Saving by Design

Built in 1979 on a steep bank along the upper Mississippi River, the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center played an important role in reviving the riverfront in St. Paul, Minn. A city park resting on the jail’s roof made the facility invisible to passersby and, from the river, resembled a cascading bluff, making a striking addition to the city.


In 1981, the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center received a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for its contribution to urban renewal in St. Paul. The award came not in a detention subcategory, but in competition with all types of urban architecture.

Recalling the project in a recent Correctional News column, Stephen Carter wrote that Ramsey County "had the forethought to envision a site that was an urban ‘throwaway’ as useable, and the designers responded with a boundary-stretching operational and architectural solution."


Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center
St. Paul, Minn.

Cost: $47.6 million
Capacity: 475 beds
Completed: October 2003
Owner: Ramsey County, Minn.
Architect/Engineer: Wold Architects & Engineers
Programming: Carter Goble Lee
Security Systems Designer: Latta Technical Services
Precaster: Rinker Materials / Hanson
Structural Engineer: Wold Architects & Engineers
System Integrator:
Detention Equipment Contractor: Norment
Food Service Consultant: Robert Rippe & Associates
Cost Management: Constructive Ideas
Contractor: McGough Construction Co.

Two decades later, a blighted area has been revived. The jail was followed by infrastructure upgrades, museums, a concert venue, and the planting of more than 15,000 trees and shrubs, making this one of the nation’s most valuable pieces of riverfront real estate. "The city wanted the riverfront to be more accessible, and to double the building would seriously have impacted the riverfront," explains Mike Cox of Wold Architects & Engineers, the firm that designed the first facility in association with Gruzen & Partners.

The pre-trial jail – an early example of indirect podular design – still functioned well for its age, needing only expansion and a security electronics upgrade to remain current. "Expansion was studied and restudied many times, but it couldn’t be done," Cox says. "The Sheriff’s Department was reluctant to let the existing facility go, but they saw the benefit of returning the site to the community."

The landmark facility was slated for demolition, and a site in a warehouse district two miles away was selected for the replacement. Completed in October 2003, the new $47 million Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center is distinguished with greater consolidation of services, open booking and arraignment courts, environmentally-friendly building practices and energy-saving features.


Ramsey County again chose Wold Architects to design the replacement for the Adult Detention Center, which had functioned as a pre-trial detention and sheriff’s administration building. Because the existing facility had been near the courthouse, architects would need to include arraignment courts at the 475-bed Law Enforcement Center.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s team had already achieved success in reducing the length of stay for pre-trial detainees. The new facility would have to enhance this process. "The courts, sheriff’s department and community corrections long ago strategized to reduce jail time," says Cox, who was principal-in-charge on the project. "In other words, to dispose of a case and dismiss an inmate from the jail."

Detainees who can be released or placed in alternative sentencing programs are quickly identified during their first court appearance. Facility components necessary to make this happen were kept on one level, including food service, the seven-vehicle sallyport, short-term housing and the courts, which offer substantial detainee holding space where attorneys can confer prior to appearance.

Planners considered adding video arraignment, but decided against it. "We toured different courts and realized that, for Ramsey County, it made more sense to have the judge in face-to-face contact with the defendant," Cox explains. "Face-to-face, a judge can take in visual cues at close quarters, in contrast to a camera that can lose facial expressions."

But planners did embrace interactive, high-speed data technologies to make the court system and jail staff more effective. An ergonomic video display shows judges who the defendant is and who is next on the docket, helping them handle from 150 to 200 cases per day. Openness supports the process.

"The public defender wanted to know they had access to the defendant," says Cox. "Some courts will put people behind glass, but this is an open environment with a low wall. They looked at how to get the sightlines right for the public defender, prosecutor, judge and support groups."

Spatially open courts were deemed necessary to process defendants quickly.

The large, central light fixture above is simple, done in brass lattice work with glass reflectors. Wold Architects’ signature lighting approach is also evident, a combination of uplighting and downlighting to provide better light volume. Acoustic wall panels and carpeting dampen sound, while the use of both dark oak and light oak furnishings also balance aesthetics, durability and cost.

"The aesthetic that comes across to the defendant and other users is that this is a very real situation, that there’s nothing casual about it, and that you’re there for something serious," says Cox.


Brick patterns blend the Law Enforcement Center with the surrounding warehouse district. The facility’s six-story housing tower is set back from the public functions, letting a curving colonnade identify the public entry to the lower-lying administration component. Other features include a firing range on the third floor that is so well acoustically buffered that not even staff in the adjacent spaces hear a shot.

The firing range also opens up the facility to a larger law enforcement campus, which includes a new 110,000-square-foot police station, also designed by Wold Architects, making use of a 1920s-era warehouse. Police officers and officers from other counties will also make use of the firing range, gaining access through a separate entrance, even offhours.

The six-story housing tower is set back from the lower-lying administration and judicial components.

"We put the training-related functions on the second floor because that ties into corridors and the firing range built over the sallyport, and also ties into the locker rooms and fitness rooms. Employee circulation avoids the jail perimeter," says Joel Dunning, project designer for Wold. "One-way movement of circular traffic eases the process of getting an inmate through each step with maximum efficiency."

The sheriff’s offices are on the third floor, while the first floor houses public activities, including warrants and investigations departments with more ingress and egress. The jail also has open bus-stop booking based on the concept of direct supervision, as is much of the facility.

Ramsey County is saying goodbye to this riverfront jail, which earned a National Honor Award from the AIA in 1981.

"If an inmate is sentenced, they go up in the tower. But if they’re not sentenced and brought in for a day for arraignment, they’re then released," says Cox. The design strategy closely matched the ideal inmate flow during their first 24 hours, reducing elevator movement. "One-way movement of circular traffic eases the process of getting an inmate through each step with maximum efficiency," Dunning says.

Paired precast cells from Rinker Materials Corp. made the tower stackable, while a local precaster provided precast beams and columns for the administration and courts components. According to Cox, the decision to use precast not only allowed a six-story tower to be erected in only 12 weeks, it also provided a building envelope that didn’t leak, critical for the intensive ventilation requirements of housing units.


While urban renewal was a watchword of the 1980s, sustainability is the concept increasingly guiding architects today, and here again Ramsey County officials were not afraid to move in a new direction. Most jails are built with concrete, so they are typically at least somewhat in line with the goals of sustainable architecture, but Ramsey County has gone further.

Energy efficiency and the use of native plants were considered early in the design process. The local utility, Xcel Energy, worked with computer modelers at the White Group to provide a go-to energy map for the project. The model allowed planners to evaluate site orientation, lighting, daylighting and air handling, and ultimately promised energy usage that would be 35 percent more efficient than that required by code.

"This was probably the first local jail that used a process for looking at a sustainability process put forward by a county and the state of Minnesota," Cox says. "We employed six different strategies, from site to water to energy to materials to indoor environment and waste strategies, to determine what would be effective and efficient."

Durable seating enhances the daylighted waiting area.

Building jails that are energy-efficient is not easy. "The law enforcement center is a particular challenge because it has some very tight definitions of building function," says Scott Getty, account representative for Xcel Energy. Occupied at all times of day, ventilation requirements stressed by hundreds of toilets and the strictures of security can make trying to achieve sustainability daunting.

Should correctional facilities limit their reach for sustainability to just fly ash and concrete? "I’d argue," Cox replies. "Sustainability is about sustaining a facility over a long period, not about including a trendy green product. Jails, by nature, have to be durable buildings that withstand inmate abuse over the years. Sure, there aren’t opportunities to use new, unproven ecological materials, but jails certainly have to be designed with a minimum of materials. These concerns overlap with sustainability goals."

Being in a region known for supporting environmentally-friendly practices was a big boost. Costs for an on-site boiler stack and cooling tower were avoided because the facility will use "green" power from the District Energy biomass facility. "District heating and cooling is a much more efficient way of producing heating and cooled environments," says Cox. "This was the first project in the warehouse area to sign up and bring it to that area."

Just as its predecessor helped revitalize St. Paul’s riverfront, the new jail is extending a new energy source to the city’s warehouse district for the first time. And, like the old facility, the project reuses an urban site.

Additional project components that bode well for the environment and Sheriff Fletcher’s energy bills include daylighting, high efficiency lighting and motors and, in some of the housing areas, occupancy sensors tied to lighting controls. Water-saving plumbing features and water-draining strategies add to the facilities viability.


Detention Furnishings: Norment/Chief Industries Inc.
Security Glazing: Globe Amerada Architectural Glass
Windows/Curtainwall: EFCO Corp.
Acoustical Ceilings: USG
Stainless Steel Fixtures: Metcraft
Steel Doors and Frames: Kendall Doors
Security Doors and Frames: Norment Security Group
Security Hardware: Airteq
Pnuematic Locking: Airteq/Norment
CCTV: Pelco and Philips/Bosch
HID Proximity Reader Software:
Intercom/Paging: Harding DXI/
Duress: Perimeter Products
Video Visitation:
Shooting Range: Caswell International Group
HVAC: Haakon Industries
Roof: Johns Manville
Clothing Conveyor: White Conveyors Inc.
Access Flooring: Maxcess Technologies
Architectural Millwork: Aaron Carlson Corp.
Wood Doors: Algoma Hardwoods Inc.
Courtroom Pews/Benches: Sander Manufacturing

"The jail tower’s dual-duct constant air volume system ensures minimum ventilation rates," explains Wold’s lead mechanical engineer, Kevin Marshall. "Jail buildings are ventilation-intensive because jail cells are in a sense toilet rooms, and you do quite a bit of direct exhaust. That exhaust need to be reclaimed. So there’s a heat recovery process to reuse the exhaust."

McGough Construction worked to separate construction waste on site for recycling when possible, and the use of precast cells that were plumbed and wired before delivery is also cited as a waste-reducer. A fuel oil tank from a previous structure on the site was reused to store energy fuel for the emergency generator.

The riverfront facility could not be expanded, but the new Law Enforcement Center is shelled for future judicial expansion and the addition of between 400 and 500 beds. What Ramsey County lost in legacy is compensated by consolidated facility designed specifically to the sheriff’s goals, with energy savings and greater longevity.

The old jail will soon be replaced with condominiums. "I guess when you pay $500,000 for a condo on the river, you want it to be a little closer to the river than a jail cell," jokes Cox.