In Will County, Illinois, a new Courthouse is tackling the challenge of civic design for the 21st Century. The 369,000 square foot facility accommodates 38 courtrooms serving criminal, civil, family, and traffic caseloads. Knowing the size and purpose of the building would have a significant impact on the community for many years, our design team at Wight & Company worked closely with Will County elected officials and staff to plan a project that would not only meet the space and security needs of the Judicial system but be environmentally responsible, contribute to the wellness of inhabitants, and remain flexible for future change.

A Vision of Transparency

Will County’s current Courthouse has a strong, rectilinear concrete form that lifts itself from the plaza. As with other examples of civic architecture from the late 1960s, the overall impression is of solidity and strength, but also of detachment from its community.

The new courthouse conveys the notion of “transparency in justice” through the generous treatment of glass in all public areas. As a first experience of the Courthouse, we wanted citizens to be welcomed through a landscaped civic plaza into an inviting and accessible lobby. The main entrance and face of the building is to the north, which allows for a greater use of clear glass without solar gain that would create undesirable glare and tax the mechanical system.

The Courthouse’s backbone expresses permanence and stability by drawing on the predominant material palette of historic Joliet – limestone. The east, south, and west faces of the building adopt a high-tech limestone rainscreen with less expansive windows that have a more robust low-e glass coating to help control the sun exposure.

Extensive analysis of daylight levels using specialized software helped us fine-tune the amount and locations of glass to make sure the interior spaces of the Courthouse were pleasant and well-lit. The County requested that the courtrooms not have any direct windows to the outside for security reasons, so we used the strategy of borrowed daylight through the public corridor to produce soft levels of natural light in courtroom spaces.

Saving Energy and Providing Comfort

The considerable amount of glass at the main entrance and common areas required the mechanical systems to be thoughtfully engineered to maintain a comfortable temperature year-round. In addition to comfort, efficiency was a key driver in selecting the optimal solution. Radiant floor heating and cooling were tested against a traditional overhead variable air volume (VAV) air distribution system with baseboard heat. The radiant system was found to provide the most satisfactory environment while taking up less space within the building and delivering the most efficient heating and cooling. This system results in energy and cost savings throughout the lifetime of the building.

The four-story wing of the Courthouse contains offices for staff who support the Courthouse. To allow workers plenty of sunlight and views and permit flexibility in reconfiguring office zones in the future, this portion of the building also contains large expanses of glass.

To help prevent too much solar intrusion on the east and west windows, we included vertical sunshade devices to help shade the glass. We carefully studied the spacing and depth of the sunshades to find a composition that would balance views to the outdoors and shading from the sun. The implemented solution was determined to save 5% of operational energy costs on the east and 30% on the west. In addition to the savings that will be seen every year in operating costs, the installation costs of the new mechanical systems will be lower and the footprint of the mechanical systems will be smaller, allowing more square footage in the building for offices.

Vertical Sunshades Energy Use
Vertical Sunshades First Costs Savings 2

Overall, the energy use intensity (EUI), or the amount of energy used per square foot of building, was designed to be 32.34, which is 73% less than the average of courthouses. This reduction is helped in part by a solar panel array that will be installed on the roof.

Designing for Wellness

Courthouses can be stressful. Many people who visit a courthouse are there to participate in a court case or support someone engaged in judicial proceedings that may substantially change the lives of those involved. We knew that the elevated emotional nature of the justice experience needed to be front and center as a design consideration.

When Wight & Company first studied different methods for laying out the site and presented them to Will County, congestion emerged as a key concern. The selected configuration provides far fewer courtrooms per floor than the existing Courthouse to alleviate crowding and stress. Additionally, the main public corridor on each floor has access to daylight and respite areas to help further mitigate stress. From the welcoming wood-clad entry and through all public areas the themes of daylight and respite reappear.

Biophilia, or connecting people more closely to nature, was used as an inspiration for the interior colors, materials, and patterns as well as the arrangement of the landscape elements and windows on the exterior. Instead of using rigid patterns and shapes, these elements have repeatable but varied forms like those found in nature. In combination with the many wood and stone elements in the project, these features contribute to the overall stress reduction of people at the Courthouse by evoking nature.

Green roofs and terraces, accessible for juror’s breaks, extend the ground level landscape theme into upper-level public areas. These important landscape features are irrigated with a rainwater harvesting system to reduce water consumption. Rainwater is harvested from the rooftops and plaza and stored in an underground irrigation chamber until it can be recycled to water the landscape.

Structural Costs

When considering the structure for the building, flexibility and cost were the most important factors. Using LEAN practices, a method of problem-solving through testing solutions, we compared three superstructure systems: steel, concrete, and post-tensioned concrete. The cost of these systems in both dollars and embodied carbon, or the carbon footprint of harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting the structure, were demonstrated to favor a steel system that was ultimately included in the project.

Superstructure Cost Comparison 2
Embodied Carbon

A Courthouse for the Community

Designing buildings to address 21st needs can be challenging. Aside from providing a space that is safe and functional, civic architecture needs to address technology, sustainability, and the modern demands of stress and wellness. Further, civic architecture is often the heart of a community, reflecting a sense of place. A new courthouse for the community must fit in and invigorate Joliet while welcoming the public and symbolizing the future of the Judicial system.

For Will County, the result of years of planning and design will be a new Courthouse that is a thoughtful solution to a tricky challenge. We hope the new civic landmark inspires confidence in the justice system and provides pride to the community.

About the Author - Danielle Appello, AIA, LEED AP

As a design lead on projects in a range of markets including Civic, Commercial, and Education, Danielle’s approach to design is centered around driving innovation through creative analysis and a collaborative design process.