for on-site courthouse expansion.

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, and snorkeling.