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Roles of Architect and Owner in Courthouse Concept Design

by Matt Hemphill / January 5, 2023

In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of establishing the architect and owner’s roles and responsibilities during the space programming phase of courthouse design. However, the process of project planning, designing, and constructing a building has many phases. I'd like to further the discussion about the duties of the architect and owner in the concept design phase, which usually follows space programming.   

The concept design phase can be challenging and often involves resolving competing interests. However, it can yield a positive experience if the owner and architect have a clear understanding of their roles.  

In my experience, the architect and owner are the primary team members responsible for shaping the project. On a recent courthouse design project I worked on, a zoning issue could have prevented us from pursuing one of our options for concept design. However, communicating the zoning issue to the owner during concept design spurred the owner to request approval from the local jurisdiction. The concept design was able to advance due to this action and it became the preferred option. Communication and timing between the architect and the owner made this project a success.  

Architect Responsibilities

Obviously, the architect’s primary responsibility is to design the building. However, it must be done in an iterative way that presents the material at a level appropriate for each phase of the project. During the concept design phase, the architect should present “big picture” ideas regarding the building design, not individual room designs, specifications, or other detailed information. In my view, it is the architect’s responsibility to present at least three things during the concept design phase of a courthouse:

Building organization: Using the departmental sizes from the space program, the architect should develop a series of diagrammatic floor plans that depict the departmental adjacencies and the number of floors. Often, the site constraints dictate the building organization. 

In addition, the number of courtrooms per floor is a critical element in determining the best way to organize the courthouse. For example, having two courtrooms per floor will require a smaller floor plate than four courtrooms per floor. The architect needs to convey to the owner the options for organizing the building. 

Blocking and stacking diagrams: The building organization options will dictate the massing of the building. A 12-courtroom courthouse with two courtrooms per floor will have more floors than the same courthouse with four courtrooms per floor. Therefore it is important for the architect to graphically illustrate how this affects the adjacency requirements of all stakeholders and how the building will fit within the surrounding context. A stacking diagram and a 3D massing model are effective means of communicating this information.

Preliminary cost estimate: At concept design, there is little specific information that can be used to generate a detailed cost estimate. At this phase, the architect should provide a per-square-foot cost for each design option based on local building costs or industry norms for courthouse construction. 

Owner Responsibilities

The owner's responsibility during the concept design phase is to provide the architect with the decisions addressed below.

Assess stakeholder requests: An open dialog between the owner and the stakeholders during the presentation of alternative design concepts is critical to a successful project. It is the owner's responsibility to make clear to the stakeholders how their requests affect the project objectives.

Establish the preferred option: It doesn't make much sense, logistically or financially, for an architect to carry more than one option beyond the concept design phase. It is the owner’s responsibility after viewing the options, hearing feedback from the stakeholders, and understanding the potential cost implications to select a preferred option.  That decision allows the design team members to move forward with a more detailed design and in-depth analysis by the engineers and other subconsultants.

Define owner-provided resources: It is critical at this stage to start establishing a more detailed budget. The owner should inform the design team of what items in the project will be the owner's responsibility. For example, it is often the responsibility of the owner to secure funding for the design and procurement of new furniture or A/V equipment. The team members can then align their design effort accordingly, and a more accurate construction budget can be created.

Secure preliminary funding: The owner can use the preliminary cost estimate provided by the architect to secure construction funding. However, it should be understood that the estimate is preliminary and will likely change. The owner should be aware of any milestone dates that cost estimates need to be provided to the primary funding agency. The funding request should be adjusted as cost estimates become more defined during subsequent design phases.  

Coordination Keeps the Project Moving 

Coordination between the architect and owner during the concept design phase is critical. It is during this time that the “basis of design” for the overall project is established.  Clear communication of each other’s responsibilities will result in a more efficient design and construction process, and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the overall project.


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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.