Photo Credit: Timothy Hursley

United States Courthouse, Austin, Texas

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects
111 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
(404) 525-6869
Tina Maceri
Business Phone: (404) 525-6869

Project Location: Austin, Texas
Completion Date: 05/15/2015
Owner: General Services Administration

Architects Involved:

Additional Team:
General Contractor: White Construction Company Engineer - MEP, Civil, and Fire Protection Engineers: PageSoutherlandPage Engineer - Structural Engineers: Architectural Engineers Collaborative Engineer - Blast Consultant: Hinman Consulting Engineers Consultant - Landscape: Hargreaves Associates Consultant - Lighting: LAM Partners Consultant - Acoustical: Shen Milson & Wilke Consultant - Sustainability: Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems Consultant - Security: Kroll Security Services Group Consultant - Life Safety: Rolf Jensen Associates Consultant - Curtainwall: Curtainwall Design Consultants

Project Description

The United States Courthouse Austin, Texas occupies a full city block directly west of Republic Square Park and southwest of the state capital. The cubic building form exemplifies the stability, dignity, strength, and coherence of the United States judicial system.
The defining feature of the courthouse is the introduction of natural light into and views out of all public spaces: the courtrooms, jury assembly and deliberation rooms, attorney/ witness conference rooms and all other public spaces. Daylight and views at the courtrooms are a reminder of the powerful necessity for transparency in the judicial system.

The Courthouse is a nine story, 252,000 square foot structure with a special proceedings courtroom, four district courtrooms, three magistrate courtrooms, one grand jury space, jury deliberation and jury assembly spaces, as well as facilities for the District Clerk, Probation, Pretrial, Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney and Public Defender. Sixty-five secure parking spaces are provided as is space for a thirty year program expansion of 23,000 square feet.

The courthouse is unique in its volumetric arrangement of the courtrooms. Level four marks the beginning of a rotated and interlocking courtroom distribution. Floor to floor heights of levels four through seven accommodate two levels of office and chamber spaces while courtrooms attain their required ceiling heights by penetrating the floor above. Like courtrooms, magistrate or district, are stacked vertically, yielding a rationally organized plan and structural system. One district courtroom and one magistrate courtroom reside on each level and share double height public lobbies with views southeast to the Hill Country and northwest to downtown Austin and the state capitol.

Articulated wood panels of pecan, the state tree of Texas, announce and clad the courtrooms. Pecan is also employed in the judges chambers and upper public lobbies.

At the ground level entry lobby, “The Austin Wall” by artist Clifford Ross is a glory of color, light, and image capturing the Austin spirit.

Design Challenge

While many challenges faced the Austin Courthouse design, the single most influential challenge was the criteria of the Austin judiciary for all courtrooms and public spaces to have windows, daylight and views to the exterior. This precluded the typical interiorized distribution of windowless courtrooms typical of contemporary federal courthouses which largely reserve windows and views for public lobbies and chambers. Plan, massing and functional decisions for the Austin Courthouse were driven by the placement of the courtrooms on exterior walls. The second most defining design challenge was finding opportunities to reduce cost for the client, despite a restricted site. Through the invention of a new efficient building section, the overall height of the envelope was reduced significantly. The section is composed of carefully stacked and overlapped pairs of two-story courtroom volumes with lobbies and support spaces tucked in between. Courtrooms on exterior walls and the complexity of the separation of public, restricted and secure paths of travel, both horizontally and vertically, prompted a double core scheme. The double core along with the search for an efficient building section that refused to sacrifice the unused space above chambers and jury deliberation spaces, nuanced every design consideration, even the normative and commonly accepted efficiency of one core. The Austin Courthouse design challenged that normative guideline and found, in this particular case, that a two core scheme yielded a more compact and efficient building. The cost of two cores was off-set by an effective building form and a reduced cladding requirement. Another significant design proposal was the closing of San Antonio Street to join the courthouse with Republic Square Park. This one simple yet radical proposal provides space for public discourse in the urban realm as well as a meaningful connection to local, state and national history. The merger of a public park historically utilized for civic auctions with a federal courthouse provide many symbolic and physical assets and opportunism for the city. The design solution includes a grand public stair that cascades onto a generous pedestrian space, San Antonio Plaza, that then joins the courthouse site with Republic Square Park. Restricted Site A restricted site presented both a design and construction challenge. Just meeting the minimum area for a new federal courthouse, the site forced a compact, approximately square, building plan, reflective of the City of Austin plan grid. It was apparent after the CMGC was brought on board that little laydown area was available, nor was there room for a crane. The contractor solved the laydown area problem by employing an “as needed” process of delivering materials to the site. Room for the crane was solved by design. A prefabricated steel core structure was devised in lieu of the proposed concrete core structure, allowing the crane to be located in the center of the site, enabling the concrete structure to be built around it. At the completion of the concrete placement, the crane was removed and the prefabricated steel core structure was placed in segments completing the building’s structure.

Physical Context

The United States Courthouse Austin, Texas is distinguished by its relationship to Republic Square Park and San Antonio Plaza, bringing together federal, state (the park), and city (San Antonio Plaza) entities into a happily compatible coexistence in downtown Austin. The closing of San Antonio Street and the creation of the plaza effectively links the courthouse and the park as a single rectilinear block. Events in the park and on and around the plaza spill onto the courthouse steps and plinth and occasionally into the event space on the first level of the courthouse. Just as the co-joining of the plaza, park and courthouse creates new opportunity for outdoor public events, the co-joining, internally, of the main entry lobby and the jury assembly space, though the vehicle of the Austin Wall, creates opportunity for public gatherings within the courthouse where originally there was no program area assigned to such events. The judiciary envisions celebrations after special proceedings and other courts initiated events, as well as events hosted at the invitation of the courts. These events may extend into the jury assembly garden as well as the elevator lobby and secure garden to the west. Unlike most contemporary federal courthouses, the Austin courthouse features windows, views and daylight in every courtroom and public space in the building. The courthouse is also distinguished by the use of its native limestone as exterior cladding. Native limestone is pervasive in the Austin urban fabric. Standard and economical limestone units are installed in horizontal and randomly canted rows, presenting the back or sawn face of the limestone to the public and the more popular rough face turned inward, hidden from view. The installation sets up an active pattern of shade and shadow throughout the day.