Superior Court of California, San Benito County
41,500 SQ FT
Year and month completed: March 2014
Certification: Targeting 2009 LEED NC Silver Certification; Applying for an Innovation Credit using the LEED Active Occupants Pilot Credit
Architect: SmithGroupJJR—San Francisco
Client: Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts
Building Occupants: Superior Court of California, San Benito County
General Contractor: Kitchell CEM
Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing Engineer: Gayner Engineers
Structural Engineer: Rutherford & Chekene
Civil Engineer: BKF Engineers
Courtroom Planner:Jay Farbstein Associates, Inc.
Landscape Design: Cliff Lowe Associates
Lighting Consultant: Interface Engineering
Signage/Graphics: Kate Keating Associates
Elevator Consultant: GVK Elevator Consulting Services, Inc.
Spec Writer: Douglas Day Associates
Cost Estimator: Davis Langdon Associates
Photographer: Bruce Damonte Photography
The Superior Court of California, San Benito County is a new civic building in Hollister, California that provides the community with three courtrooms and a public plaza. With the former courthouse described as an “aging and grossly inadequate facility,” the new building was carefully planned with goals of providing a comfortable and safe environment for staff and the public. The design also targets specific health impacts, such as working to reduce the county’s high obesity levels, improving the psychological health of employees, and increasing the feeling of civic ownership.
With the project’s emphasis on public inclusion, site selection played a key role in the design process. The final site was ultimately chosen for its strong sense of connectivity to other services and amenities, such as a downtown commercial strip, cafes and restaurants, a farmers market, and a residential neighborhood.. The nearby downtown area also features ample parking, allowing the design of the courthouse to provide low levels of onsite parking. In order to create a space viable for community events and congregation, designers pushed the building to the back of the lot, dedicating the site frontage for public use.
The courthouse’s public space is especially notable, as its attractive sidewalk access and outdoor furniture has helped to make it a new vibrant destination for the community. With this public quality, the space is equipped to have more meaningful impact, enhancing the courthouse’s sense of democracy and opportunity for public participation in justice. The plaza space is outlined by rows of trees and raised planters, which act as a soft defense from the adjacent automobile traffic. It also provides increased landscaping that provides shading and facilitates outdoor relaxation. The courthouse building itself, with its transparent façade and broad canopy, fosters increased visibility and interaction between the exterior and interior space, strengthening the overall feeling of accessibility.
The sense of openness and visual connectivity continues into the building interior, which is organized around a two-level lobby, simplifying circulation paths and boosting visibility of the courthouse’s various functions. The floors are connected with a grand open staircase that is set against the transparent façade, giving visitors entering the space a preview of the expected layout and path of travel. The façade brings in natural light and views of outdoor activity and greenery as well, which further enhances the stairwell and ultimately helps to increase the feeling of calmness in a place commonly associated with stress. Multiple waiting areas also help to this end, minimizing crowds and allowing for visual and acoustical separation from other waiting areas.
While the design team is still awaiting post-occupancy survey results around health improvement from the Judicial Council of California and the Center for the Built Environment, the project has clearly been well-received by courthouse staff and the public. Since its opening, staff members have noted that the community “immediately embraced the courthouse and site as a new landmark downtown” and that the stairs are “favored almost exclusively over the public elevator” by the staff and visitors. The courthouse truly redefines the role of public architecture, demonstrating the potential for a municipal building to foster community pride, create a sense of public ownership, and enhance civic engagement.
Active Design Highlights