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Lessons Learned from Planning 1,212 Court Facilities

by Keith Fentress / November 3, 2023

Over 35 years, we have helped courts and architects plan courthouse space needs in 1,212 court facilities. We have had the opportunity to work on federal, state, county, and municipal courts in every state in the country, as well as some international work. 

This experience has given us a national perspective on courts, which we strive to bring to each courthouse project. This perspective includes knowledge of space standards, best practices in courthouse design, and an understanding of court operations and how they can be improved with the right space.

Below are a few lessons that I have learned about courthouse planning during our journey.

Cookie-Cutter Courthouse Design

A primary lesson that I have learned is that every court is unique. When it comes to courthouses, there are certainly similarities, but there is no cookie-cutter approach to courthouse design.

Several characteristics make a court and its courthouse unique. A significant factor is the court’s jurisdiction, including the geographic area it serves and its laws and regulations. The jurisdiction can lead to varying procedures and case types and impact the court's composition. 

For example, courts in urban centers typically handle a more diverse range of cases and require more support staff. Alternatively,  smaller, rural courthouses may have a more focused range of case types.

On a related note, the demographic and economic trends in the community or region impact the type and quantity of filings. A court does not generate its workload – the workload comes to the court, and it must respond.

Here are examples of other factors that make courthouses unique:

  • The context and culture of the local community (and the site selected) will impact the courthouse's design.
  • The perception of risk determines the need for security, including the crime risk in the surrounding community and the offense types and quantity of criminal defendants that must appear in court.
  • The use of technology, such as a paper-intensive court versus a court that uses electronic filing and case management systems, influences the need for storage and technology support.
  • The use of therapeutic and accountability courts that emphasize rehabilitation and monitoring and require specialized programs, additional resources, and close collaboration with community stakeholders.

The points above present a few examples of what makes courthouses unique. Despite this, when performing courthouse planning, I often observe court layouts and designs that do not capture the unique characteristics of a court. 

A courthouse is often designed by a set of standards (if standards are available) but standards do not focus on the uniqueness of a courthouse. I am not saying that standards should be thrown out, but standards should be used as a starting point and tweaked to enhance the courthouse by emphasizing the characteristics and operations that make it distinctive.

There is no cookie-cutter design approach. I see plenty of examples of courthouses designed by the same firm that look different on the outside but have the same layout issues on the inside.

One common example is narrow wells in courtrooms (the place in the courtroom that holds the proceeding participants, including the judge, jury, witness, attorneys, and plaintiff/defendant). As courtroom technology needs increase and the parties involved in proceedings increase (e.g., multi-defendant trials, proceedings with social workers and/or community representatives), the space in the courtroom well needs to be enlarged.

Another issue that exasperates this situation is using heavy, fixed-fixture furniture in the courtroom. Such furniture takes up considerable space and eliminates the ability to rearrange a courtroom for different proceedings. A key lesson learned from the pandemic is to keep the space design as flexible as possible. It is common to see courtrooms with narrow well spaces repeated within a courthouse, despite the different types of proceedings that occur for each type of court.

Please Engage the Courts

There is a concerning trend that I have noticed, especially since the pandemic, that court tenants are not asked to participate sufficiently in the planning and designing of courthouse needs. The design of a courthouse is an iterative process. It starts with studies, like needs assessments, and proceeds through various design and construction stages. During this process, space requirements will be updated and refined many times.

It is critical to speak with the court tenants often to gain the information needed and to engage the court in the process. This seems like common sense, but there is a growing trend to plan and design projects with minimal communication with the court. 

Sometimes, decision-makers are concerned that the courts will provide a “wish list” of space needs that will increase the size of a project beyond the available budget. Other times, it is determined that the decision-makers will build the facility for the courts, and, since the courts are not funding the project, their involvement is not promoted throughout the process.

These points are examples of why the courts need to be involved in understanding the project and its limitations and in ensuring the money spent on a courthouse is done so to derive the best outcome for court operations. 

When we are on a design team hired for a new courthouse or renovation project, our role is typically to validate past planning efforts. In doing so, it is often that we review these efforts with the court only to find out that the court was not part of the decision process. Of greatest concern is that the past study is often used to set the construction budget for the project.

Instead of designing for what the courts need, our attention is shifted to designing for what the courts don’t need so that the project can be “right-sized” to the available funding. The courts are forced to make sacrifices and compromises on a courthouse project when they were not full participants in the decisions being made on their behalf.

My goal is to make sure that courts have sufficient input into all levels of the planning, design, and construction process. This participation should start with the selection panel, whose job is to evaluate proposals and award courthouse design projects. I often present to panels that have no court representatives. The court should serve as members on such panels so they can be involved in selecting the firm that will design their future place of work.

Courthouses are Built for the Public

I often hear comments that courthouses are built for judges. This comment is frequently accompanied by concern that the courthouse does not reflect the needs of the other tenants. 

I think this is a misplaced perception. Courthouses are built for the public. They are significant civic facilities that represent justice in communities nationwide.

This misperception forms because judges often play a leading role in spearheading court projects. Judges are needed to help navigate the politics and hurdles that exist in courthouse projects. It frequently takes decision-makers ten or more years to plan, fund, design, and construct a courthouse. For this reason, it takes a judge with clout and stamina to convince decision-makers to fund a courthouse project that costs millions of dollars. 

However, when it comes to designing a courthouse, I have never seen a judge who micromanages the decisions made across the court and related tenants. A judge may be particular about his or her courtroom and chambers but wants the courthouse to function for all the participants, especially the public.

Hope for the Future

The emerging trend in courthouse design is toward more open and transparent facilities. Such facilities promote public trust and access to the justice system. This trend fosters a sense of accountability and fairness in legal proceedings.

Included in this trend is the focus on quality public spaces, such as lobbies, public circulation, jury assembly rooms, courtroom waiting areas, etc. These design goals do not promote cookie-cutter courthouses. They encourage engagement with the courts from the planning phase through designing and constructing courthouses as public facilities. 

I sincerely hope these lessons find their way into the design community to improve courthouse planning. All tenants in a courthouse want the same thing - to have a functional and affordable facility that serves the needs of justice in a unique community setting.

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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 change management, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys adventure travel and outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.