Justice for Facility Design

Prior to starting her own firm more than 10 years ago, Barbara Nadel had a 14-year career working at several major architecture and engineering firms. Now running Barbara Nadel Architecture, she specializes in programming, planning, and designing justice, health care, and institutional facilities. Her entrée to the field of corrections came in the early 1990s. Tuberculosis was on the rise in New York and the state’s Department of Correctional Services found her while looking for architects with health care backgrounds who could assist them in developing a health care plan of action for the New York prison system.

Joe De Patta: Last year you served as the chair of the national AIA Committee on Architecture for Justice (CAJ). And, in 2001, you were the first CAJ member to be elected national AIA vice president. What did it take, professionally, for you to have reached those positions?

Barbara Nadel: Since 1989, my peers have nominated me for various leadership positions at the local AIA New York level, the New York state chapter, and the National AIA level, including the CAJ and the AIA national boards of directors. In 1997, I was elected AIA New York regional director on the AIA national board of directors, and I served in that role until 2000. I was elected as 2001 AIA vice president, with a record of leadership and professional accomplishments that I continue to build upon. It’s been exciting to meet so many great people around the county.

JD: A well-designed correctional/justice facility is more than just aesthetically pleasing; what makes a successful design?

BN: Understanding client needs, goals, their mission, and the context for the facility-starting with a thorough programming and planning process-are the first and most important steps to laying the foundation for a successful design. Function and operational efficiency also are very important in justice facilities. Being sensitive to the physical context, how the building fits into the surrounding environment, and how it interfaces with the local community, can significantly enhance the role of justice facilities as important civic architecture in any neighborhood or city.

JD: You currently are writing a security handbook, The Security Handbook: A Planning and Design Guide, (McGraw-Hill, Fall 2003) featuring different building types, but you aren’t including correctional facilities. Where should architects and others involved in the design of correctional institutions go for the most current information?

BN: Correctional designers would probably not seek out such a handbook because the area is so specialized, and most firms have the expertise in-house or through consultants who have been involved for years. Corrections, as well as airport design, has long been focused on security through design, operations, and technology, and both areas are highly specialized with a more limited segment of the design community. The book will appeal to a more general audience.

For the most current information, there are resources such as Architecture for Justice, a new book by Michael Crosbie, Ph.D., RA, (Images Publishing, Australia, Fall 2003), which will feature about 35 projects of the highest caliber designs. The book contains many past JFR (Justice Facilities Review) winners. There are many other publications in the justice industry, such as trade magazines and Web sites, which provide updates on new trends and developments. Also, conferences, conventions, publications, and Web sites from the many justice-related organizations, such as ACA, AJA, AIA and CAJ to name just a few, are high on everyone’s list of information resources.

JD: When it comes to justice architecture, what trends are you currently seeing?

BN: Sustainability, energy conservation, greater emphasis on good design, long lasting materials, security needs, pleasant work environments, and flexibility of use are all current trends.

JD: How are the various facility types evolving? What design/planning direction is the juvenile facility headed? How about special needs facilities? Women’s prisons? Courthouses?

BN: Juvenile facility design trends are heading toward living units with residential-quality materials and environments that encourage rehabilitation in home-like settings. Separate units for violent offenders are built with harder, more prison-like materials, furnishings, and design elements. Special needs facilities, especially for medical, mental health, women, juvenile, and sex offender populations, were developed within virtually every correctional agency to provide appropriate services and housing to these offenders, as mandated by law, building codes, and correctional standards. New special needs facilities often provide conference rooms, pleasantly designed staff areas, and professional learning opportunities to create working environments competitive with those in the community.

Law enforcement facilities must have a strong and positive civic presence in their communities. Law enforcement facilities play an important role in society by representing government and the law in the everyday lives of citizens.

JD: How has justice architecture changed over the past 10 or 20 years? Where do you see things 20 years from now?

BN: Buildings are more complex and multifunctional, and programmatic needs are more diverse than ever before. Flexibility and potential expansion are often on the agenda in the early planning stages. I’m not sure that was the case 20 years ago. Now, we’re building buildings to last, not just to look good.

JD: What most excites you about the direction in which you see the industry going?

BN: A higher quality of design across the board. The elevation of justice facilities as noteworthy civic architecture that inspires and excites the public rather than plain boxes is a great achievement for the justice design community. The public is recognizing that we are taking on a higher level of design.

JD: The GSA is making headlines with some of its striking new courthouse designs. How do you view the shift to “signature” buildings?

BN: I’m so involved in this issue. The GSA’s Design Excellence Program has been a tremendous boost for getting all civic architecture back on the public radar screen. The GSA Chief Architect, Ed Feiner, FAIA, has done a tremendous job of raising the quality of federal buildings from plain boring boxes to exciting buildings that inspire and generate enthusiasm for the power of design to enhance the built environment.

The whole Design Excellence Program is based on policy statements by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1962 he advocated that federal architecture should not reflect a singular style, but rather the best creativity and talents of the country’s finest architectural firms and designers. That was a great vision the GSA has picked up on.

JD: Is there anything that worries you about the direction of the industry?

BN: In a tight budget climate, many public services and line items are being cut, which will result in a lack of sufficient rehabilitation, transitional, and alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent offenders and substance abusers.

JD: What do you see as the biggest challenges/hurdles when designing for the justice market?

BN: This is very timely because states and localities are facing huge budget deficits and that will limit the number of potential future capital projects. It will also mean that designers will have to do more with less, in terms of good design, appropriate materials, energy conservation, technology, maintenance strategies, and operational requirements for staffing and security. There will be more of a burden on everybody who is part of a design team.

JD: Will the number of new facilities you’re asked to design or work on diminish? If so, do you see the number of remodeling projects go up?

BN: Most likely. The prison boom is on the downturn nationally from what I’ve heard and seen around the country. Maintenance, renovations, and repairs will take on greater priority for scarce capital dollars.

JD: Courthouses, especially, are vulnerable public buildings. How do you begin to address those concerns without making the buildings look like intimidating fortresses?

BN: Achieving transparent security measures or those not visible to the public, is a design goal for federal facilities, and hopefully will be for state and local public and private facilities as well.

Adequate setbacks for sufficient standoff distances are the first line of defense at the site planning stages. Overall, a comprehensive security plan should be developed for each building and owners concerned about strengthening security provisions. Transparent security can effectively be achieved through a careful integration of design, technology, and operations, along with staff training and education on appropriate policies and procedures to be followed daily and in emergency situations.

JD: You frequently write about the industry; what is it you are most often asked to address when it comes to the subject of justice architecture?

BN: Everyone wants to know about trends: what’s new, what’s hot, what’s in store for the future. Those questions are on everyone’s mind.

Generally, editors-and presumably readers-are often interested in materials, building and security technology, operational strategies that impact design, and new building types, unique regional projects, and delivery methods.

JD: What do you consider to be the most overlooked part of justice design?

BN: The general public often doesn’t realize that many of the newer-and older-justice facilities contain some very pleasant places to visit and work, and are not the foreboding places too often depicted in the old movies and TV shows. That is why it is so important for the justice community to emphasize a commitment to both good design and the enhancement of the built environment, regardless of facility type. Years ago, when an architect friend heard I was visiting prisons and was involved in correctional facility design, he assumed most of them were dungeons-these really horrible, old, and ugly places. The industry has worked hard to dispel that.

JD: Is there anything we haven’t asked that you would like to add?

BN: I think one of the best things to come out of the construction boom, and that includes all justice facilities, is that it has raised the quality of design. Many of the buildings have captured public attention because of their designs. That’s good for the design and construction industry.

The most invigorating part of the proposed design schemes for ground zero was that the public was engaged and talking about architecture. It was in the media and that kind of conversation is good for everyone in the industry. In the last decade or so the increasing quality of design in the justice arena has done the same thing. Particularly with the signature courthouses and the award winning JFR buildings. Design that gets recognized for excellence is good for the entire profession and the community.