Rutherford County is among the fastest-growing regions in Middle Tennessee. The rapid rise in population compelled the county to consider options for expanding its existing 35-year-old judicial center in downtown Murfreesboro. After determining that new construction would offer the best opportunity for future flexibility, Rutherford County Public Building Authority solicited GS&P to design the new Rutherford County Judicial Center (RCJC).
“The main issue with the existing judicial building is sheer volume,” explains project coordinator Adam Nicholson. “On any given weekday, you’ll see a steady stream of people lining up to get into the old courthouse. There’s only one door in and one door out, one magnetometer in security, and one elevator. So major congestion is an issue before you even enter the building.”
“The existing facility is also extremely compromised in terms of the way its design approaches safety, security and the separation of certain populations,” adds senior architect and principal Jeff Kuhnhenn. “This new judicial center will provide a far greater level of security not only for the general public, but for the people who are working within the building as well as the defendants.”
To be situated just three blocks north of Murfreesboro’s historic downtown Square, the new Rutherford County Judicial Center will consist of a 215,000-square-foot, six-story building programmed to house up to 16 courtrooms. The facility will also include an off-site, four-level parking garage with 366 spaces on two adjacent sites on Maple Street, a prominent city artery.
A Collaborative Design Process
From the outset of the planning phase, GS&P engaged the county’s Design Review Committee composed of various stakeholders, including the Clerk and Master, judges and the program manager, as well as representatives from the Chancery Court, the County Clerk’s Office, the Office of Information Technology, and Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.
“The Design Review Committee was an essential part of the overall development and design,” says Kuhnhenn. “We engaged early on with all the key stakeholders in a process for benchmarking other facilities and developing a vision for the new building. That process created a common language for everyone involved, so as we moved into the actual design, we all understood one another.”
Priorities established during the initial visioning session were then summarized in a series of guiding principles. At the top of the list was the provision of a safe facility for both visitors and employees. Also key was a functional and efficient building design. To accommodate the facility’s necessary functions, the design team evaluated a number of options for pairing courtrooms and stacking floors. After assessing two-court, four-court and six-court pairing schemes, a four-court configuration that stacked the building six-floors high was ultimately agreed upon.
“Given our previous experience designing the Justice A.A. Birch Building in Nashville, which is a courthouse of similar size, we had an understanding of how the three main populations needed to move separately throughout the building,” says Nicholson. “You have the public, the defendants, and the judges and jurors. These lines of circulation must not meet until all parties reach the courtroom. Our design made sure these groups entered and moved separately through the building.”
Visitors enter the building through a single point of security from the entrance plaza. Judges access separate, restricted elevators in the basement level. Jurors are also escorted to this restricted area for access to the deliberation rooms. Defendants are separated from the other populations by entering the facility one level below grade, and are directed into a secured-vehicle sally port. From there, they are escorted to a central holding facility until called for their court appearance.
An Emphasis on the Community
Along with creating a functional and efficient facility, GS&P focused on the building’s role as a civic landmark, creating a design that balanced operative necessities with details such as public outdoor spaces that will contribute to Murfreesboro’s distinctive urban fabric.
“This building is extremely sensitive to its particular location in a way that’s very special to Murfreesboro,” says Kuhnhenn. “We championed the idea that the new facility must embrace its surroundings and add to what is unique about downtown Murfreesboro from a civic point of view.”
“We engaged the public in each step of the design process and let them tell us how the building needed to fit into the community,” adds Nicholson. “We asked, we listened, and then translated that feedback into a building that is authentically Murfreesboro.”
Creating a new civic presence, the judicial center’s highest point is an iconic cupola that pays homage to the historic pre-Civil War courthouse near downtown Murfreesboro’s Civic Plaza. The fenestration and choice of exterior materials, including red brick and precast concrete, were also inspired by themes in local architecture.
“This building became a careful exercise in finding the right mixture of timeless design and forward-looking design,” says Steve Johnson, executive vice president of GS&P's Corporate + Urban Design market. “I believe our design solution does a good job in walking that fine line between the two, and creating a balance of architecture that will fit in and be respectful of the past.”
Softening the pedestrian transition into the new building, an entrance pavilion embedded with a terraced public plaza will serve as a counterpoint to the Civic Plaza at the southern end of Maple Street. The landscaped area will link the entrances of the Rutherford County Drug Court and the new judicial center.
“We envision a wide range of events for the new plaza, including public gatherings, ceremonies, and even daily lunches served by food trucks,” notes architect Emil J. Mastandrea.
“The streetscaping around the building offers spaces Murfreesboro doesn’t currently have in its downtown core,” adds Nicholson. “Tensions in court can run high, so we’ve provided places of comfort and relief—a well-landscaped park setting for lunch or breaks. As the area grows, others will also convene in this space.”
Moving from the public plaza inside to the security area, a vaulted ceiling extends the central form of the exterior and embraces a traditional color found in the domed ceiling of the nearby City Hall. Clerestory windows provide ample daylight and accentuate the transition from security into a double-height central lobby accented by vaulted ceilings and red-brick masonry piers that also complement the building’s exterior aesthetic. Reducing the load on public elevators, a monumental stair links the lobby to the high-volume courtrooms and clerks’ offices on the first two floors.
“We incorporated high ceilings, an elevated finish palette, and a center judge’s bench to convey a sense of dignity in the courtrooms, which is the only space within the building where officials, defendants and the public will meet,” says senior architect Tim DeBuse. “Although the details within the space are simplified to align with the exterior architecture, the more traditional woodwork and symmetry honor the original courthouse.”
Built for Longevity
Along with benefiting the public through the building’s safety, aesthetic and cultural components, the design team placed a particular emphasis on incorporating fiscal and environmental solutions that will result in long-term value to both the client and the community.
“This is the public’s money and it’s also a building that’s intended to have a very long life span. So we had to take a lot of different things into consideration,” explains Kuhnhenn. “What might be inexpensive in the short term could actually turn out to be costly in the long run. For instance, AV technology used in the courtrooms changes rapidly. So we recognized the need to design a building that has strong, flexible and functional bones that support the kind of things that need to change over time.”
“A big part of the sustainability component involved the engineering of the building,” adds Nicholson. “We looked at what was going to matter 50 years from now, and operational costs were an important piece of the puzzle. To better understand the performance of the building envelope, we developed an energy model early in the process. It helped us determine the types of budgetary decisions we could make, such as how to properly size our mechanical equipment. This assessment translated into a low operational cost and high efficiency for the owner.”
In terms of long-term viability, the facility will open with 10 active courtrooms, which will eventually expand to 16 courtrooms with a fourth-floor buildout.
“That’s the difference between a building that might be obsolete in 20 years versus one that can last another 50 years,” says Nicholson.
Slated for occupancy by June 2018, the new Rutherford County Judicial Center serves as a catalyst for growth and development within the city’s urban core, while setting a precedent for projects of a larger scale in the historic downtown area.
“Public safety, the administration of justice, and the building as a symbol of good government are all vital aspects of this project. I’m proud of how our team approached each of these and responded with appropriate solutions,” concludes Johnson. “The new courthouse is positioned to not only support the historic Square, but also extend and enhance the center of economic activity in downtown Murfreesboro.”
“We are going to be extremely proud of this building,” notes Rutherford County Mayor Ernest G. Burgess. “I am very pleased with GS&P’s professional, competent and experienced approach to the project. Their contribution to the success of our new judicial center is immeasurable.”