By Lisa Kopochinski
LOWELL, Mass.—The recently completed Lowell Justice Center—a new $146 million courthouse facility in Lowell—is expected to receive LEED Platinum certification. The building was designed to be universally accessible to all populations.
The cutting-edge 265,000-square-foot facility houses the operations of the Superior, District, Housing, Juvenile, Probate and Family Courts. The structure houses office space for court staff, a Court Service Center, Law Library, the Registry of Deeds, Office of the District Attorney, and a Grand Jury Room, with a total of 17 courtrooms and associated detainee holding cells.
Finegold Alexander Architects (FAA) designed the stunning 21st-century modern nine-story courthouse— the cornerstone of Lowell’s Hamilton Canal District development master plan. Dimeo Construction was the construction manager.
“The justice center was designed to create a welcoming and calming environment, featuring generous natural daylight, warm finishes and public art that reflects the diverse history and culture of Lowell,” noted FAA Senior Principal Moe Finegold, FAIA.
The project originally began with a certifiable building study and was the largest of three pilot studies for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) ZNE initiatives. The goal in the design of this courthouse was to maximize energy efficiency. The building contains chilled beams and a displacement ventilation HVAC system, photo-voltaic panels, and a highly insulated rainscreen building envelope. Building systems and controls among many design features were engineered by ARUP and ART to achieve performance targets 40% better than code.
The courts and services offices were formerly located in outdated and dysfunctional buildings in Lowell and Cambridge. The new consolidated center is located on a 3.2-acre site at the Northern edge of the Hamilton Canal District within the Lowell National Historic Park.
The two-story entrance lobby serves as a special arrival space to this judicial center that can accommodate waiting lines of more than 100 at any time. The entire entry wall to this space contains a work of art in glass. It features symbols of justice, recalls the historic “mill girls,” and Lowell’s new industries.
Additionally, quotations and words about the value of justice are in four languages representing the many different origins of the citizens of Lowell. The work was designed by artist Martin Donlin of the UK, who won a competition sponsored by the State Agencies, reclaiming a concept of art in public buildings. The interior walls of the public circulation areas are covered with ceramic tiles, designed and selected to reflect Lowell’s textile history. In five earth tones, arranged in running bond, they evoke the bolts of cloth produced in the mills as well as the dynamic action of the looms themselves.
The new courthouse also boasts an abundance of natural light—the entry hall, the public stairwells, the exterior wall of all public circulation and all 17 courtrooms.
“These special spaces have direct light from the side or have borrowed light from a deep transom behind the judges for the interior courtrooms,” explained FAA Principal Jeffrey Garriga.
“These are expressed on the exterior as a group of punched windows in the granite walls or in the deep indentations on the building’s facade. The private spaces behind the courtrooms, including the judge’s chambers, the jury deliberation rooms, and the transaction areas also have abundant natural light. Selected materials on the exterior together with the glazing, create an environment which is light and bright, reflecting the transparency of the rule of law in our democracy as well as creating an environment that is calming.”
The designers opted for a rational stacking of the courts’ departments and their 17 courtrooms to facilitate wayfinding. The most active—arraignment and district—are on the lower second and third floors; the juvenile is on the fourth floor; the more private and potentially volatile probate and family and housing courts are on floors five and six; and the Superior Court is on the seventh floor.
“Judicial chambers are grouped into suites enhancing efficiency and collegiality and are located close to courtrooms or are no more than a floor away,” added FAA Project Manager Clair Colburn. “Transaction areas for the clerk magistrate and probation functions are similarly grouped and easily identifiable at the mid-point between pairs of courtrooms.”
Each courtroom is designed to hold jury trials and to have access to detainees, either directly adjacent to the courtrooms or in the basement holding area. That area is designed to provide sight and sound separation between men and women and between juvenile male and females. Non court functions, the District Attorney suite, the register of deeds, jury pool, and the public assistance area for pro-se defendants are all located on the first floor just beyond the security checkpoint. The entire planning concept, while immensely functional for now, allows enormous flexibility to the courts as future shifts in caseloads or development of other special court needs might require.
“The center is designed in orientation to the site, in many special landscaping features, glazing, highly insulated walls, and very sophisticated mechanical and lighting systems to be a most energy efficient courthouse, which soon after verification, will be awarded LEED Platinum designation, the first courthouse to achieve this designation in Massachusetts,” said FAA Director of Design. Tony Hsiao.
The new Lowell Justice Center is also universally accessible. The commuter rail station and local bus depot are a short walk away; a new parking facility built by the City of Lowell is being constructed to provide easy access for those arriving by car; bike racks are on site as well as immediately adjacent handicapped parking spaces; and secure parking for judges and senior staff as well as secure access for detainees through the sallyport are also provided. The landscape was designed by Copley Wolf Design Group and includes Sloped walks traversing a 25- foot change in grade across the site lead to an entrance plaza without any steps.
This universally accessible concept continues within the entire building with ample circulation space, multiple elevators, accessible raised judge’s benches, abundant wheelchair spaces in courtrooms, audio and visual technology, and glazed stairwells at each end of the public galleries to encourage walking while enhancing wellness.