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Harris County 1910 Courthouse

Courthouse Kudos: Two PGAL Courthouse Projects Named Finalists

Two recent PGAL Courthouse projects have been named Finalists in the Houston Business Journal's 2012 Landmark Awards program. Houston's Harris County 1910 Courthouse, housing the 1st and 14th Texas State Court of Appeals, underwent a $65 million historic restoration completed last fall. The new $73 million Fort Bend County Justice Center in Richmond, TX, opened last summer. This four-level, 265,000 SF center consolidates all courts (13 related departments) for the first time in one facility.

The following are details on PGAL's two projects named Finalists in the Houston Business Journal's 2012 Landmark Awards program.

The Harris County 1910 Courthouse

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Harris County 1910 Courthouse is the cornerstone of Houston's downtown judicial corridor which has undergone a major transformation over the past decade. On August 23, 2011, the courthouse reopened after a $65 million restoration begun in March, 2009 following years of planning.

The 6-story Classical Revival-style domed building originally housed all County courts and departments. It is the fifth county building to occupy this site; four earlier structures were destroyed by fire. Most recently, it housed Civil Courts and related offices. Now it houses the 1st and 14th Texas State Court of Appeals.

The restoration design team was led by national architecture firm PGAL. The team was charged with restoring historic integrity to this Houston landmark, renovating its secondary spaces to increase functionality and introducing modern technology, sustainability, accessibility, fire safety and security features. Vaughn Construction, Houston, was general contractor. The Texas Historical Commission guided all aspects of the restoration. While still being restored, the courthouse was featured in the prestigious Retrospective of Courthouse Design: 2001-2010, published once each decade by the National Center for State Courts.

Challenges & Solutions: “Beyond responding to typical historic restoration challenges created by age, use, contaminants, pollution and minor revisions, the program needed to reverse extensive alterations from a 1950 renovation,” notes PGAL President and CEO Jeff Gerber, AIA, LEED AP. “It was necessary to gut most interiors and design significant construction programs to historically renovate 40% of all interiors as well as undertake a series of restoration and preservation improvements to the exterior.”

Exterior Restoration Elements Include:

ŸReconstruction of the courthouse's “grand entrances”–massive monumental granite steps leading to the original east/west 2nd level entrances. Removed in 1950 thus creating first-floor entrances, they were reconstructed using stone matched to the original granite.

The original cupola, removed for unknown reasons in 1930, was replicated in the 1980s but placed in a warehouse and never installed. It has now been installed atop the building's dome.

ŸRepair or replacement of terra cotta ornamentation. A terra cotta artisan, one of only a handful left in the US, fabricated replacements for unsalvageable pieces.

ŸRoof repairs and waterproofing was done to halt water intrusion throughout the building to the foundation. The building was washed to remove pollution impacts from environmental, animal and human sources. All masonry joints were repointed.

Interior Restoration Elements Include:

ŸThe six-story rotunda, floored in at the 4th, 5th and 6th levels in 1950, was reopened.

ŸThe original art glass dome piece, which sat the 7th level beneath the 35' dome, was replaced with a leaded glass piece that takes design cues taken from original rotunda floor tiles.

ŸTwo ornate 2-story courtrooms which had been converted to one story–losing their mezzanine viewing galleries–were restored to their original design.

ŸWindows, millwork, furnishings and flooring which had been replaced with historically-inaccurate materials were replaced with materials matched to the original. Millwork and casings around original 13' windows were replicated to the exact wood species, finish and sheen of the originals. Linoleum floors from the 1950 renovation were replaced with wood, carpet and tiled flooring.

ŸA 600SF prism glass block insert in the 2nd story floor, covered over in 1950, was reclaimed.

ŸA patterned attic skylight, removed in 1950 (with no visual records remaining) was replaced with design that references the building's geometric patterns.

ŸTo avoid massive costs of replicating original, highly-ornate doors, specialized doors were fabricated with faux treatments and ornamentation which match detailing shown in original drawings.

ŸInvestigation revealed ornamental plaster capitals for the four, 6-story rotunda columns. At 12', they are more than twice the size originally thought and were repaired/preserved.

ŸElevator renovation matched materials, paint, detailing and ornate metal embellishments to the original “lifts”.

“Another challenge,” Gerber says, “was incorporating modern mechanical and life safety elements in historic areas where ceilings cannot be dropped to house wiring, vents and ductwork. In fact, we raised some ceilings that were dropped as low as 6'8” in 1950 to conceal ductwork. Our solutions included routing mechanical and electrical systems through walls and dropped ceilings in secondary spaces to wall mountings in restored spaces. All secondary areas were gutted for complete redesign of space utilization, circulation systems and mechanical systems to meet functional needs of high-tech, modern office spaces.”

“To enhance fire safety in the now-open rotunda, 16' by 10' motorized fire-rated, roll-down shutters were installed, concealed within historically accurate ornamental plaster pieces,” Gerber explains. “The sixth floor, originally enclosed with common glass, was re-enclosed with fire-rated glass. The building is fully sprinklered; illuminated exits and directional signage are wall-mounted. Modern life safety and security systems were installed without producing any visible AC ductworks and or exposed conduit piping or wiring.”

ŸCourtroom Restoration: The original building had three courtrooms, including one for Commissioner's Court. The latter was historically restored but is now being used for other purposes. The two main ceremonial courtrooms on the third floor were restored to their original grandeur. They are two of the largest courtrooms in the county and the most ornate. The restored mezzanine viewing gallery in the largest courtroom is sloped and open. The viewing gallery in the other is flat and glass-enclosed, as it was originally. The courtroom can be viewed from this gallery but the space can be used for other purposes as well. Railings, flooring, public and judicial benches and all ornamentation are exactly replicated in design, material and finish. The original courtrooms were very well-designed in terms of line-of-sight, circulation and column placement; therefore few changes were needed.

Sustainability: While Harris County did not seek LEED certification, many LEED criteria were met in this highly energy-efficient and sustainable building. All windows, except those at the top of dome, were replaced with low E insulated glazing. Contaminants such as mold, asbestos and lead were remediated. Primary mechanical systems are located on the first level, but individual mechanical pods are located in four quadrants on each floor, maximizing efficiency and reducing heat/cooling loss. This was also done to prevent interference with historic spaces that span large areas. All paints, finishes, furnishings and materials are non-toxic and sustainable.

Numerous glass walls in renovated secondary areas expand the reach of natural light from 13' perimeter windows and the domed rotunda. Original materials were repaired and reused wherever possible, including rotunda floor tiles, book-matched marble wainscoting and exterior terra cotta ornamentation.. The building's highly insulating original 2' thick stone and masonry walls, its urban infill location and its adaptive re-use would also qualify for LEED certification points.

ADA: Renovations include restrooms that meet or exceed current ADA requirements, signs in Braille, accessible elevators/doors and more. First floor access is available via ramps concealed behind the rebuilt monumental steps. In restored areas, extreme care was taken to insure access while replicating original elements. For instance, water foundations were designed and positioned for accessibility but have the white porcelain and detailing of 1910 fountains.

Security: Bulletproof fiberglass panels were incorporated into historically-accurate wood facings on judicial benches. Judges have laptop access to security camera feeds throughout public spaces. Security screening is done at building entrances with equipment positioned to minimize aesthetic disturbances to rotunda views. There is no public access to the non-historic “back of the house” areas-judges' chambers, attorney and staff offices), which are secured by magnetic locks.

Painstaking research, aided by original drawings and minimal recovered material samples, permitted a highly accurate exterior and interior restoration. The 1st and 14th Texas State Court of Appeals now preside from stately wood benches nearly identical to those used in 1910 (except for inserted bulletproof panels). Their views include replicated maple wood floors, restored mezzanine viewing galleries and 13' perimeter windows with historically-accurate millwork.

“But unlike their early predecessors,” says Gerber, “the judges now have AV technology and laptops at their fingertips.”

The Fort Bend County Justice Center

It is the largest, most expensive project ever undertaken by the County, the FBCJC is the centerpiece of County's 40-acre campus. With highly visible landmark features, it consolidates all courts (13 related departments) for the first time in one facility.

This four-level (including a level below grade), 265,000 SF justice center houses 17 district, county and associate courtrooms, with shell space for 2 additional courtrooms which can be built out as needed. When the need for additional courtrooms beyond the two shelled spaces arises, a planned Administration Building will be added, relocating the District and County Clerk's along with the District Attorney's offices, allowing the current building footprint to backfill with a total of 27 courtrooms.

The first floor contains the jury assembly room, District and County Clerks, Special Sanctions/Drug Court, and an Associate Court. District Attorney, Grand Jury Room, County Courts at Law and their Associate Courts are on the second, with the public Law Library, District Courts and their Associate Courts on the third. Below-grade level houses 112 court holding cells for adults and juveniles, provisions for 34 additional cells, served by a secure sallyport. The court building is connected to the County jail with a 600 foot tunnel.

Only the 6th courthouse built in the County's 175-year history, FBCJC illustrates the commitment of residents and County leaders to invest in major infrastructure improvements for this fast-growing jurisdiction. By consolidating 13 court-related departments, previously scattered among 6 locations, the new Center is far more convenient for both its 254 employees and members of the public who have business with the courts or related agencies. A related project included a major road widening of the access road (from 2 to 4 lanes), and a 400-car garage which significantly reduced longstanding traffic issues in the area.

PGAL designed a modern version of a classic historical look representing stability, and justice. The elevation facing Williams Way Boulevard features a 104 foot tall clock tower, and the main entrance façade facing the Brazos River features an 85 foot tall dome, both of which can be found in the County's historic courthouse built in 1908.

Among other special features: A Freedom Shrine in the commons area, featuring reproductions of historical documents, a $64,000 sculpture of an eagle's head (one of six sculpted after 9/11; two were given to the Presidents Bush0, and a framed copy of William Travis's famous letter from the Alamo. Visitors enter the building via a curved colonnade and glass-enclosed front lobby which opens up to a three-story domed lobby.

History of the Project: With courts housed in an outdated 100-year-old courthouse and related departments scattered at numerous other sites, the County contemplated building a new Justice Center for a number of years. It was not included in a 2006 bond referendum because a study at that time estimated the cost at $165 million. In 2009, a referendum of $73.5 million was passed, based on PGAL architectural plans estimating the cost at that number.

The new Justice Center meets all the County's current and near-future needs and provides for expansion as needed. Actual construction cost was kept to $58.4 M, allowing the county to spend the remainder of the bond funds on fees, furnishings, moving and related expenses.

Obstacles Overcome: The sheer massiveness of the project and the diversity of space needs of 13 departments made this a challenging project both in terms of design, construction and cost controls. Interior and pedestrian circulation had to be designed to make it welcoming, accessible and easy-to-navigate for visitors while also providing secure, functional access for and between the various departments it houses. It also needed to include a connection to the County Jail, which was achieved via a 600-ft long tunnel under Williams Way Boulevard.

Stringent cost controls and ongoing value engineering were implemented and constantly monitored to bring the project in on budget and on schedule which is challenging when so many different types of uses are being accommodated and an upper-limit budget exists. There is literally “no room for error.”

Environmental Impact: The County chose not to seek formal LEED certification for the project, but the courthouse was designed to meet criteria associated with LEED Silver Certification, including energy-efficient and sustainable features which will significantly reduce energy and maintenance costs. Elements include strong daylighting, insulated, energy-efficient glazing, durable materials that are regionally-obtained and recyclable, low-emitting paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants and carpet systems, high-efficiency HVAC and Clean Air Systems, heat-reflective surfaces, energy-efficient lighting systems, drought-tolerant landscaping and much more. In choosing which “green” elements to include, PGAL focused on meeting the desired LEED Silver criteria using features that product the most “bang for the buck” in terms of initial cost versus long-term operational savings.

Community Impact: Visible from all directions, the Justice Center is a signature landmark for the City of Richmond, resolves longstanding traffic problems in the area, allows all court-related departments to function more efficiently and provides a durable, energy efficient facility geared for use by generations to come. Because it is a modern version of a classic historical look, it is reminiscent of the historic courthouse it replaces but is also a symbol of a county looking forward in a dynamic way.

The new Center is far more convenient for both its 254 employees and members of the public who have business with the courts or related agencies. Also, unlike in the old courthouse, employees and visitors do not use the same elevators or other areas with prisoners. A related project included a major road widening of the access road (from 2 to 4 lanes), and a 400-car garage which significantly reduced longstanding traffic issues in the area.

Opening day comments included: County Judge Bob Hebert: “This is a beautiful, well designed building, completed ahead of schedule and under budget. It's all in that building, so the chance of going to the wrong building, which happens every day under the old system, is gone.” 400th District Judge Cliff Vacek : “Everything is going to flow a lot smoother. (The courtrooms) are state-of-the art…the wheels of justice should move a little more swiftly now.”

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