With a sleek symmetrical tower that stretches nearly 400 feet into Seattle’s skyline, the federal courthouse that opened in the city in 2004 is one of latest architectural gems created to improve the federal justice system aesthetically and functionally.
The $220 million facility, designed by Seattle-based architectural firm NBBJ and operated by the U.S. General Services Administration, covers a two-acre parcel in downtown Seattle. The courtroom tower has 23 floors with 18 courtrooms and 22 judicial chambers. An adjacent office building houses several federal agencies.
The courthouse took about three years to build, but the first seeds of the project can be traced back to the 1980s when the federal government initiated a plan to upgrade and improve U.S. courts throughout the country.
“The courthouse in Seattle is part of a nationwide courts program,” says Rick Thomas, GSA project manager. “The administrative office of the courts worked with GSA to put together a plan for new courthouses and renovations of courthouses throughout the country.”
The Seattle courthouse in particular was overcrowded and in need of better security, especially considering the major shift in national security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But unlike the courts of yesteryear, the new facility had to be multi-faceted with the ability to accommodate several organizations.
“The modern federal courthouse is very full of agencies and functions,” says Jim Tully, NBBJ project manager. “Unlike the classic one-room courthouse that you see on the village green, modern courthouses are large buildings with many tenants.”
In addition to criminal, civil and bankruptcy court functions, the Seattle courthouse also houses the U.S. Marshals office, U.S. attorney offices, U.S. pre-trial services, federal grand jury and other agencies.
The combination ensured a complicated planning process that had to consider the needs of each organization.
From Courts to Carpets
The federal government created a design guide for federal courthouses that outlines size requirements for courtrooms, support space and security. However, planners at specific sites have the opportunity to enhance the facility with elements that are not specifically listed in the guide.
To determine the best design for the courthouse, planners went to those who would be using it on a daily basis — judges, jurors and other personnel. A questionnaire was sent to judges that sought their thoughts on the character and function of the new court, along with their general thoughts on law, symbols and society.
“The Seattle judiciary wanted to be a little bit more innovative and efficient,” Tully says.
The result: Judges prompted changes that had never before been implemented at a federal courthouse.
“Our judges wanted to help promote collegiality so they proposed that we actually take out some of the allotted square footage from each of their chambers on the floor and pull that in a shared library,” Tully says.
The judges also agreed to share courtrooms, which was previously not practiced at the federal level. Instead of a 1-to-1 ratio between judges’ chambers and courthouses, a 3-to-2 ratio was established on each floor. The changes had several benefits.
In addition to promoting collegiality and social interaction, the shared libraries saved money on book purchases by reducing the number of duplicate orders. By limiting the number of courtrooms to two per floor, designers were able to incorporate more daylight into the courtrooms.
“That is somewhat unique,” Thomas says. “As we explored other courthouses that were being designed and built as we were doing ours, we actually found that it’s not as easy as one might think to make that happen.”
Those who use the courtrooms every day appreciated the daylight.
“They said the more daylight you can bring into the space, the better the working environment,” Thomas says.
Other areas of the courthouse facility received the same treatment through what NBBJ calls an “enhanced office programming effort.”
“It goes beyond the basic program, space and efficiency needs and interviews are made at all level of tenants, from department head to staff worker,” Tully says.
Each office is organized and designed according to the tenants needs, and 35 paint and carpet colors were used during the process, according to Tully.
“In some cases it was harder because they were asking to do things that were not common and had not really been done before,” Tully says.
Green and Grounded
Because of the courthouse’s location in Seattle, measures had to be taken to accommodate site-specific needs. As frontrunners in environmental conservation in the United States, Washington state and King County require new facilities to aim for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certification. The federal courthouse was not required to follow the requirements, but planners made an effort to meet the goals.
“We did go through a fairly distinct exercise to make sure we were using sustainable materials,” Thomas says.
Radiant floors and natural lighting were used as much as possible. The natural lighting helps capture the warmth of the sun, but it also allows for cooler temperatures in open transient areas when the sun is not out.
“In public spaces there’s a wider temperature swing than there might be in other buildings,” Tully says.
Displacement ventilation in the courtrooms with high ceilings is used to cool the rooms with as little impact on natural resources as possible.
“We were able to put in just enough cool air to condition about seven feet from floor level,” Tully says. “Any space above remains unconditioned except for whatever natural convection happens.”
The facility could eventually see LEED certification.
“Eventually, as soon as we get all of our paperwork done here, we will be filing for LEED certification and there’s a pretty good chance that we will be silver certified,” Thomas says.
Tully says the project was interesting because the sustainable elements were being incorporated into the facility as the LEED process was taking shape in the early 1990s.
“We were working parallel with the development of LEED,” Tully says. “We embraced it and made it part of our initial set of goals.”
Because the Pacific Northwest is seismically active, measures to protect the building from earthquake damage were also taken. A progressive collapse design philosophy was implemented to reduce the possibility of the building collapsing in a major seismic event.
“It’s designed in a way where there is some secondary structural support so the entire building won’t collapse,” Thomas says.
A steel plate shear-wall system was also designed to provide greater support for the building.
“We worked with our structural engineer and architect and developed some systems that were actually pretty innovative, to a degree where we actually took part of our design and did a mockup down at the UC Berkeley laboratory to test it for how it would react in a seismic scenario,” Thomas says.
The tests were successful and GSA found that the seismic reinforcements fared better than X-bracing. The system was the first of its kind in Seattle, according to Thomas.
“Rather than having X-bracing, it has a piece of steel that kind of infills between the columns instead of the big cross-bracing,” Thomas says. “What we found is that in a seismic event, it actually had more flexibility than the X-bracing, but it performed better. It didn’t fail; it would stretch and bend, but not break.”
The system has since been considered at other U.S. courthouse facilities.
Perhaps the most notable — and the most visible — aspect of the Seattle courthouse is its public spaces. The atrium and corridors of the tower are lined with art, and a large outdoor area was designed with pedestrians in mind.
“The previous federal courthouse the judges were in had a very nice, large lawn with some very mature trees,” Tully says. “They wanted to provide something like that for the city — a public plaza.”
The plaza encompasses an acre of space adjacent to the building and faces south to utilize what sun is available in often-gray Seattle. A circular lawn, cascading lily pond, public art, stairs and sitting areas fill the space.
The benefit is twofold: The public has a place to enjoy the outdoors in an urban atmosphere and the plaza serves as a buffer zone — a first line of defense — to prevent a security breach.
“The security was integrated in such a way that it’s not the thing that you see first,” Tully says. “Of course, security is very important, but the judges did not want this building to look like a security bunker. Through a combination of benches, stairs trees, and seating bollards, security is met.” (The GSA refuses to discuss other security systems used at the facility.)
Six artists created artwork focusing on justice or nature located inside and outside the building. One percent of the $170 million construction budget was used to fund the artwork, a budget allocation that has since been reduced to 0.5 percent of new courthouse projects.
One of the building’s greatest attributes is the atrium, according to Thomas. The area features an artist’s representation of an alder leaf that is made with aluminum and glass that reflects one color and refracts several different colors. The area is filled with natural light and it serves a queuing area for anyone doing business with the clerk and court. Other artwork in the facility includes a three-story mural that depicts the jury system, an aluminum sculpture of a cedar seed, and a collage.
“The type of art that we installed at the building is art that adds to the dignity of what a public facility should be,” Thomas says.
As with any large-scale construction project, hiccups occurred during construction that had the potential to derail the project.
The discovery of contaminated soil — the site was the former home of a brass plant — brought an early challenge that had to be mitigated, but the most significant complication occurred when construction was more than halfway completed.
• Name: U.S. Courthouse, Seattle
When the project was 60 to 70 percent done, the joint-venture construction contractor composed of J.A. Jones and Absher Construction Company dissolved when J.A. Jones’ construction division ran into financial difficulty. The situation could have turned into a major dilemma, but Absher stepped up and absorbed the J.A. Jones staff that was working on the project.
“It was a pretty seamless transition because we took over a lot of the Jones staff,” says Jae Chu, Absher project manager.
The pendulum could have easily swung the other way had outside parties taken over in the absence of J.A. Jones. “It could have gone a lot differently if a bonding company had come in,” Chu says.
Despite the shakeup, those involved with planning and construction testify that the project went relatively smoothly, which could explain why the facility won the 2004 GSA Construction Excellence award and commendation at the AIA Seattle Honor Awards.