Breaking Boundaries

Most jails have a stereotypical appearance: a bleak, imposing building with a stark façade punctuated by dime-slot windows, and a dim interior with muted colors and rows of cells bound by bars — a popular conception reinforced among the public by movies and TV shows.

What many people do not know is that jail designers and administrators are working to eliminate this conception through the use of light, color and — a word formerly unassociated with jails — comfort.

The recent expansion and renovation of the Gwinnett County Detention Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., is no exception. County officials worked with Atlanta-based HOK for 10 months to come up with an innovative design that would not only expand the crowded facility, but also afford some measure of comfort and improve operations.

Driven by an urgent need to expand, the project employed several unique features, from planning through construction, to ensure a timely completion, a cost-effective solution and ultimately challenge the idea of what a jail should look like.

Growing Pains

(Top Photo) The sandblasted, white exterior finish, large tinted windows and reveals provided a modern look for the detention center expansion and blend with the existing gray and white structure. (Bottom photo) The two-story stacks of cell modules were designed for direct supervision.

One of the fastest growing counties in the greater Atlanta area, Gwinnett has seen a meteoric rise in its inmate population during the last decade, resulting in triple bunking at the county detention center and the relocation of inmates to other jurisdictions throughout the state — a growing trend among facilities across the country that are struggling with overcrowding but lack the means to expand. This temporary solution lasted from 2002 to 2006 and cost Gwinnett millions of dollars in outside housing costs.

“At one point during the four-year period, we topped out with 605 inmates housed out at a cost of $45 per inmate per day,” says Major Dillard Hughes, project representative for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department. “This translated into roughly $8 million a year for the county.”

County officials knew they needed a permanent solution to the overcrowding, but did not want to spring for a new facility due to time and budget constraints. Instead, the county opted for a large-scale expansion and renovation that would add a 1,440-bed housing tower and upgrade core services to support an influx of inmates — another trend gaining momentum in county facilities nationwide, according to John Eisenlau, project architect with HOK.

Stainless steel shower cabinets were installed in standard cell modules, providing six stalls per wing.

“New facilities are very expensive,” Eisenlau says. “There are a lot of projects nationwide that are being expanded right now. There are a number of counties that do not want to build a new facility but add on to an existing one instead.”

County officials wanted to bring the inmates back home as soon as possible to reduce mounting housing costs and, in 2003, launched an aggressive design/construction program that would allow them to round up all of the inmates by 2006.

“The county was very concerned about getting their inmates back into their own facility,” Eisenlau says. “There was some language in our contract and the construction manager’s contract about liquidated damages if the project was not completed per schedule, creating incentive for not only HOK and the construction manager, but also the county to get the project done on time. You’re talking about a lot of money for every day the project is late.”

The 10-Month Charrette

When Gwinnett officials began the design phase, they hired HOK through a competitive interview process — a standard procedure when selecting a design firm. However, the county continued to apply this principle when selecting a construction manager for the project. Instead of choosing a construction manager after drawings were completed, the county paid Turner Construction and Holder Construction, both of Atlanta , a stipend to participate in the entire 10-month design phase. The county believed this design-by-committee process would help the design team, as there would be two contracting firms available to make recommendations, provide reviews and give on-the-spot advice about constructability and pricing, according to Eisenlau.


Facility Name: Gwinnett CountyDetention Center Addition
Type: Jail
Construction Budget: $71 million
Number of Beds: 440
Area: 321,470 square feet
Start Date: July 2004
Completion Date: September 2006

“There was a think tank with the owner, the architect and two major contractors all in the same room,” Eisenlau says. “Everybody was working shoulder-to-shoulder during the 10-month period to come up with the best solution.”

County officials also believed having both firms witness the design phase would help familiarize them with the project.

“When they looked at the drawings at the end of 10 months, nothing looked Greek to them because they had been involved all along,” Eisenlau says.

Finally, the county wanted to foster a competitive spirit between Holder and Turner. At the end of the design phase, the county gave a set of drawings to both firms and asked each to develop a guaranteed maximum price, creating a hard-bid environment in which the two companies that had been planning the project together all along had to turn around and compete against one another.

The precast recreation yard is adjacent to the dayroom and provides natural light for the window cell modules.

“The county’s thinking was that this would create a competitive environment that would keep people honest and drive the cost down,” Eisenlau says. “The contractors had to sit in the same room and compete with one another and share information that may normally be proprietary or privileged. There was some dead air from time to time, but in the end the advantage was that both contractors understood the goals of the project.”

After both companies submitted a GMP, the county reviewed the bids and awarded the project to Turner Construction, who completed the project 30 months later.

Eisenlau says while potential clients may raise an eyebrow at the prospect of shelling out for not one, but two contractors, the cost to the county was only a small stipend for each firm to participate, and both companies had a lot of incentive to be involved.

Let There Be Light

The eight-story tower is made up of 378 double cell modules.

To the casual observer, the detention center looks like anything but a jail. Located near the convergence of two highways, the facility is highly visible to commuters, tourists and nearby commercial centers. As a result, the county wanted the center to remain as inconspicuous as possible and tasked HOK with creating a look that would help the new housing tower blend in with its surroundings.

“The challenge for HOK with this project was to take the conception, or typology, of what a jail looks like and change it into something that looks more community friendly,” Eisenlau says. “There are a number of small businesses around the area that didn’t want to look at a big high-rise jail up in the sky. The community was very interested in ways of softening the jail’s impact so it could blend in and be a good neighbor, rather than an eye-sore neighbor.”

The design team worked from the inside out to soften the jail’s image. Since the county wanted to continue using direct supervision, where deputies stationed in dayrooms have constant contact with inmates, HOK knew that dayrooms would play a large role in the tower’s design.

Each floor of the four-story tower is split into two levels by a mezzanine. A large dayroom occupies the majority of each floor, with cells surrounding the dayroom and lining the mezzanine level. Since jail standards require detention facilities to provide inmates with a certain amount of daylight in the cell environment, most jails feature row-upon-row of windows in their exterior façades. Instead of punching windows into the rear wall of each cell to let in natural light, the design team decided to use borrowed light instead, which brings light in from the outside to illuminate the dayroom and the cells and is compliant with national standards. A glass wall at the end of each dayroom serves as an exterior wall and floods the whole floor with light. The light continues into the front of each cell via a large window in the cell door.

Visitation rooms were actually double-cell modules that were converted in the field into four visitation units per module.

“In a direct-supervision environment, where inmates spend a majority of their time in the dayroom, not their cells, why not provide the most natural light possible in the dayroom?” Eisenlau says. “It’s a very different philosophy than locking someone in their cell all day long and making them look out the window.”

The omission of exterior cell windows created new possibilities for the tower’s exterior. The large dayroom windows on each floor dominate and open up both ends of the tower, making it look like an apartment complex or office building.

“The borrowed light gave us a lot of creative freedom on the outside of the building to make the jail look like something other than what it might have looked like in the 1960s or 1970s,” Eisenlau says, “It helped turn the typology of a jail upside down.”

The light-filled dayrooms have also had a positive impact on inmates and staff. Inmates look forward to spending time in the dayrooms and staff members have experienced lowered stress levels and enjoy being inside the building.

“It gives the jail a very nice ambience,” Hughes says. “Some people might say that inmates don’t deserve such a beautiful facility, but deserving has nothing to do with it. It’s about staff members, too, who have to work inside the housing units with the inmates.”

HOK took the opportunity during the renovation phase to soften the existing facility, also known as the Plunkett building, with the use of glass and light. The firm made a conscious effort to create a public lobby and staff dining area that would mitigate stress and increase comfort for correctional officers and visitors.


Product Manufacturers

Food Service: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Ventilators: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Steam Kettles: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Walk-In Coolers/Freezers: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Refrigeration: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Ovens: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Custom Stainless Equipment: Atlanta Kitchen Equipment
Correctional Furniture: Turner Logistics, Dekalb Office Environments
Cell Furniture: Chief Industries, John Boos, Tindall Corporation
Security Systems: Norment
PLC: Norment
UPS: Norment
Touchscreen system: Norment
Intercom: Norment
Card Access: Norment
Personal Alarm System: Norment
Security Glazing: Norment
Security Windows: Norment
Security Cell Doors: Slate Security, Tindall Corporation
Security Screens: Norment
Security Fencing: Foundation Fence
Security Locks: Norment
Security Penal Plumbing: Ivey Mechanical
Security Sprinkler Equipment: Gwinnett Sprinkler
Security Fire Equipment: Gwinnett Sprinkler
Smoke Detection System: Excel Electrical

Concrete: Zebra Construction Company
Precast Concrete Cells: Tindall Corporation
Structural Precast Concrete: Tindall Corporation

Exterior Finish: Standard Building Company

Roofing: Peach State Roofing
Gypsum Wallboard: Standard Building Company
Floor/Wall Tile: Carpet Sales and Consultants

Security Ceiling System: Norment

“We wanted to create an environment in the lobby and staff dining area that was comfortable, light-filled and would reduce everybody’s stress level,” Eisenlau says. “It’s important to get the staff to want to work in the facility and get the public to want to come there and stay relaxed.”

The design team knocked down the walls in the existing lobby, expanded the foundation and the intake and release areas and enclosed the whole area in a glass cube, creating a relaxing and pleasant environment for visitors who are most likely at the jail for an unfortunate reason.

“Visitors spend a lot of time in the lobby waiting to go up for visitation or for someone to be released,” Hughes says. “They may have to spend an hour or more in the lobby and we want them to feel comfortable.”

HOK applied the same design philosophy to the staff dining area. The firm moved the former dining area, which had been located in a small, windowless room by the kitchen, into a newly erected glass pavilion in the facility’s courtyard area. Sheriff’s officials have noticed since the new dining area opened, it has become a big attraction for people who want to grab a meal, take a coffee break or just relax for a little while.

“From day one I have seen people in the dining area whom I have never seen before,” Hughes says. “Police officers who used to drop off their inmates and leave now come back and visit with us for a while.”

Now that it’s completed, the jail’s new look has received positive feedback from both the community and staff. However, the design team did not always have an easy time of breaking away from the idea of what a jail “should” look like.

“This design concept tried to break a few boundaries,” Eisenlau says. “Some people were under the impression that it was just another jail expansion, but it really wasn’t. A lot of people said, ‘Glass on a jail? We’ve never done that before.’ Getting everybody to suspend their disbelief was challenging at times.”

New and Improved

Project Team

Owner/Operator: Gwinnett County , Ga.
Architect: Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. of Atlanta
Engineer: ReSt1 Designers of Atlanta
Construction Manager at Risk: Turner Construction
General Contractor: Turner Construction of Atlanta

“It was important to HOK to work with Gwinnett County to not only expand and renovate the detention center, but also to improve existing operations.

“I think we have a responsibility as architects to question the typology in a new way,” Eisenlau says. We need to step back and spend some time thinking about how to improve the environment and make it a better place to be.”

In addition to incorporating as much light into the building as possible, the design team designed all the glass walls on the building with a high-performance glazing that helps reduce the energy loads on the building. Both the addition and the renovated areas feature energy recovery units that help re-temper all of the air in the facility. A thermoplastic white roof was also installed on the new tower and on the Plunkett building to reduce heat islands and cooling costs.

Why Precast Construction?

The county visited several facilities in neighboring states to help determine what materials they wanted to use on the addition. Officials settled on precast modular cells manufactured by Tindall Corporation, which provided an efficient building system with built-in structural support.

“The precast units not only act as the cell module but also provide structural support for the building,” says Randy Royal, sales engineer for Tindall. “You don’t have to add a redundant structural system.”

The modules acted as building blocks, allowing the project team to surround each dayroom with cells and stack the cells vertically to create the tower.

Instead of placing the toilet and sink at the front of the cell, Tindall located the fixtures the back of the unit, creating a continuous rear-chase behind each cell that holds all plumbing and duct work. This service quarter creates a secure environment for repair personnel, as they can access piping and electrical wiring without having to enter a cell.

Finally, the jail’s new laundry facility, located in the housing addition, features a state-of-the-art ozone pre-treatment system that ionizes the water and eliminates the need for hot water to clean linens, uniforms and towels — a system that’s well known in the hotel industry. The ionization process also cleans the water and allows the county to recycle it, saving thousands of gallons every year.