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Better Together:  Planners & Architects Joining Forces on Courthouse Projects

by Trish Lomonosov / September 15, 2022

Planners support architects by quantifying the court’s space needs in a way that justifies the architectural conclusions. While it may be tempting to involve planners in the early phases of a courthouse project and then “pass the torch” to architects during the programming and design phases, it is best for planners and architects to collaborate closely as one seamless team throughout the entire project.

In the early stages of a courthouse project, planners focus on the up-front data and trends analysis. This is critical for developing a clear vision and scope, and ultimately for designing a facility that meets the many functional and security needs of the court family. Planners closely analyze demographic, economic, social, and technology factors that impact court workload and operations, all of which drive the court’s space and design requirements. This analysis involves taking a deep dive into factors that influence workload, including population growth, age distribution, immigration patterns, community mental health trends, crime and drug trends, risk level of offenders, and the state of the regional economy. Political and legislative changes impacting workload, as well as technological innovations that could be on the horizon, are also analyzed.

Architects assess space needs through the lens of space standards, security requirements, adjacency patterns, and court operations. The architects then develop a program of requirements (POR) that provides a detailed list of the type and quantity of spaces needed to meet the operational needs of the court. Architects may also prepare conceptual layouts that highlight the flow and function of critical court spaces, especially courtrooms and circulation patterns. And when a project moves forward, architects create the design for the new or renovated courthouse based on all of the requirements generated and agreed upon during the planning process. 

With planners and architects having such distinctly different roles in the courthouse project, you may be wondering how to create a cross-disciplinary team. Read on for a few tips on how to create a cohesive team of planners and architects that will work collaboratively on your courthouse project.

Early and Frequent Communication

“Communicate early and often.” This was a key takeaway from an American Planning Association conference I recently attended. From the onset of a courthouse project, it is important to establish a forum for regular communication among team members. I have found that weekly working sessions among planners and architects are an effective way of collaborating, sharing ideas, and reporting on the project’s progress. By establishing a regular forum for communication, planners and architects have the opportunity to organically learn each other’s language and perspective, and to weigh in at each phase of the project.

Joint Stakeholder Meetings

It is a common practice for planners to facilitate stakeholder sessions with judges, court staff, and courthouse tenants. The purpose of these sessions is to glean key assumptions on current and future workload, personnel, and operational needs. This allows planners to combine their knowledge of court planning trends with the knowledge and experience of court personnel to produce meaningful workload and personnel forecasts. Architects typically facilitate sessions with the same stakeholders to learn about deficiencies within existing space as well as spaces that are required to meet the future needs of the court. These stakeholder sessions are an essential part of the courthouse planning process.

Rather than planners and architects working in silos and conducting separate stakeholder sessions, it’s best for both planners and architects to actively participate in all stakeholder sessions. This provides architects the opportunity to gain an understanding of planning issues that will ultimately drive the design of the courthouse. It also helps forge the collaborative relationship between the stakeholders and architect early in the process. Similarly, involving planners in the space sessions provides a vital link between the trends analysis and the development of the POR and design options. This inclusive process involving stakeholders, planners, and architects helps ensure that the final courthouse design will fully reflect the court’s short- and long-term needs.

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Feedback Loop

Providing a regular feedback loop among planners and architects is a key step in delivering a successful courthouse project. As planners conduct the trends analysis and develop projections for workload and staffing, it’s important for them to keep the architects in the loop. Likewise, as the architects develop the program of requirements, conceptual layouts, and final design, it’s important to provide planners the opportunity to provide feedback. This allows for a cohesive blend of analysis and architecture throughout every stage of the courthouse project.

Better Together

A courthouse project is better when planners and architects work together from kick-off to design completion. Creating a unified team requires commitment from all team members to be actively engaged throughout the project. Although this may seem daunting given the extra time required from both planners and architects, it is key to setting a vision for the court’s future and delivering a successful courthouse project – one that will not only meet the needs of the court, but also serve as a proud architectural landmark in the community.

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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). She is also a certified Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) practitioner. Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.