A New Courthouse Fuses Sustainability and Security

Oct. 1, 2007
Buildings Interiors® Grand Prize: Wayne L. Morse U.S. Federal Courthouse, Eugene, OR

What do you get when you combine low-profile, high-tech security systems with state-of-the-art sustainability elements? The Wayne L. Morse U.S. Federal Courthouse in Eugene, OR. The 266,742-square-foot, expressive building portrays its function and ideals to the public without shouting "traditional, government-style courthouse." As a Security Level IV facility (only one level below buildings such as the Pentagon), its design provides a living, breathing design vernacular that incorporates real-world green features (extensive glazing, energy- and water-saving systems, etc.). A prime example of the security/sustainability combination: the underfloor air-distribution system. To allow this sustainable element to safely exist in the courthouse, JE Dunn facilitated a design briefing by the engineers to bring all subcontractors up to speed on the system, its purpose, and key points. Planning sessions were held and quality was monitored closely to ensure that both security and zone air control were taken into consideration during construction and installation.

The recent U.S. federal courthouse model - a facility that resembles a generic office tower - has increased the amount of administrative space required to service and support courtroom activities, and security measures command separation of restricted and secure circulation from public circulation. For these reasons, in many of today's federal courthouses, courtrooms are typically located at the center of the building; support spaces and circulation radiate outward. But, this 5-story courthouse building breaks the mold. Housing offices for the courts and their clerks, the U.S. Attorney, probation and pretrial services, the U.S. Marshals Serv­ice, the General Services Administration, two U.S. senators, and one member of the U.S. House of Representatives on its first two floors, it also holds six courtrooms on the third floor (two district, two magistrate, and two bankruptcy). In addition, the building accommodates six judges' chambers, one visiting judge's chamber, and two judicial libraries.

Project success in this case can be attributed in part to a collaborative, mutually respectful team environment. Marrying the architect's ambitious aesthetic goals with the U.S. General Services Administration's (GSA's) rigid budget and schedule constraints was a challenge, but nothing that clear-cut communication couldn't resolve. (Historically, U.S. courthouses are constructed on a 30-month [or longer] schedule. Due to the tight schedule, however, a 24-month schedule was agreed upon.) "The team made use of both 2-D and 3-D drawings and models to help communicate the design," explain Ira Gail Wikstrom (vice president at JE Dunn Northwest Inc.) and other team members. JE Dunn was the last major player to join the team - 2 years after project inception. With this knowledge gap, it was imperative that everyone get to know each other - and the project.

Pre-construction services identified one of the biggest hurdles: "The project was $8 million over budget and wouldn't be built unless it met budget requirements," explains Wikstrom. Trimming down construction costs without cutting back on the scale and scope of the project might sound like an intimidating task, but all team members took responsibility and offered ideas for reducing the budget. "A plan to address the budget overrun was mutually developed by JE Dunn, GSA, DLR, and mOrphosis during pre-construction," explains Wikstrom. "The plan included reviewing costs by division of work and being systematic in addressing budget overruns. Each system was evaluated to determine what could reasonably be modified. Specialty subcontractors aided in the budget-reduction process. Alternate materials were considered to bring the budget in line, and shared services during construction were a part of the value-engineering process." The project team discovered $11 million in value-engineering propositions. The team was able to realize significant savings in HVAC systems by putting a whole-building, integrated-design approach into application. This allowed the team to devote money to mechanical upgrades and enhancements to other parts of the facility. Within 4 months, the project budget was back where it should be.

Weekly focus meetings were also a part of the project. Instead of the customary "marathon" owner/architect/contractor meetings, these meetings focused on one specific topic - the schedule, change orders, quality control, safety, work safety, budget review, etc. - and were attended by specific staff members who reported to executive management later regarding progress or problems.

Subcontractor relationships were equally important during this 24-month time period. "Taco Wednesdays" became an eagerly awaited, weekly event that allowed the entire project team, including on-site subcontractors, to chat about the project and potential problems/solutions in a relaxed atmosphere.

The Wayne L. Morse U.S. Federal Courthouse is the first federal courthouse to achieve LEED Gold certification, which is interesting considering that, when the project was originally conceptualized, there were no plans to work toward LEED certification. As it exists today, the courthouse's energy use is approximately 40-percent lower than a comparable baseline model. The incorporation of daylighting reduces reliance on artificial lighting, dimmable fluorescent fixtures are connected to daylight and occupancy sensors, architectural features offer exterior shading for the lower two floors, and shading structures prevent the southern windows from solar heat gain. To capitalize on the efficiency of the mechanical systems, all indoor air is removed from the building at night and replaced with cooler, nighttime air. "What makes the courthouse building so unique is that it relies on building a smart, simple, and moderate energy-efficient building on every level rather than focusing on one or two sustainability concepts," says Wikstrom.

Energy modeling also allowed the team to investigate a variety of topics, including first costs/life-cycle costs, energy savings, cost savings, additional costs for upgraded equipment, etc. By adding an incremental cost of $470,000 to various mechanical-system upgrades, the team learned that $42,000 will be saved each year on energy costs, resulting in an 11-year simple payback. The avoidance of waste-disposal fees, along with local/state incentives, shrunk the simple payback figure to just 4 years.

Bridging the gap between citizens and the government, the Wayne L. Morse U.S. Federal Courthouse is meant to inspire and celebrate public buildings, proving that beauty and function can peacefully coexist. 

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

Judges' Comments

"The use of light and space to create visual volume is extremely well executed and softens the appearance of the building's function. Using these elements in innovative ways also creates a bond to the sustainable intent of the project."

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