Navigating Security Challenges in Historic Courthouse Renovations with Creative Solutions

October 7, 2019 | Andrew Shipman Louise Brodnitz

Courthouse renovations and modernizations in aging and historic buildings are relatively common as courts push to take advantage of state or federal funding to improve security. As a result, courthouse renovation contractors often tackle security in two specific areas: circulation and hardening.

For security reasons, modern courthouses typically require three separate circulation routes: one route for the general public, one route for judges and court staff, and often a third route for prisoners. This level of separation is often lacking in historic courthouses, built even as recently as the 1980s. Solving this particular challenge often requires a great deal of creativity.

Consider smart use of underutilized spaces.​

When it appeared space restrictions within the lobby of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Washington DC (built-in 1976) would limit the level of security upgrades for circulation, the building owners got concerned. At a planning charrette led by the owner’s reps, it was decided that the renovation of the John Marshall level of the courthouse building, which is part of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, would take advantage of the existing courthouse’s high deck-to-deck height ceilings. The project team ultimately split an existing corridor into two separate floors, adding a level and separating circulation for judges and prisoners.

Garages Deserve Equal, if not Additional, Attention as a Secure Access Point.

Parking is another area where circulation must be segmented for the protection of court staff. On one recent project at the Raleigh Federal Courthouse in North Carolina, (a facility built in 1968) the prisoners, judges, staff, and construction tradespeople all used the same entrance through the garage. The Owner’s Reps helped better manage access through a combination of improved scheduling, the use of sally port doorways for controlled entry, allocating a portion of the underground warehouse to build new elevators and entryways, and extensive planning and coordination with the Court’s Security Office and U.S. Marshalls Service.

Recognize That Hardening & Historic Facades Rarely Make For an Easy Upgrade​

In addition, many courthouses seeking to better protect judges’ chambers per federal court design standards find that hardening can be particularly complicated to achieve in historic structures. For example, putting in upgrades such as blast- or ballistic-resistant windows isn’t as easy as swapping out glazing. In most cases, the existing structure would need to be upgraded to secure the entire assembly of the building. Add to that challenge, historic facades may hide conditions that can’t be assessed without extensive destructive testing, which could lead to a loss of the historic fabric. To stay ahead of the curve, build extra time into your schedule when upgrading historic courthouse facades, and be sure to have a historic façade consultant on-hand if the going gets tough.

Move-in Ready is Vital for Courthouses

At move-in virtually every project has some issues that need to be addressed as employees settle into a new workflow and space. However, it is particularly critical that courthouse projects be ready to function at occupancy or before. After all, as lives may depend on this added security and improved functionality, it should perform as expected.​

Courthouse projects come with a range of challenges that, when combined, demand the oversight of an experienced project management team. Careful consideration of what a building’s limitations may appear to be will often reveal that with creative solutions and a collaborative process, even the most complex problems can be addressed.

About the Authors

Andrew Shipman, CCM, LEED AP, has served as the Senior Project Manager for 3 of AFG’s projects with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) that have received Project of the Year Awards from the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA). Andrew has over 30 years of experience including for courthouse projects nationwide, and holds an MBA from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Louise Brodnitz, AIA AICP, is a Historic Preservation specialist and Architect with over 35 years of experience in the field. Louise has served for 4 years on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, DC, and is currently AFG’s Senior Historic Preservationist Architect on the $500M GSA Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Consolidation at St. Elizabeths Campus program.

About AFG Group, Inc.

AFG Group, Inc. is a woman-­owned firm focused on multi-­disciplined program, construction, and relocation management, with a national portfolio of work in healthcare, laboratories, courthouses, educational facilities, and government buildings. With 30 years of business acumen, AFG has earned a reputation for providing strong expertise, responsiveness, and project execution that helps owners navigate through complex design, procurement, construction, and activation processes.