Open Court

A U.S. courthouse in Gulfport, Miss., takes advantage of its location to bring sunlight and spectacular views into the judicial process.
August 11, 2010

For Judge Walter J. Gex III, the completion last August of the Dan M. Russell, Jr. United States Courthouse complex in Gulfport, Miss., was justice long delayed. The project, which replaced a leased "nightmare" of a facility in Biloxi, was more than 10 years in the making for the U.S. senior district judge for the Southern District of Mississippi. Gex also served as chairman of the building committee for the new $52 million complex, which is comprised of a new eight-story courthouse tower and the adaptive reuse of a historic two-story high school built in 1923 into offices for the U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Probation.

Work toward a replacement courthouse began in the early 1990s, just as the Magnolia State's casino boom was ushering in a period of economic expansion and population growth. With prosperity, however, came heightened crime and litigation, says Gex, who is in his nineteenth year as a district judge. "We had outgrown the old facility and it was in a constant state of repair," Gex says. "There was no design to the facility. It was just a box."

Breaking out of the box, the 180,000-gsf courthouse seeks to translate architecturally the idea "that justice is open, fair, transparent, and related to the population," says Robert Kliment, FAIA, lead designer and partner in charge of the project for R.M.Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects, New York, whose joint venture with Canizaro Cawthon Davis, Jackson, Miss., was selected by the GSA to design the project as part of its rigorous Design Excellence Program.

To meet that goal, an expansive bay window curtain wall system, which scales the entire height of the courthouse tower, rising above a double-height south-facing entry porch, encases the public circulation spaces of the courthouse, flooding them with natural light and affording panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico and the surrounding community. Bay windows also are situated in the judges' chambers on the southeast and southwest sides of the building flanking the public circulation areas, and in the jury deliberation rooms on the northeast and northwest ends of the building.

"The wowin the courthouse comes when you go up to the eighth floor and look out over the Mississippi gulf coast, the sandy beaches, and the Mississippi Sound," says Gex, who toured courthouses around the country with his wife (and secretary) and fellow judges in preparation for the project. "The view of Boston Harbor is the only one that comes close to it, and you can't swim in the harbor."

Juxtaposed with the openness of the court system conveyed by the bay windows is a sense of security and solidity brought forth in the exterior's precast concrete panel cladding and punch windows. Although limestone was the first choice for the cladding material, the Building Team selected a less-costly limestone-colored precast system.

The structure contains eight courtrooms for district, magistrate, and bankruptcy courts, with two courtrooms occupying each of the tower's top four floors. The courtroom floors also contain court support areas, with judges' chambers and deliberation rooms located in the four corners of the building.

 
A stick-system curtain wall on the south-facing side of the eight-story Dan M. Russell, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Gulfport, Miss., affords spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico.


Although most courts tend to be hierarchical in nature, the collaborative relationship of the judges in the Southern District inspired the design team to develop an atypical layout for the courtrooms, which required meetings with the U.S. Office of the Courts, GSA, and Judge Gex before design could proceed. Instead of coupling the four higher-level district courts in pairs on the top two floors and locating the magistrate and bankruptcy courts on the lower floors, each floor contains a district court paired with either a magistrate or bankruptcy court.




A match made in Mississippi

Pairing the larger district courtrooms with the smaller magistrate and bankruptcy courtrooms enabled the larger and smaller courtrooms to be stacked on top of each other, making for an efficient and uniform layout, says Kliment. Stacking the larger and smaller courtrooms side by side also creates an "offset to each floor so that the [public circulation] areas are sort of on a bias," says Kliment. "Functionally, each formal court area contributes to the building's form. But internally, it makes for a more collegial relationship between the judges."

"Because we utilize our magistrate judges a whole lot more than the average, we thought it was the best set-up," says Gex.

Inside the courtrooms, clerestory windows allow in natural light. On the eighth floor, A-frame skylights in the roof provide natural light into the district court's special proceedings courtroom and the senior magistrate courtroom. "In many cases, we don't even need the lights on," says Gex, who occupies the special proceedings courtroom. However, the skylights do allow from a neighboring rail line noise to be transmitted into the courthouse, a problem that is still under review, says Gex.

The location of the courtrooms at the top of the building and the extensive millwork involved in them were the major bottlenecks for the construction team as it worked to complete the project's 730-day construction schedule. "The courtrooms had my heart in my throat the whole time," says Tim Madeira, project manager for the Houston office of construction manager Jacobs Facilities.

To prevent humidity and temperature fluctuations common to the area from harming the substantial amount of millwork in the courtrooms, the construction team (led by locally based general contractor Roy Anderson Corp.) enclosed the building from the top down. "The catch was that the curtain wall couldn't be installed from the top down," says Greg Weyant, RAC's senior project manager. Temporary weather protection was used to enclose the courtroom floors so that finish work, such as drywall, could be performed and millwork, which takes six weeks to complete for each courtroom, could be installed. The humidity and temperature of the rooms were constantly monitored. A separate mechanical service building, which serves the tower, was built early in the schedule so that the HVAC equipment could be used to stabilize humidity and temperature levels.

Although the GSA did not require the project to be LEED certified at the time the complex was designed, it did require the project to be Energy Star compliant. While the project was under way, the GSA contracted with Sempra Energy Solutions, San Diego, an energy saving performance contractor, to operate and maintain the complex's mechanical systems. The GSA "wanted to see if we could go above and beyond what was required to save energy," says Richard Stephenson, senior project manager for the GSA's Region 4 Southeast Sunbelt Region based in Atlanta. "We wanted to see if we could operate the building more cheaply and still meet our design requirement."

The effort was successful, according to Michael Nieminen, AIA, Kliment & Halsband's project manager. Working in consort with mechanical engineer Eldridge & Associates, PA, Clinton, Miss., Sempra developed and implemented energy-saving measures, which ultimately saved the GSA 8% on its construction costs.

Security focuses on flexibility

Security for the building and the people that use it is provided through separate and distinct circulation patterns and the combination of operational and technical security with structural security measures. The public enters the building through the front entrance, but judges enter through a 10-space underground parking garage, which leads to a separate elevator. Employees park in a secured outdoor parking lot. U.S. marshals and prisoners enter the building through a secured prisoner entrance containing a separate elevator.

Although the GSA setback requirement at the time the project was in design was only 20 feet, the tower was set back 100 feet from the secure edge of the site. The current GSA setback requirement is 50 feet. The site is protected on its perimeter by a series of bollards and low landscaped walls. A "free zone" designed within the tower's entrance plaza and porch is separate from the courts building and provides a welcoming public space that can be used for public functions without compromising security.

Designed by artist Michele Oka Doner in collaboration with Kliment & Halsband, a decorative screen wall, which recalls curtains of Spanish moss that hang from local oak trees, softens the effect of security equipment separating the free zone from the courthouse lobby and stairs. Electronic surveillance cameras and card readers are installed throughout the building.

 
Designed by artist Michelle Oka Doner, a screen wall enclosing the security equipment and desk recalls the curtains of Spanish moss found in oak trees throughout Gulfport.


The blast-protection strategy specified for the tower by consultant Weidlinger Associates, New York, takes advantage of the flexibility of the curtain wall and precast cladding systems, allowing them to deform and dissipate energy in the event of a blast. "Rather than resisting the blast energy by brute force and pure strength alone, we allow it to deform," says Weidlinger principal Robert Smilowitz. "To that extent, the systems are designed to accept extreme blast loadings while sustaining damage. Every component will sustain damage in a sizable event, but they are designed to limit the debris that would enter the occupied space."




To withstand blast events, precast panels typically are limited to a minimum thickness of 6 inches. But Smilowitz says, "the greatest impact as far as cost is not so much the thickness, but the amount of detailing and the number of connections required." Panels are typically attached to the floor slabs. Attaching panels to columns is avoided, Smilowitz says, "because we don't like to load the gravity-resisting elements directly."

As for the tower's curtain wall system, laminated glass was adhered to the steel mullions with structural silicon to prevent the glass from disengaging from the frame. The mullions were designed with an increased stiffness capacity.

According to Weidlinger senior structural engineer Matt Kmetz, the tower is worthy of note "for the fact that you can have a curtain wall façade on a building designed for blast protection." Although it's becoming more common, he says, "a few years ago you wouldn't have dreamed of having a curtain wall front on a building like this. Buildings designed for blast were designed for small punch openings. We've shown that curtain walls can work in these environments."

         
 

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