Building a Civic Presence on the Kansas Plains

Contemporary correctional architecture tends to favor nondescript buildings that often resemble warehouses. Although communities invest heavily in those jails, correctional facilities often are excluded from the American city’s sense of civic pride. One of the exceptions to the rule is the new Douglas County Jail in Lawrence, Kansas. Colorful and attractive in design, the post-modern structure catches the eye of motorists travelling from Kansas City along Kansas Highway 10, especially at night, when the illuminated facility shines on the Kansas plains.


The county requested a "public face" for the building and the one created by architects at Treanor Architects P.A. is certainly handsome, with its entrance rotunda perfectly centered in front of the curved front faade. The rotunda offers visual impact that announces the facility’s civic function while creating a highly-finished, light-filled entry. Inside the four-story, 196-bed facility is a floorplan modeled after the single-bunk, direct supervision concept with space for a 56-bed dormitory for work-release inmates, unusually large dayrooms, unsupervised visitation areas, and a courtroom wrapped in a maximum-security envelope. In fact, so impressed with the facility was the jury assembled by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), that they awarded the facility with a citation award and included the building in its annual Justice Facilities Review. The jury for the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Justice especially liked the rotunda entrance, saying "the sure-handed development of an organizing rotunda provides a lively and articulated front elevation," and praised designers for "developing an open entrance for a facility type that is typically thought to be closed and oppressive."


Groundbreaking: April 1997
Completion: September 1999
Location: Lawrence, Kan.
Construction cost: $17.5 million
Project Delivery: construction management
Security Levels: minimum, medium, and maximum
Total Jail Beds: 196
Total Square Feet: 107,000

With contemporary American jails using the exterior wall as the secure perimeter-eliminating the need for fences and razor wire-architects have an aesthetic latitude that isn’t always exploited. However, officials in Douglas County are proud that their facility has civic character.

A Quaint College Town

Located along the Oregon Trail and home to the University of Kansas, Lawrence is built around a core of buildings more than 100 years old. There is the Ernst building, circa 1880, that has operated as a hardware store since 1905. It might be the oldest business in Lawrence were it not for the drugstore that has retained the same name and location since 1865.

The Douglas County Courthouse, opened in 1904, is the most distinguished of Lawrence’s historic buildings, a handsome limestone structure that was renovated after being saved from demolition in the 1960s.

The jail project initially had the blessing of the area’s residents who, in 1995, voted overwhelmingly to build a new jail adjacent to the existing Richardsonian Romanesque-style courthouse. But citizens from a nearby residential area balked shortly thereafter.

The East Lawrence Improvement Association repeatedly objected to several design proposals for a four-story building in the downtown historic area. Frustrated, county officials moved to a site on the outskirts of Lawrence. "We deal with the fact that John Q. Public does not understand that the contemporary facility is built securely," says Dan Rowe with Treanor Architects. "The issue of escapes and sightlines are less of a concern now. Still, the public doesn’t always respond favorably to having a jail in their location."

When choosing remote sites and employing deliberately understated designs, correctional planners are as much sheltering the facility from residents as they are sheltering residents from the facility. "We decided to relocate the project based on some community outcry issues," says Rowe. "Enough people persisted long enough for the county to direct Treanor Architects to study other sites."

The Richardsonian Romanesque-style planned for the new jail was abandoned with the downtown site, but one element of the original project that survived was the effort to create an attractive civic building in which the town could take pride. "Lawrence is big on preserving architectural landmarks and wanted a building that people in the future, 100 years from now, could be proud of – not just a concrete box," says Rowe.

Land available for industrial development on the eastern edge of town was plentiful. The new site was chosen from a list of 10 locations in an effort to spur industrial development around a 22-acre tract of virgin farmland, purchased for $220,000. The site’s rolling terrain provides good drainage in a flood-prone region, and saved developers from having to raise the land three feet, a routine procedure on low river bottoms. The absorbent soil minimized water run-off issues.

Since the infrastructure for sewage, water, and fiber optics was installed for the jail, three industrial developments have sprung up around the site. Indeed, the jail project has opened up to development the entire south side of Highway10 that previously had no utility services.

"These developments should increase the tax base," says Rowe. "And I think the 56-bed work release provides a good labor pool."

Design and Controversy

The change in site allowed planners to incorporate a post-modern design with a strong use of color and components that relate back to classical forms.


Construction Management: Universal Construction
Architect: Treanor Architects, P.A.
Owner: Douglas County
Programming Consultant: Carter Goble Associates
Security Consultant: Buford Goff Associates
Structural Engineer: Bob D. Campbell Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: W.L. Cassell Civil
Engineer: Landplan Inc.
Site Excavation: King’s Construction Co. Inc.
Site Utilities: Kincaid Construction Inc.
Masonry Work: Diaz Construction Co. Inc.
Modified Roofing: Pierce & Associates Inc.
Metal Roofing: Boone Brothers Roofing Inc.
Wall Systems: Midwest Drywall Co. Inc. Waterproofing: Restoration & Waterproofing Contractors Inc.


Security Electronics: Norment Industries; WSA Inc.
Detention Equipment contractor: CCC Group Inc.
Food Service: Montgomery Hoffman Associates
Food Service Equipment: Markham Restaurant Supply Co. Inc.
Elevator: Dover Elevator Co.
Fire Protection: National Fire Suppression
Structural Steel: Doherty Ornamental Iron Inc.
Touchscreen System: Trentech
PLC/Door Control: Omron/Trentech
CCTV System: Philips
Intercom System: TOA; Dukane; Atlas/Soundolier; Quam; Trentech
Card Access: MDI (Monitor Dynamics, Inc.); Motorola
Metal Detectors: Garrett
Personal Alarm: PPI (Perimeter Products, Inc.)
UPS: Best Power Technology
Exercise Court Roof: Desco Coatings Inc.
Architectural Precast Panels: Wilson Concrete Co.
Floor Coverings: Interior Surface Co. Inc.
Epoxy Terrazzo: Tech Coatings Inc.
Overhead Doors: Overhead Door Co.
Window Treatments: Abbey-Simons Co.
Inmate Phones: Ameritel/Cell Block
Special Coatings: Commercial Surfaces Inc.
Lockers: Superior School Supplies Inc.
Furnishings: Contract Design Group
Testing and Inspections: GeoSystems Engineering Inc.
Correctional Windows & Furniture: Panel Specialties Inc.
Security Cell Doors: Habersham Metal Products Inc.
Security Locks: Folger Alarm Security Inc.
Security Penal Plumbing: Willoughby .

While many new jails are one-story, low-profile structures designed to be inconspicuous, the Douglas County Jail was designed to appear larger than it actually is. "In essence, we’ve played with the scale of the building," says Rowe. "Post-modern architecture takes classically proportioned items and reworks the scale to accentuate different features of the building." Through the use of parapets and varying edge treatments, Treanor Architects made it look as if there are multiple volumes where there is really only one single volume. Jail cells were designed with two small, square windows instead of one. No one viewing the facility from the road would notice it has a flat roof.

The faade is built with simple steel studs and an inexpensive Exterior Insulation Finish System (EIFS), colored rust and patina green. Night lighting highlights the architectural elements although the illumination is primarily a perimeter security feature.

"We get calls from people who wonder if Lawrence got a new shopping center or casino," says Douglas County Sheriff Loren Anderson, who spearheaded the project and was able to oversee the new jail in its first fifteen months of operation before retiring in January. "But it’s a whole lot easier to defend yourself from people saying you spent too much on the new jail than it is if they say it looks terrible and we can’t stand it," says Anderson in response to people who say the jail looks too good.

And there are in fact people saying it looks too good. Chief among them is County Administrator Craig Weinaug. He has the difficult task of explaining how a project originally conceived of as a downtown work-releases center and slated to cost $11 million evolved into a $22 million, 196-bed jail. According to Weinaug, "I think it’s an embarrassingly beautiful structure."

For his part, Weinaug acknowledges that creating an attractive jail faade was not the root cause of the overruns; they were largely due to the change of site and working with unrealistic preliminary cost estimates. Still, as the Douglas County official voters hold accountable, he wonders if taxpayers understand. "Because it’s a beautiful structure, it does not appear to be an inexpensive structure, even though it is."

Rowe acknowledges the cost overruns, but adds that there were minimal change orders, totaling less than $200,000. And Rowe says that he, county officials, and planners from Universal Construction of Kansas City conducted a total of three value engineering sessions to keep the budget in check. "In value engineering, you don’t just find out what costs more, remove it, and do it the cheap way," says Rowe. "You never want to compromise the function of the building."

The construction management team from Universal Construction also sent monthly reports to the county that included budget and schedule tracking, and a brief project summary detailing what was going right, and, in some cases, what was going wrong. The reports were bound into a document with color photos, allowing officials to view the project without visiting the site.

And features that are singled out as too nice, such as the rotunda, is only a simple cylinder resembling a turret. The rotunda’s interior houses a canopy of galvanized steel acting as a false dome- basically nothing more than angle irons bolted together like a skeleton grid. The result is a classical civic form without the engineering expense of creating a true dome. And the patterned terrazzo floor directly beneath the dome added little to the cost of the project but much to the jail’s civic character. The floor cost only $1,500 and was determined cost effective at a value engineering session.

Security and Savings

Sheriff Anderson reports that the atmosphere of the new jail is quiet and calm. "In the older facility, there were two or three times a week where we had a disturbance-and when the officer got there, nobody knew what happened," he says. "Now, we have maybe one disturbance a month. When we get to the site of the disturbance, there’s an officer already there who knows exactly what happened and we can file criminal charges where appropriate."

Helping calm the atmosphere is the direct supervision layout, utilizing both wet and dry cells in pods of up to 56 general population inmates. In addition to the 56-bed work release dormitory, there is a separate section for female inmates. Each pod has a large dayroom the designers resisted minimizing in order to save money. When "tightening those spaces, the views for the officers are tightened as well," says Rowe. He designed the largest dayroom to have a total of 5,834 square feet.

The maximum-security unit is divided into two single-bunked, indirect supervision, 14-bed pods. A JLAN-based inmate tracking system conducts headcounts, tracks prisoners, and confirms inmate classification status.

In addition to security provisions, reducing operating costs was a primary goal during the programming phase, which took 12 months from conception to completion of construction documents. The programming team included security consultants Randy Smith and Buford Goff of Buford Goff Associates, programming consultant Bob Goble of Carter Goble Associates, Callen Hanson, mechanical engineer for W.L. Cassell, and Mike Falbe of Bob D. Campbell Engineers, Inc.

When Carter Goble Associates was planning the original facility in 1995, video visitation was a brand new technology. Rather than venture into the unknown, planners stayed with and incorporated in this building an unsupervised visitation floor plan utilizing fewer staff. Visitors walk into the rotunda, notify an officer, pass through a metal detector, and proceed to an elevator that accesses only one level. Here, they are directed to color-coded pods and make their way to a visitation cubicle so inmates never leave a pod.

Electronic security devices allow the rotunda to remain unlocked and unstaffed after normal business hours. However, if someone requires entrance-for example, someone delivering bail money-they can enter visitor reception at any time of day. Entering the vestibule triggers a motion detector and activates an intercom to central control. The central control officer checks the database to ensure the detainee is available for bonding, and the inner door is unlocked remotely.

At the request of Douglas County judges, a hearing room was included as part of the original design; here it developed into a courtroom. Judges wanted the security option of seeing a detainee at the jail-face to face-in addition to using the video arraignment system at the downtown courthouse. Designers developed a small, jury-capable courtroom with bulletproof glass separating the public gallery and the well. The courtroom also serves as the site for video arraignments. To include the courtroom as part of the facility’s civic face, a false dome similar to the one in the rotunda was replicated above the court well.

Other features at the facility include secure stairwells and a 20-foot-high mechanical chase between the first and second floors. Because they are accessed from ports and grills outside the pod, maintenance personnel do not have to pass their tools through security checks, making service not only easier, but cheaper. The interior stairwells were designed to ensure the secure evacuation of inmates in the event of fire emergency. Two of the pod stairways exit into the sally port, one to work-release, and one to the loading dock, all within the perimeter. Evacuees could also be moved to a fenced enclosure at the rear of the facility. Stairtower exteriors at each end of the building were fitted with opaque spandrel glass to provide the illusion of windows and lend the building a less institutional appearance.

In the End

Although Weinaug still winces at that appearance, he appreciates the improvement. "The old facility was just steel cages put in an office structure. It was probably one of the last, new indirect supervision facilities to be built. Direction supervision was just beginning to be a presence in the industry, but the Douglas County commission of that time missed the opportunity to build a good facility."

Weinaug adds that taxpayer perceptions of free-spending jail planners won’t outlast the new jail. "That’s a temporary perception. I hope the long-term perception of the new jail will be just like our perception of this absolutely gorgeous, 100-year-old courthouse we’re in right now," says Weinaug. "This courthouse cost $68,000 in 1904. I’m sure even this was once perceived as expensive and extravagant, but we’re proud of it now."