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Defining Court Planner and Building Owner Roles in Courthouse Planning

by Matt Hemphill / November 17, 2022

In my last blog, I talked about strategies that contribute to a successful courthouse planning effort. These strategies include conducting client interviews, recommending specific courtrooms and other office and support spaces, and defining all space sizes and requirements using design guidelines or proven industry standards. While these are all critical to successful space planning, the effort cannot be successful without full participation from the building owner.

Interestingly, courthouses are not typically owned by the court. Therefore, it becomes critical that the building owner – whether it be a federal, state, county, or privately owned building – work closely with the court planner and design team to help coordinate the planning process. The specific roles of the court planner and owner must be clearly defined to ensure a successful project. In this blog, I will define the primary responsibilities of each during the space programming process.


Court Planner Responsibilities

The court planner’s primary responsibility is to gather information on the court’s current and future space needs, and to use this information to generate space requirements that accurately represent the current and future needs of the court. As such, it is the court planner’s responsibility to:

  • Assess the existing facility and operations

While there are certainly similarities between all courthouses, it is critical that the court planner does not go into a project with a “cookie-cutter” approach, assuming all courts operate in the same manner. I have assessed hundreds of courthouses and can assure you that no two are the same. The court planner must tour the existing space and interview each key stakeholder to gain an understanding of their operations and to determine how well the existing space meets their needs. For renovation projects, I also find it helpful to evaluate the existing courthouse as a whole (i.e., circulation paths, secure holding areas, etc.) utilizing performance benchmarks. At the conclusion of the tours and interviews, the court planner should have detailed information on what works well for the court as well as the specific space, security, and technology deficiencies.

  • Perform workload analysis

The court planner should perform a detailed analysis of historical workload data to understand how well existing space accommodates the workload. The planner should also research and analyze emerging trends likely to influence the future space needs of the court. For example, new policies such as remote proceedings or telework could affect the number of litigants or staff that need to be accommodated in various spaces within the building. Similarly, population growth, regional trends, and local planning initiatives could cause the court’s workload to grow. The purpose of the workload analysis is to help generate reasonable planning assumptions that feed into the next step, the development of space requirements.

  • Develop the space requirements

The court planner should generate a detailed set of space requirements for each department and space type. The primary purpose of this set of requirements, known as the Program of Requirements (POR), is to provide the design architect with a comprehensive list of spaces, space sizes, and adjacency guidelines that should be provided in a new courthouse or renovation project.


Owner Responsibilities

As you can see, the primary responsibilities of the court planner rely heavily on input from the stakeholders. It is the owner’s responsibility to ensure that the court planner gets the information they need, while at the same time managing the stakeholders’ expectations so their objectives can be met. Here are some ways this can be achieved:

  • Establish goals

The owner should establish and clearly communicate project goals to the court planner and all stakeholders throughout the planning process. The goal might be broad – for example, using the project to revitalize an underperforming area in the city. Or it could be very specific, such as improving secure prisoner movement , providing an additional courtroom, or simply improving the performance of the building systems.

  • Coordinate with stakeholders

The owner should work with the court’s administrative team and court planner to determine which stakeholders should be interviewed, and to help schedule those meetings. It is important to ensure that the right people attend the interviews to provide the information needed for the POR. I have found that it is most effective to interview all department heads about their respective workload, staffing, and space needs. Department heads understand the day-to-day operational processes and deficiencies, which cannot be fully conveyed by the court leadership team.

  • Provide guidance on project constraints

The owner should make the court planner and planning team members aware of any known project constraints, such as site conditions, local initiatives, or budgetary issues. This is important for managing the expectations of all parties and stakeholders, and helps ensure that a realistic scope of work is developed. It is also important for the owner to be very candid with the stakeholders regarding how design guidelines will be enforced, or how the budget will affect the design alternatives. These candid discussions help bring the planning team together with a common set of guidelines and goals within which to work. This also helps prevent individual stakeholders from going after “space grabs,” or the squeaky wheel syndrome.

  • Secure approvals from and communicate with local governing body

There are often restrictions or permissions that require the involvement of the local governing body (county commission, city leadership, etc.). There may also be other initiatives planned by the local government that could in some way affect the court planning project. For example, there may be a transportation infrastructure project or revitalization plans for the surrounding area that could have a direct impact on the projects viability or parameters. It is also possible that the courthouse project could enhance or detract from parallel government planning efforts. It is critical that the owner stay in touch with local officials and keep the design team informed of any potential problems or even opportunities for collaboration.


Court Planner and Owner – A Critical Partnership

 Cooperation and clear communication between the court planner and facility owner form the foundation for a solid partnership that ultimately extends beyond the front-end planning team to the entire design and construction team. The most successful planning efforts I have participated in were marked by a clear understanding of individual roles and a supportive environment in which the court planner supported the building owner, and vice versa.

In my next blog, I’ll outline the individual roles and responsibilities of the design architect and owner during the concept design phase. As the courthouse begins to take shape, it’s critical for the partnership to remain strong. This leads to a better courthouse design and a more pleasant experience for all!


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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Matt Hemphill

Matt Hemphill

During Matt’s career, he has been involved in many successful projects and facility types, such as courthouses, land ports of entry, hospitals, outpatient medical office buildings, assisted living facilities, and general office space for large corporations. Matt enjoys music and running, and likes to cook.