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The Chilliwack courthouse, one of the newest in British Columbia, was built in 2002 but already needs minor updates. Architects and planners are rethinking traditional courthouse design – combining the solid presence of courthouses of old with the best advances in architecture, technology and security (Gary Linn/B.C. Ministry of Justice)
The Chilliwack courthouse, one of the newest in British Columbia, was built in 2002 but already needs minor updates. Architects and planners are rethinking traditional courthouse design – combining the solid presence of courthouses of old with the best advances in architecture, technology and security (Gary Linn/B.C. Ministry of Justice)

Public buildings

Court or fort? What will the courthouses of tomorrow look like? Add to ...

The Air India bombing trial in 2003 revolutionized expectations for security in British Columbia’s courtrooms and triggered a dramatic change in the need for safeguards at some courts.

But taking that level of precaution across the board could end up creating expensive and inhospitable buildings, planning consultant and architect William Wood says.

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“One of the things that we’re struggling with is putting security in its place and not getting carried away with making everything into a fortress,” says the man who has been given the task of updating design guidelines he drafted 20 years ago for courthouses in the province.

In the fall of 2013 the B.C. Ministry of Justice hired Mr. Wood, principal of Matrix Planning Associates in Victoria, along with WZMH Architects in Toronto, to update the standards for any firm contracted to build, renovate or expand courthouses in the province. The document is slated for completion in June.

The high-profile trials of the past decade, such as the 2007 trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, and advances in technology are important considerations as the working group decides how to modernize B.C.’s hallowed halls of justice. Amid the upheaval, it occurs to Mr. Wood that courtrooms have changed very little in the past 100 years – which he thinks is a good thing.

The $7.2-million facilities that were built at the Vancouver Law Courts for the Air India trial signalled Canada’s shift to post-Sept. 11, 2001 security. The additional measures turned out to be necessary: Several people tried to enter Courtroom 20 carrying weapons including knives, clubs and bullets, but were intercepted. Some who experienced the trial want that standard of security applied throughout the entire justice system.

“That is not necessarily good for the purposes of creating open and public buildings,” Mr. Wood says. “And if you do it universally, your buildings are going to cost 30 per cent more than they need to.” The updated guidelines will equip the Ministry of Justice with a set of tools that will help it secure government funding to bring the aging stock of law buildings up to speed.

The challenge in designing guidelines for future courthouses is twofold. First, the application of technology and security in different court settings is constantly evolving. In the average 47 years since B.C.’s courthouses were built, a sea change in technology and security has taken place.

“We need to move forward in a way that is more principled than prescriptive,” says Kevin Jardine, assistant deputy minister of the Court Services Branch of the Ministry of Justice. “We don’t have one single design standard – each [courthouse] has individual idiosyncrasies.”

The second factor relates to the role of the justice system in society, which is to provide a steadfast foundation even as the world around it is in flux. “One of the things we find with courts, for probably really good reasons, is they are one of the most staid institutions. And I mean that almost as a compliment, because they have to be slow to respond to things,” Mr. Wood says.

For example, video conferencing is becoming more established in British Columbia because it dramatically cuts transportation costs and wait times for the accused. However, even after 25,000 of the 100,000 appearances in adult criminal matters were made remotely in 2013, Mr. Wood says it is difficult to predict whether it will be accepted in the long term, because of a deep-rooted tendency in the criminal justice system to do things the way they have always been done.

“I see [video conferencing] as very important and liberating, but we are kind of in that awkward transition period,” Mr. Wood says. “That particular ball is just starting to roll.” It is not always left up to the justice system to set the pace of progress. In some cases, when law enforcement adopts a technology it forces the court to evolve quickly.

Steve Fudge, president of B.C.’s Crown Counsel Association, has not seen the new guidelines for courthouses, but he thinks every courtroom should have the capacity to display the audio and video recordings that are now routine when a police officer interviews a witness or the accused.

“The amount of digital evidence and the need to be able to play it in court in an effective way is increasing with every passing year,” Mr. Fudge says.

The province is gradually moving toward technology-enabled courtrooms with floors that allow easy access to a network of cables for computers, projectors, printers and document cameras. Mr. Jardine explains the committee is coming up with principles that are agnostic to a particular hardware or software to create the opportunity for future innovation.

The most recent tranche of courthouses built in British Columbia applies several other ideas that will be included in the new set of guidelines, including access for the handicapped, sustainable environmental standards and the use of natural light.

Nicola Casciato, design principal at WZMH Architects, says the use of glass as a building material is critical in a courthouse. Not only does it convey the transparency of the justice system, sunlight has an effect on the mood of the visitors, who may not be there under ideal circumstances.

“For the people who are attending there, it’s a very stressful place. Having views to the outside and having natural daylight helps to relieve people,” Mr. Casciato says.

WZMH built its expertise in courthouse design while working on some of the newest, most state-of-the-art courthouses in Ontario. Some of the principles applied to the Quinte Courthouse, completed in Belleville, Ont., in September of 2013, will make their way into the guidelines in British Columbia, such as courtrooms that can accommodate wheelchairs, flexible platforms for technology, and, where possible, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

According to Mr. Wood, there is another important lesson to be learned from Ontario. Several of the new courthouses in the province were costly, causing the government to clamp down on expenditures. This leads to one of two outcomes: either new projects do not get approved, or they do get approved and are a disappointment because they are nowhere near as grand as their predecessors.

“We don’t want to put our client in the same position, where they have overspent and have to put the brakes on,” Mr. Wood says.

Municipalities in both Ontario and B.C. lean toward modifying existing courthouses rather than building new, because it safeguards tradition and saves on costs. The new courthouse in St. Thomas is an example of a push by the Ontario government to preserve historical buildings through adaptive reuse. By restoring the heritage courthouse and building an addition equipped with contemporary security and technological features the government was able to modernize the facility and maintain a link to the past. So far, British Columbia has kept a close eye on costs, even finding new uses for old courthouses after they are replaced. In Grand Forks the 1912 Palladian-style red brick courthouse is home to the local art gallery, and the old courthouse in Chilliwack is up for sale to be used as a school or an office.

Many of the most recent generation of B.C. courthouses can be brought up to date with a few modifications, because the people writing the guidelines in 1994 could see how things might change. For instance, the working group predicted that perimeter control would become more common, but they were wary of alienating the public. The Chilliwack courthouse, which was built in 2002, has a single point of public entry so it can be easily retrofitted with higher security.

Other measures are more effective for being less obvious. Mr. Casciato explained an architect might ensure the physical security of a courthouse by designing traffic barriers into the landscaping or covering the exterior with a hardened blast-resistant shell to protect against explosive devices.

Another important piece of security that is not always apparent is the separation between circulation pathways. In a courthouse, there are distinct corridors for the public, staff, judges and the accused. These layers create a strong structure for planning a building, and one that will likely appear in subsequent versions of the guidelines.

“The circulation paths, the way a courtroom is set up, hasn’t really changed that much,” Mr. Wood says. “A lot of the considerations and thoughts and basic ideas that were present 20 years ago and probably 20 years before that, are still there.”

 

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