Circular Design Comes Around

Planned for Cullman County, Ala., the above jail uses a C-shaped circular design that allows for horizontal expansion of the jail.

Circular jail design is not as expensive as commonly believed, and is being effectively applied in counties with tight budgets, says Fred Moyer, whose firm recently participated in two such projects.

“The historical origins of the circular design go back to the 18th century and began with the notion of the all-seeing eye and being able to observe all movement and activity from one point,” says Moyer of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. “You couldn’t expect-even at that time-that one person could do all that. But nonetheless, there’s a logic about having a vantage point from which a lot of surveillance is possible.”

After providing an initial design concept to Bray Associates Architects for a new circular jail in Sheboygan County, Wis., Moyer Associates later worked with CLA Architecture in developing plans for a new jail in Cullman County, Ala. When Moyer noted that the needs of the two counties were similar, he mentioned circular design, and before he even knew it, cost-conscious Cullman officials were in Wisconsin touring the Sheboygan facility.

There, the visiting Alabamans were told that the slightly higher building costs were being recouped by reduced staffing costs, allowing three people to supervise 120 prisoners on lockdown and two to oversee 150 work-release inmates. In fact, the 94,885-square-foot jail came in under budget at $16.2 million, allowing Phase II to begin earlier than expected. In both counties, Moyer developed the design concept and all security requirements.

“A construction person is going to say circular design comes at a premium because you need to cut building components such as the ceiling tile. There will be some cutting, but that’s more than offset by the savings in square footage that needs to be heated and cooled, electrical service, and all the rest. There’s a significant reduction in overall building square footage.”

That more than offsets the incidental cutting of shapes, Moyer says. Sheboygan was well below the cost of other Wisconsin jails of similar size, and the suddenly available funds enabled planners to begin Phase II earlier than expected.

The jail in Sheboygan County, Wis., uses an S-shaped spine in its circular design.

Because circular design is more compact, it’s possible to wrap the functions around the housing. “One of the things circular design allows us to do is have a central post where there is back-up staff surveillance of all housing units, as well as outdoor exercise units,” says Moyer. “But we’re not relying on indirect supervision. Circular design might imply that that’s what it’s all about, but it’s really not.”

Moyer says circular design permits the enclosure of the greatest area within the perimeter. “As a fact of geometry, we’re able to obtain 35-square-feet of day space per person, as well as provide space for life-safety and circulation, and do it with less square footage than with a rectilinear design,” says Moyer.

But the circle is not a catch-all jail design, Moyer asserts. Sites with existing structures or otherwise dense sites may make it difficult to incorporate the necessary dimensions. “Another drawback is that the circle is complete, which can limit expansion options,” he warns. Sheboygan was designed to be expanded vertically, this meant mechanical systems could not be placed on the roof.

Both the Sheboygan and Cullman sites provided the required flat, open space. But that’s where the similarity ends. Sheboygan, designed by Bray Associates Architects, relies on vertical expandability and an S-shaped circulation spine running through the circle, while Cullman was designed by CLA Architecture for horizontal expansion with a C-shaped spine that allows space for a future sheriff’s administration building that will close the circle.

“We’re making improvements beyond what was done in Sheboygan-like locating the outdoor exercise area so it can be observed from the central control point,” Moyer says of Cullman. Further reducing costs, Cullman will also differ from its predecessor by incorporating modular cells.

The basic design concept is in place, which can be varied to accommodate the manufactured modules. Planners will release pre-bid package for modular cells in early 2003, both concrete and steel, and then base the design on the proportion of the chosen bid package.

Such facilities also accommodate the current trend of creating a profile for the facility that, to observers, doesn’t appear as a jail; there’s no use of razor ribbon and a secure perimeter is formed by the building envelope. Moyer says both Sheboygan and Cullman look more like office buildings or light manufacturing facilities to the casual observer.

“A design project needs to grow out of its specific circumstances and opportunities-the mission of the facility and the differences between its components,” says Moyer. “Circular design may not fit all situations, but the geometry can still become useful in obtaining a friendly and secure presence in the community,” says Moyer.