New courthouse blossoms into a civic space for one California town

The building's canopy suggests classical courthouse features of front porch and portico. It also helps connect the building with a public plaza that has re-centered civic activity and public gathering for the town.

March 05, 2015 |
New courthouse blossoms into a civic space for one California town

The site in Hollister, Calif., on which the Superior Court for San Benito County was built is tight. Project architect SmithGroupJJR expanded the sense of openness in the 41,500-sf building’s interior space by borrowing visual interest from its exterior exposures. All public circulation and staff corridors and ramps have direct views onto outdoor areas, which include a plaza and roof rock gardens. The technique is based on a concept used in traditional Japanese gardens. Photo: Bruce Damonte, courtesy SmithGroupJJR

The Superior Court of California used to operate its courthouse for San Benito County from an aging building in the county seat of Hollister. That building’s myriad inadequacies included allowing visitors and inmates to enter through the same door—a security nightmare.

In 2009, SmithGroupJJR won its bid to design a new courthouse that would provide a sense of place that Hollister lacked. What the design firm came up with was a 41,500-sf building on two floors that, since opening a year ago, has established itself as a true civic center.

This $29.4 million project was funded through a bond issue approved by voters to build or renovate 44 courthouses across the state.

The client, the Administrative Office of the Court, wanted a cost-efficient building that would offer a comfortable and safe environment for courthouse staff and the public. “However, they didn’t want a fortress,” says project designer Hiroko Miyake, JIA, LEED AP BD+C, a Principal with SmithGroupJJR. “They wanted something that could be seen as being part of the community.”

 

Photo: Bruce Damonte, courtesy SmithGroupJJR

 

The building is organized in a simple rectangular form with linear arrangements of its three courtrooms for civil, criminal, and family and juvenile law. (A jury assembly room can be converted to a fourth courtroom.) 

The space available for this building—which sits on a site previously used for a school—was tight. One solution was to install larger interior and exterior windows to create vistas, says SmithGroupJJR Vice President Suzanne Napier, AIA, LEED AP BD+C. “We utilized psychological effect to expand the interior space by borrowing exterior views,” she says. This is not unlike the Shakkukei technique used in traditional Japanese gardens.

The courthouse’s open circulation plan lets in lots of natural light, but is also shaded by a cantilevered patterned canopy that wraps around three sides of the building. The canopy suggests classical courthouse features of front porch and portico. It also helps connect the building with a public plaza that has “re-centered civic activity and public gathering for the town,” says Napier.

Hollister lies within a thousand feet of two earthquake fault lines. The courthouse’s foundation and structural design incorporated seismic recommendations that incorporate a buckling-resistant, braced-frame-and-steel structure and steel-deck-filled concrete slabs. Ultra-high-performance concrete panels—lightweight, thin, durable—were used as the building’s primary exterior skin material.

The Building Team (in addition to SmithGroupJJR): Rutherford & Chekene (SE), BKF Engineers (CE), Gayner Engineers (MEP), Cliff Lowe Associates (landscape design), Jay Farbstein Associates (courtroom planner), BKF Interface Engineering (lighting consultant); TEECOM (AV, security, telecommunications), Kate Keating Associates (signage/graphics), and Kitchell CEM (GC).

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