Prior Makes Sense of Sustainable Design in Corrections

Beverly Prior, FAIA, LEED AP, is currently the civic and justice practice leader of San Francisco-based HMC+Beverly Prior Architects, which is a leading figure in the national architectural and justice community. Prior has worked on several major correctional/justice projects and holds sustainable design near and dear to her heart. Correctional News recently asked Prior a series of questions in order to understand how green design has been implemented in the correctional market and the overall benefits of sustainable design in the industry.

Q: How have you seen sustainability and energy-efficient design concepts grow in the correctional market?
Prior: I’ve seen sustainability concepts grow from two perspectives — the political and the operations perspective. Politically, the funding agency, whether a state or county often have standards that projects must meet a LEED or other green standard. It also can help with achieving community buy in: “At least it’s green!” Achieving a LEED status is a source of pride and positive public relations: “We’re doing the right thing!” Operationally, the focus is minimizing the ongoing use of resources. Correctional facilities make large demands on water and power, so if those year after year costs can be reduced, then agencies have more options with where to put their resources. With the support of state grant programs, Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail is now poised to save $100,000 per year with their new solar grid.

Q: How have you personally implemented “green” practices in justice/detention designs? Has this become a standard for you?
Prior: It’s absolutely a standard with us to engage with our clients about green practices, approaches and concepts. Strategies for resource efficiency are at their heart good, prudent design, and it’s a rich conversation as to how to implement that within the special demands of detention and corrections. Similarly, choosing durable, maintainable products is a key to creating a long-term quality environment. While the green movement increases everyone’s interest and engagement in this topic, much of this is best practice. I’m an advocate for the bigger picture, too, of “sustainable justice,” in which the greater good is the sustainability focus, including alternatives to incarceration, right sizing rather than supersizing, creating community benefit, and providing programs and environments that support better outcomes.

Q: Explain any current or past projects that you have been a part of that give an exemplary example of sustainability in corrections.
Prior: Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center completed in the mid-1990’s is my favorite example of exemplary sustainability. Yes, it attained LEED Gold certification and numerous other awards for sustainability. So, it is recognized and credentialed. What makes it so exemplary to me though is the broader picture, too: The healthy dialog in the community about the size of the facility which led to fewer beds, the integration of programs to support the youth and their families, and even engagement of former juvenile hall residents in the construction of the new facility.

Q: Is there a downside of designing with sustainability in mind? If so, how can this be changed? And if there isn’t a downside, then how come not all justice facilities are being designed with higher energy-efficient standards?
Prior: Sustainability cannot be just about a mechanical system or a recycled material – there needs to be a whole-facility perspective that includes ongoing maintenance, ease of repair, and need for replacement in the specialized detention/corrections environment. The greatest energy-performing mechanical system that cannot be maintained efficiently with local resources is not a good use of public dollars. So, yes, yes, yes – sustainability is a critical conversation. It just needs to be a smart conversation that factors all aspects in including right sizing.

Q: What are the benefits of going green and why should facility owners and operators be open to the idea?
Prior: I think the political and operations benefits are clear. What I haven’t touched on yet is the experience of working in a sustainably designed, built and maintained environment. Sustainable environments are usually better environments and of huge benefit to the occupants – inmates and staff alike. Natural light, good ventilation, views to nature, non-toxic cleaning products and other sustainable practices make for a lower stress, healthier place to be. If you are uplifted by the environment, you have a chance at being a better worker, teacher and learner.