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Navigating the Future of Historic Courthouses

by Matt Hemphill / February 1, 2024

As a court planner, I am frequently faced with helping clients understand whether or not their historic courthouse is a viable long-term housing solution for them.  The challenges faced by courts who operate in older courthouses highlight a common dilemma that I see across the country. 

Historic buildings, although seen as architectural landmarks and symbols of justice, typically face issues of wear and tear due to their age and the intensive use they endure. They also generally lack the critical security features found in a modern courthouse. Although the courts continue to adapt to working in these substandard conditions, there comes a point when exploring an alternative housing solution is required. 

A courthouse planning study should be conducted to analyze the alternatives, including renovating the historic courthouse.  The decision to renovate or build a new courthouse involves several critical considerations:

Condition of the Existing Building

Historic courthouses often have outdated systems and finishes that are beyond their useful life. This includes electrical, plumbing, HVAC systems, and structural components that might not meet modern standards or efficiency requirements. It is important to carefully examine each component to determine whether a new building or renovation is the most cost-effective solution.  

For example, renovation might require significant structural upgrades or complete building systems replacement and will most likely involve costly improvements to comply with ADA and other code requirements.  This could affect how and where new courtrooms can be located and possibly diminish the available expansion space in the courthouse.

On a recent project in Washington State, code restrictions prevented us from renovating more than 50% of the courthouse without triggering costly upgrades to the energy requirements. As a result, it was extremely challenging to provide adequate expansion space that would meet the court’s needs within the 50% construction limitations.  In this case, we were able to provide some relief within the existing facility to accommodate growth. Despite the current renovation effort, the ultimate plan is to construct a new courthouse that meets the long-term needs of the court.

Historic Preservation

Renovating a historic building involves the difficult task of preserving its architectural integrity while updating its functionality. This can be a complex process, especially if historical preservation laws protect the building.  

I have seen the cost of renovating historic courthouses skyrocket because of the restrictive nature of designing within the parameters set forth by the local historical preservation board and the difficulty replicating historical design elements.  

These regulations also focus primarily on the exterior architecture of the building and the components found in the main corridors. Such areas are typically targeted for upgrades or reconfiguration in courthouse renovations. As a result, design decisions such as re-organizing the circulation path or relocating the main entrance become prohibitive.

For a project I worked on in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the historical society would not allow us to specify replacing over 75 uninsulated exterior windows with new energy-efficient insulated replacement windows. They required us to keep the existing windows - which were over 50 years old, wooden, and generally in disrepair. To meet the energy code requirements, we had to specify the removal of each window to route the existing sash and replace the existing glass with two panes to provide the required R-value.  This was a long process that proved to be costly and time-consuming.

Cost and Feasibility

A life-cycle cost analysis is crucial to determine the long-term financial implications of renovating versus building a new courthouse. This analysis should consider not only the immediate costs but also the long-term maintenance, energy efficiency, and potential future renovations.  

While it can initially be seen as an attractive option, a renovation project could actually result in higher operating costs as designing more efficient systems might not be feasible within the constraints of the building.

In Maryland, we helped provide a life-cycle cost analysis for a new courthouse that the county could compare to its existing operation and maintenance (O/M) costs.  It turns out that due to budget constraints, they were continually delaying preventative maintenance of their existing courthouse infrastructure, and, as a result, it was costing them more and more each year to address problems with their aging systems.  Our life-cycle costs analysis indicated that a new courthouse with new and efficient systems would turn that trend around and allow them to fund a revamped O/M preventative maintenance strategy that could be sustained.

Space and Functionality Requirements

Modern court operations might require facilities that the existing building cannot accommodate, even with renovations. This could include additional or larger courtrooms, improved security circulation, or more office space for staff. 

A court needs assessment should be undertaken before deciding whether renovation or new construction is the most viable solution. A needs assessment will identify existing functional deficiencies and projected space needs based on staffing growth. 

A needs assessment should be based on expert analysis of existing operations versus best practices in courthouse design. It should also incorporate reliable statistical data regarding regional influences that could impact caseload growth. 

It is important to recognize that a new courthouse can often integrate advanced technologies for better efficiency, security, and user experience than a renovation.

Developing needs assessments for courts is one of the most rewarding things I do as a court planner. I have worked on well over 100 courthouse needs assessment projects throughout the country, and in my experience, there is no better way to justify a project’s direction.  Providing a court with an objective analysis based on real trends, space standards, space functionality, security, and building condition allows each to examine its needs objectively and make informed decisions.  Many times, the real growth and space deficiencies a court is experiencing are overshadowed by the sentimental value placed on a historic courthouse. I have seen first hand how a needs assessment can be an extremely valuable tool to convince leadership a change is justified. 

Community Impact

Courthouses are often central to a city's identity, and any decision to renovate or rebuild can have significant cultural and social impacts. Community engagement and consideration of the courthouse's role in the city's fabric are important.  

No matter the project direction, town hall meetings and periodic progress reports to public interest groups can go a long way to establish transparency and gain community support.  

I recently experienced the positive effect of community outreach on a project I worked on in Illinois.  The community was not convinced the county should secure a bond to construct a new courthouse to replace the dilapidated courthouse on the town square. Armed with the needs assessment, a building condition report, and a security analysis, the clerk of court visited each community in the county to present why a new courthouse was needed.  Through his efforts, the bond eventually passed, and a new secure courthouse to meet the needs of the court for years to come was constructed on the town square.

Final Thoughts

A comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach is essential for conducting a thorough analysis when considering a long-term housing solution for a court, especially when dealing with a historic courthouse. 

By following this approach, you ensure that all critical aspects are considered, leading to an informed and balanced decision that serves the needs of the justice system and respects the historical and cultural significance of the courthouse.

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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.