Courthouse Construction Projects




JULY 16, 1998


Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for inviting the General Services Administration to appear before you today to discuss the historic federal courthouse construction program that we have underway. We are proud of the courthouses we are producing and of the strong project management that is allowing us to bring in high-quality buildings within the appropriated project budgets.

The program is the largest such since the 1930's. I am pleased to report that, in partnership with the Judiciary and the private design and construction industries, GSA is producing landmark federal courthouses that are worthy of the American people and their belief that the pursuit of justice is one of the highest ideals of American government. We are commissioning the best American architects and are winning praise for the courthouses' designs and functionality from architecture critics, judges and other building users, and from local community leaders.

I can also report to you that we are as tough on our project budgets as we are about excellence in design. The courthouses are designed and constructed to complex and exacting requirement standards. We have established a sophisticated system of cost benchmarks to ensure that we maintain cost and quality parity among projects with varying functional requirements and different site conditions at locations dispersed throughout the country. If all parties hold to the fiscal discipline that the cost benchmarking system encourages, we are confident that we can bring projects in on budget.

For example, in fiscal year 1998, we will complete seven courthouses, within their aggregated budgets. In the first month of fiscal year 1999, we will complete two more courthouses, on which we will come in $11 million under project budgets.

Need for and Scope of the Program

Ten years ago, the judicial branch undertook a survey of its facilities and determined that one-third of courthouses were grossly inadequate for their purpose, either because the space was inadequate to accommodate expanding needs or because of serious deficiencies in security or both. We have estimated the cost of the 160 proposed projects at about $8 billion. To date, we have completed 14 of the Judiciary's recommended 160 courthouses, with another 26 under construction or soon to be.

The Judicial Conference has produced a list of the projects in order of their priority and we have been using that priority list exclusively in determining the order in which we recommend funding and constructing the projects. Of course, our recommendations are subject to review and change as we go through the Administration's annual budget process; and the final funding decisions are up to the Congress, through this Committee, its counterpart in the Senate, and the appropriations process.

In determining the space requirements and layout of individual courthouses, we rely on the Design Guide produced by the Judicial Conference. Courthouses are complex buildings. To provide security, three separate circulation systems are incorporated into their design: one for judges, jurors and court personnel; another for defendants in custody; and a third for the public. Courtrooms are high-ceilinged to provide a sense of dignity and decorum and require carefully plotted sightlines and acoustics, while other courthouse workspaces are more typical office space; and the two types of space need to be meshed.

We have found that we can achieve about a 65-70 percent ratio of occupied space to circulation and service space in the courthouses. We insist on achieving a minimum of 67 percent in each project. We continue to investigate various layouts that might increase the proportion of occupied space. For example, in a few cases where the judges have agreed to "collegial floors" - grouping judges' chambers together on designated floors, with courtrooms grouped on other floors - we have not found that the layout generated cost savings. It may have another benefit, however: some judges prefer the layout because it facilitates conferring with their colleagues.

There are potential cost savings that we have not yet achieved. The most significant determinant in the cost of a building is its overall size. This single factor outweighs such visible items as the exterior cladding and the interior finishes. Accordingly, we would welcome the opportunity to work with the Judiciary to evaluate further how many courtrooms we need to build to accommodate the projected caseloads in new courthouses. Courtroom sharing and other strategies might allow us to reduce the building volumes and square footage, and thus the costs, that we need to provide in some locations. We need to clarify the options available to meet the Judiciary's needs for more courtroom space in a tight budget climate.

Design Excellence

We all recognize the importance of Federal courthouses in our system of justice, our society and our local communities. To quote remarks by Justice Steven Breyer, "Both in function and design, these buildings will embody and will reflect principles that tell the public who uses, or sees, them something about themselves, their government, and their nation." To that end, GSA strives to build courthouses that will have lasting value, courthouses that can take their place in the tradition of outstanding American public buildings begun by Washington and Jefferson and continued without interruption until the end of World War II.

In 1993, we established a "Design Excellence" program. The program ensures that we select the nation's best private sector architects to design our most important civic buildings. The program uses review panels of distinguished private architects to ensure that those selected give us their best efforts.

Our insistence is on building designs that are of lasting quality and dignity, because our construction standards produce buildings that will last for more than a century and probably for more than two. The court facilities that we are building are appropriate to the seriousness of judicial proceedings that take place therein. I have some photographs of courtrooms in some of the completed courthouses so you can see the layout and finishes. You can see for yourselves that the courtrooms are both functional and beautiful, inspiring without being overwhelming, grand without being grandiose.

Cost Benchmarking

GSA has a well-established, successful cost benchmarking process for new courthouse construction. As this Subcommittee has heard in previous testimony, a cost benchmark is a reference cost estimate which we use to judge the appropriateness of a proposed project's budget. In addition, benchmarks help unify our construction program nationwide by providing a method to compare project costs. Since 1995, benchmarking analyses have resulted in approximately $31 million in avoided expenditures for new courthouse construction.

The courthouses we are building today are being constructed within the budgets which were established based on the cost benchmark. Benchmarking provides for adequate budgets based on court design guide criteria.

Of course, from time to time, Members of Congress and judges object to our benchmarks on particular projects. In a few cases, for example, where we have felt that combinations of stone and precast concrete on the exteriors would provide appropriate quality and durability, we have been urged or directed to make the facades all stone, despite the fact that to do so has resulted or will results in expenditures of several millions of dollars over the benchmark budgets. We would welcome the Subcommittee's guidance on how such situations should be handled in the future.

We are now exploring ways to refine the cost benchmarking process. Currently, benchmarks account for the specific characteristics of individual buildings such as building height, geographic location, seismic design costs, and the amount of indoor parking. The process does not allow us to distinguish between courthouse projects with varying ratios of office space to more expensive special purpose space such as courtrooms. Consequently, a courthouse project with many courtrooms would have a cost benchmark identical to a project of the same size, in the same location, with fewer courtrooms and a higher proportion of office space. We are evaluating possible refinements to the benchmarking process which will allow us to calculate cost benchmarks according to the mix of office and special purpose space in a proposed building. Of course, if we decide to revise the current benchmark system, we will brief the Subcommittee before any new methodology is implemented.


Courthouse security continues to be of critical importance to all of us. GSA is now conducting risk analyses during design and construction of new courthouses and identifying appropriate security measures for each location. In Hammond, Indiana, for instance, the building is designed so that windows in judges chambers are not exposed to the nearby street to mitigate against the use of hand-held weapons.

Other creative and subtle measures, such as landscaping and street furniture, are being used to keep unauthorized vehicles away from the building. In Minneapolis, artwork commissioned for the project includes earthen mounds which separate the building from the street, while allowing easy pedestrian access to the courthouse. Many of our courthouse designs incorporate a plinth, a raised plaza, between the street and the building. This allows us to maintain an accessible, open presence in the community, while increasing building security.

Given the significant investment of taxpayers' funds that we are making, the buildings need to be as open and accessible as courthouses traditionally have been, consistent with our security requirements. We estimate that security concerns, increased since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, have added between 5 and 10 percent to the costs of the buildings we have in design.

Managing the Program

We have instituted a number of innovative techniques to manage this challenging construction program.

Project Management Center of Expertise: We have established a national Project Management Center of Expertise, with headquarters in our Heartland Region in Kansas City, Missouri. The Center will ensure that we look all over the country for the GSA managers most qualified to take on each new project. For example, we know that, of the remaining 120 courthouse projects, approximately a quarter will be in the southeast. Our Southeast-Sunbelt region will not be able to manage that workload using just the resources of its own project management corps. The Project Management Center will identify and assign managers from other GSA regions as necessary to staff this workload.

Training new project managers: To share "lessons learned" with new project managers, our Courthouse Management Group sponsored a training session in March for seven of our regional project managers who have courthouse projects in the design development phase. During the three days of training, the project managers received briefings on pertinent issues such as the congressional authorization and appropriation processes, benchmarking, security, design excellence, performance measures, and art-in-architecture. In addition, they met with officials from the U.S. Marshals Service and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to discuss issues of mutual concern. All of the participants considered the training session highly successful, and more such meetings are planned for this and future "classes" of project managers.

"Virtual Courthouses": While each new courthouse is under development, all of the participants on the project team learn invaluable lessons. Sharing this information with future designers, project managers, judges and other client representatives will help ensure the continued improvement in the quality and cost-effectiveness of the courthouse construction program.

One way to do this is by capturing computerized images of critical areas within each courthouse. This would allow new project teams to view spaces created in earlier courthouse projects. Individuals would be able to tour many courthouses?ot;virtual courthouses"?m their personal computers.

To accomplish this, our Courthouse Management Group will soon award a contract to document 12 recently completed courthouses across the nation. Courtrooms, chambers and associated spaces of various types, sizes, and designs will be photographed using a special camera. Once the photographs are scanned into the computer, the technology will allow the observer to view the space on the computer screen in every direction (up, down, and 360 degrees around) from a vantage point such as the judge's bench or a seat in the jury box.

It will also allow extensive information such as equipment lists and courtroom dimensions to be linked to the pictures. The photographs and associated background information will be placed on compact discs with the necessary operating software, for distribution to all those involved in the design of future courthouses. Each year, as additional courthouses are completed, they too will be documented in the same fashion.

Generally, during the design of a new courthouse, the project team will travel to completed courthouses across the country to determine how various design solutions might be applicable to the design of their own courthouse. By using these interactive photographs, the project team will be able to screen potential designs from their desks. The photographs could also reduce the need to prepare time-consuming and expensive mock-ups of proposed courtrooms.

Partnership with the Judiciary

We continue to have a strong partnership with both the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) and federal judges. Judges and the clerks of the courts are among our most demanding and discerning clients and we enjoy the give and take with them. We are committed to allowing our tenant agencies to participate wherever possible in the development of our projects and we are working with the Judiciary to make them more familiar with our processes.

The Judiciary developed a three-part series of courses on the construction process. The courses teach judges about programming, design and construction. In the classes, judges, clerks, and GSA project managers also learn together what to expect from each other.

Another example: The AOUSC has expressed concerns about the construction procurement strategies which the GSA employs to deliver our projects. In years past, we typically awarded court construction contracts to the lowest bidder. With the procurement reforms put in place by statute and regulation the past several years, we now look to award the contract which offers the "best value" to the taxpayers. We and the AOUSC are holding a series of round table discussions to reach a mutual agreement on the best contracting methods available.

Funding for the Remainder of the Program

Approximately $5 billion remains to be funded for the other 120 courthouses in the program. At the rate of $500 million per year, which is the rate at which the Judiciary had anticipated, ten years will be required to complete funding for the program.

Our projections of income to the Federal Buildings Fund (FBF) over the next several years indicate that the Fund will have adequate resources to fund the capital repairs and modernizations necessary to keep our existing real property inventory functional and productive. Like any prudent real estate owner, our first priority out of operating funds is to maintain and improve the income-producing properties that we already have. However, this leaves little or no internally-generated funds for new construction.

In the past, recognizing this limited availability of revenues to fund new construction, Congress has appropriated funds to the FBF to provide for a construction program of the magnitude anticipated by the Judiciary in the courthouse program. Appropriations to the FBF for new construction between fiscal years 1990 and 1997 amounted to over $2.8 billion.

Given the cost of the Judiciary construction program, the Administration believes that we must redouble our efforts to ensure that these new landmark public buildings are designed and built as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Only by examining ways to reduce the overall number of courtrooms and the amount of ancillary space we need to build, by refining our benchmarks, and by holding firm to project budgets once they are set, can we assure the taxpayers that these needed buildings have taken advantage of every realistic opportunity to save costs. Towards this end, we look forward to working with the Judiciary to perform an appropriately-designed courtroom-utilization study and to seek other opportunities to ensure that these much needed public buildings are designed and built in the most cost-effective manner possible as we proceed with the construction program.

As you probably know, GSA's fiscal year 1999 appropriations bills as reported by the House Appropriation Committee includes funding for approximately $500 million in courthouse construction. This would provide funding for site, design, and/or construction of 15 projects.

Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to have had this opportunity to discuss the courthouse construction program with you. We appreciate the Subcommittee's continuing interest in our capital program. I would be pleased to answer any questions the Subcommittee may have.

Last Reviewed 2010-04-30