5 Courtroom Design, Architecture & Construction Must-Haves

Courtrooms in Wisconsin and Iowa were flooded with jury trials after the pandemic, and the backlog continues to persist for many. The influx of cases is exposing what already was a glaring need for many aging facilities: Not only is capacity and staffing an issue, the lack of security protocols, accessibility, technology, and other factors are placing a strain on many counties.

Many local governments are planning updates to their aging justice centers or looking to build new facilities. As we work alongside several county governments to upgrade their courtroom design standards, the following criteria are among their top priorities. 

  1. Security & Safety
  2. Flexible Floorplans
  3. Aesthetic Upgrades
  4. Accessibility Compliance
  5. Technology Integration

1. Security & Safety

Ensuring the security and safety of staff and the public is a major reason many districts are constructing new or renovated courtrooms. Many older jail facility layouts require that inmates be transported from their jail cells to the courtroom through public areas such as elevators, hallways, the Clerk of Courts, or health department. Some courtrooms are located so far from the jail facility that inmates need to be transported in secure vehicles, adding even more potential for a security breach and increased staffing costs.

State court regulations recommend a secure access area for inmates to prevent potential escape attempts, harassment, passing of contraband, victim distress, and other security issues. Ideally, a court facility is integrated into a jail facility’s floor plan with a restricted corridor that eliminates outside interactions. Accommodations need to be made to address evolving inmate classifications as well. Just as different classifications can’t be housed together in a jail facility, they also need to be kept separate when being transported to the courtroom. 

RELATED RESOURCE: Guide to Jail Construction Planning

2. Flexible Floorplans

Nearly every industry is looking for ways to build flexibility into their facility plans, including the justice system. Courtrooms have traditionally featured built-in furnishings and a single layout. The judge's bench and witness stand will likely remain fixed, but modern courtroom design allows for movability of other areas. 

For example, the jury selection process may need to accommodate more chairs for a large group, a multiparty trial may require more counsel tables, or high-profile cases may need more spectator seating. Potential social-distancing requirements, on the other hand, may require fewer seats and greater distance in between all parties. A flexible design allows for movement of seating and the rail to adjust to each case’s needs.  

Another approach to flexible design is to construct a facility with more than one juried courtroom to address heavy caseloads. A smaller courtroom can accommodate family court hearings or cases involving a visiting judge while other proceedings happen in larger courtrooms. Assessing a facility’s future needs and population projections for the county might indicate the need for more judges in the future. Such was the case with the Trempealeau County Justice Center where the county included additional courtrooms to proactively address their needs as part of their long-range plan.


3. Aesthetic Upgrades

Symbolism and functionality are both important in courtroom interior design. Many facilities are historical landmarks or hold architectural significance in a community. Renovations or building additions need to respect the past while helping to cast a vision for the future. 

The values and aspirations of the community also need to be considered when designing the facility. Modern courthouse design reflects a community’s personality while maintaining judicial reverence. Classic elements like woodwork and architectural features are being combined with modern finishes, fixtures, and furnishings, but with a lighter and less pompous feel. Court systems also look to create welcoming environments that help to reduce trauma and stress for visitors and court participants. Intimidating colonnades and stairways are being replaced with ground-level access and smaller scale features that are more human-centric.

4. Accessibility Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires equal access to government buildings and services for those with disabilities. Unfortunately, the grand staircases and narrow doorways of many historic buildings don’t comply

Courtroom access to the jury box, witness box, spectator area, attorney tables, and other sections must be ADA-compliant and free of barriers. Auditory assistance for the hearing impared must also be provided, as well as easy access to public restrooms. Additional accessibility provisions are required for deliberation rooms and other areas of a courthouse, so be sure you work with a construction manager who understands the full scope of ADA compliance requirements.

5. Technology Integration

The pandemic ushered in a new age of virtual court hearings and the need for upgraded courtroom technology. The ability to easily stream video proceedings remotely isn’t just helpful in times of social distancing, it can also help others keep a court date when they’re faced with inflexible work schedules or other limitations. 

Every defendant has the right to have his or her day in court, and most cases benefit from in-person proceedings, but a hybrid model will likely persist. Designing courtrooms with technology integration in mind rather than as an afterthought provides optimal functionality and visual appeal. Technology integrations need to be thoughtfully placed to ensure clear, crisp communication, and should include:

  • Large video screens & cameras
  • Sound system, including microphones & speakers
  • Annotation system with touch screens
  • Laptop inputs
  • Monitors for witnesses, judge & jurors
  • Web-based video conferencing technologies
  • And more

In addition, cabling and power must be integrated into the design and furnishings. The power needs of modern courtrooms are far-reaching and require professional A/V contractors who work closely with the design and construction teams during the planning and implementation stages.

If you’re considering facility improvements or a courthouse building project in Wisconsin or Iowa, it’s critical to engage with an experienced construction manager that has chartered the waters and understands the unique compliance requirements for each state. The Samuels Group can work alongside your architect to provide a real-time cost estimate to your project as well as provide additional services like public referendum planning, communication plans, construction management, furniture solutions, and more. 

Contact our team of professionals to assess your needs and provide personalized guidance through the process. Also be sure to download our complimentary Jail Planning Guide below with additional considerations.

Guide to Jail Construction Planning

Main header image courtesy of Venture Architects

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