A New Approach to Juvenile Detention in San Diego

Vanir Delivers Award-winning Youth Transition Campus 

By Allison Hopkins

The February 2022 opening of the County of San Diego Youth Transition Campus (Phase I) represented a major shift in the design of juvenile detention facilities, as well as the development of a one-of-a-kind, national model. The home-like campus, which has adopted a more therapeutic and less punitive approach, focuses on providing supportive, trauma-informed services to help rehabilitate coed youths ages 12-20 and prepare them to reintegrate back into the community. The design-build project serves as a huge milestone for the County, its probation department, the San Diego community and the Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit that has worked to improve the juvenile justice system nationwide for the past 20 years. 

“This groundbreaking facility is part of our San Diego County Comprehensive Strategy that works to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system, and if they do enter the formal justice system, to provide them with the best and safest environment so they don’t return and are able to become productive residents,” said Sandra McBrayer, CEO of the Children’s Initiative.

Photo Credit: Emil Kara

Part of a multi-phase project targeting LEED Gold certification and zero net energy, the campus replaces a 1950’s-era juvenile detention facility. Vanir was brought on board as the construction manager in 2017 to assist with the planning, predesign, design and construction phases. The project scope included four housing buildings (eight living units) with capacity for 96 residents, a stand-alone education and recreation complex, new medical and food service areas and a support building.

For Vanir Senior Construction Manager Justin Peters, CCM, LEED® AP, BD+C, the project was a tremendous success. “The project team was tasked with integrating architectural features in both secure and non-secure spaces,” Peters said. “The team’s tireless efforts and collaborative partnership exceeded the client’s vision for the project.”

 Vanir worked closely with the County’s probation department to deliver the complex campus. “Vanir’s expertise in project and construction management ensured the County had a juvenile facility that met its needs and was on budget,” said Jason Druxman, probation deputy chief of institutional services. “We have found the Vanir representatives to be nothing less than professional, courteous and proficient while guiding the project through planning, design and construction.”

Balfour Beatty Construction, in conjunction with DLR Group, served as the design-build entity, with construction of the much awaited, $112-million GMP, 140,000-square-foot campus kicking off with an aggressive schedule in November of 2019. 

“Everyone involved in this project worked together to establish a culture that aligned with the mission of rehabilitation and trauma-informed housing that the campus sought to accomplish,” said Kristen Tuerk, AIA, DBIA, design manager for Balfour Beatty. “For example, not a single person on the project, from the engineers and executives to the field staff performing the work, ever used the term ‘cell’ to reference the rooms where youth were housed. From every individual’s start on the project, these rooms were only referenced as ‘sleeping rooms.’”

 The ultimate goal was to create an open, campus-like environment supportive of a new paradigm for youth treatment in a secure setting focused on achieving better outcomes for youth, their families and the community. The residential living areas provide a warm environment that supports small-group therapy and encourages youth and staff interaction. Youth residents are separated by gender, age and offense level to maintain a safe space. In order to support the normative, home-like campus, security measures were designed to be low profile with LED exterior lighting. 

“An important part of the campus program is that youth residents attend school in a classroom setting located in the center of the site, learning trades such as plumbing, culinary arts, media arts and information technology,” Peters said. “They also have access to inside and outside recreation areas and a 3,800-square-foot garden.”

The campus provides medical, mental health, vision and dental services and was built adjacent to the existing juvenile probation center and juvenile court building. This location supports continuity of care and access for families, probation officers, service providers, volunteers and other juvenile justice partners.   

Vanir is proud to have served the County of San Diego for the past 12 years and is partnering with the project team to provide construction management services for the next phase of this project, involving an expansion of the Phase I campus.