Superior Court of California, San Benito County

Superior Court of California, San Benito County
Hollister, CA
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

Project partners:
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
AV/Security/Telecom: TEECOM
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

Project Summary:
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

  1. Selecting a site near the downtown area makes the project a more walk- and bike-friendly destination, while also allowing for minimized on-site parking. On-site bicycle parking also helps to support more bike travel to the courthouse.
  2. The project is set at the back of the building lot to maximize space for a public plaza.
  3. The plaza uses landscaping to introduce a source of nature and provide shade. Fixed furniture and planters create a soft defense from adjacent automobile traffic.
  4. Benches, built-in seating in raised planters, café tables, and chairs are all provided throughout the plaza to accommodate a variety of social interaction and encourage casual public use.
  5. The courthouse layout and plaza are designed for universal accessibility, with well-lit circulation paths and ramps for elevated areas in the back of the courthouse.
  6. A wide cantilevered canopy around the building provides weather protection for queues of people that is customary on big trial days.
  7. A transparent building façade fills the interior with daylight and views of outdoor activity and greenery, bringing in a sense of vibrancy and calmness and emphasizing public inclusion in the legal process.
  8. The plan is designed to support an easily navigable, open circulation system for all of the public functions, supporting stairway rather than elevator use.
  9. A secured break area and yard provide staff with access to daylight and fresh air. The space is set up to accommodate recreational and fitness activities, like bocce ball, jump roping, stretching, tai chi, yoga, etc. Showers are located directly adjacent to the break area, encouraging staff to be active.
  10. A grand circulation stair is visible from the building exterior and main entrance. It is flooded in daylight, constructed with warm, durable materials, includes LED-integrated handrails, provides views of the outside plaza and nature, and oriented for easy navigation. The exit stairs are conveniently located for easy communication between different court departments, constructed with durable materials, and feature a bright accent wall and high quality lighting.
  • User Side Images Image 564
    A private interior courtyard provides staff members with an outdoor space for respite, social interaction, and physical activity. Showers are conveniently located adjacent to the yard. Photo © Bruce Damonte.
  • User Side Images Image 565
    The canopy is designed with a custom pattern based off of shadows cast by the existing Sycamore trees, creating dynamic patterns on the ground and building façade. Photo © Bruce Damonte.
  • User Side Images Image 569
    The outdoor plaza creates a safe and attractive environment for pedestrians by incorporating a range of ground materials and plantings. Photo © Bruce Damonte.
  • User Side Images Image 566
    The plaza provides a space for public programming. A local health fair was recently held. Photo courtesy of SmithGroupJJR.
  • User Side Images Image 568
    The grand stairway acts as the main focus of the ground floor space. Building users regularly take the stairs rather than the elevator. Photo © Bruce Damonte.