In January, delegates from Washington, D.C., will head out to Yuma, Ariz., to cut the ribbon on the new John M. Roll United States Courthouse. This latest addition to the roster of federal buildings has become a flagship project of sorts, not only for its distinctive design, by the Culver City, Calif.–based firm Ehrlich Architects, but also because it is the last project funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). But it has also become a commemoration, named as it is after the federal judge killed in the 2011 attack at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson that critically injured then-U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
With so many layers of significance, it is only fitting that the idea behind the design was equally nuanced: Founding principal Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, and his team set out from the start to design a project that was a contemporary translation of traditional and vernacular precedents. Inspired by so many other courthouses, the architects devised a tripartite massing strategy—a central portico flanked by two solid masonry volumes. Symmetrical and stately, the structure picks up cues from history, but its execution is undeniably contemporary in both aesthetics and technology.
In southwestern Arizona, where thermometers are accustomed to registering triple digits, protection from the sun was paramount. But, at the same time, the architects wanted to avoid sealing off the building's perimeter to create an opaque, air-conditioned box. The courthouse is a public building, after all, and as such, the team wanted to allow for lines of sight between inside and outside, inviting the public in via visual transparency. Not to mention, for the sake of those people spending full days inside the courthouse, they wanted interior spaces to have access to natural light. Their design task, then, was to balance the solid with the permeable.
On the most public elevation, the south-facing façade along Yuma's First Street, the architects included an expansive double-height glass curtainwall. "The transparent wall contrasts with the solidity of the walls around it," Ehrlich says, "and it expresses the openness of our democracy."
But, in the desert, transparency also means solar heat gain, so the architects had to design a way out of that problem. They did so by including a canopy to shade the curtainwall, and this both prevents the sun from hitting the interior lobby and provides dappled shade across the entrance plaza outside. "In this climate, people need shade, and this plaza will provide shaded public space," Ehrlich says. The canopy is formed from a series of photovoltaic panels, which provide more than 20 percent of the building's energy. "It's a technical device, but, really, we're making shade," he adds.
This approach, marrying technology with place-based vernacular traditions, is a trademark of Ehrlich Architects. Back in 1969, right after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., Ehrlich decamped to Morocco after joining the Peace Corps. "I spent six years living in desert climates," he says. "I understand the need to be protected from the sun."
On the east and west façades, punched openings in deep wall recesses let natural light into the interior. But here, as with the canopy, the architects modulate the light to cut down on heat gain and glare. A weathered steel trellis is mounted 3 feet from the building envelope, and will support vines that, once they grow in, will provide a screen against the harsh sunlight. Even deep within the building, in the two courtrooms, daylight is brought inside—in this case, through clerestory strips that are equipped with automated shades.
But the broad public plaza and steel trellis do more than just provide shade: As a federal building, the design must consider blast protections. With that in mind, the steel trellis protects the windows while the plaza provides the mandated 50-foot blast perimeter. The architects defined this perimeter using the plaza's retaining walls and benches as subtle security barriers.
Yuma sees a paltry 3 inches of rain each year, but when that comes, it typically falls in brief, intense storms, which tend to result in flash floods. Working with Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, a Phoenix, Ariz., and Austin, Texas–based firm, the architects developed a site strategy that would work with this desert climate. The front plaza is, in fact, a bridge-in-disguise, spanning a xeriscaped landscape below. Acting like a desert arroyo, this sunken garden can flood without causing damage to the building or plaza; it captures rainfall and lets it percolate back into the ground.
The project negotiates not only these climatic complexities, but programmatic challenges as well. As a federal courthouse, it is meant to engage with the public life of the city around it, but it also needs to accommodate privacy and security. Ehrlich Architects designed distinct circulation routes through the 60,000-square-foot building as a way to parse out these programmatic needs.
"The circulation works with intuitive wayfinding," says Ehrlich Architects principal Patricia Rhee, AIA. Detainees are brought into the building through the rear, northern side of the courthouse, adjacent to the facility's maximum-security area. On the southern, public side, the open lobby links with a pre-trial services office and a second-floor waiting area. Subtle cues orient visitors: Walls in the east–west direction, for example, are finished with a buff-colored sandstone, while those in the north–south direction have a reddish hue.
Carried out as a design/build project, with Phoenix-based Sundt Construction, and as part of the ARRA, the courthouse went from commission to completion in just shy of three years. This timeline included a rigorous peer review process as part of the U.S. General Services Administration's Design Excellence Program. But when all is said and done, and as people begin to gather on the benches on the front plaza, the project's success will speak for itself. "We wanted to develop a project that would give something back to the community," Ehrlich says.
Project John M. Roll United States Courthouse, Yuma, Ariz.
Client U.S. General Services Administration
Architect Ehrlich Architects, Culver City, Calif.—Steven Ehrlich, FAIA (design principal); Charles Warner Oakley, FAIA (principal-in-charge); Patricia Rhee, AIA (project architect); Laura Hudson, AIA (project manager); Dara Douraghi, AIA, Whitney Wyatt, AIA, Natalie May, Julia Martini, Oscar Nino, Niel Prunier, AIA, Matthew Moran, Rachel Atmadja, Guelsah Kuecuek, Won Jin Park (project team)
M/E Engineer and Lighting Designer LSW Engineers
Structural Engineer Caruso Turley Scott
Civil Engineer Psomas
Construction Manager ABACUS
General Contractor/Design-Builder Sundt Construction
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Code Consultant Rolf Jensen & Associates
Blast Consultant Weidlinger Associates
Size 60,000 square feet
Cost $27.6 million Material and Sources
Carpet Milliken millikencarpet.com
Ceilings Architectural Components Group (wood panel and slat ceilings) acgiwood.com
Exterior Wall Systems Alucobond alucobondusa.com
Furniture Herman Miller hermanmiller.com
Masonry and Stone Interstate Brick interstatebrick.com; Foley Masonry and Tile foleymasonryandtile.com
Millwork Western Millwork westernmillworkaz.com
Seating Keilhauer keilhauer.com
Wallcoverings Maharam maharam.com
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors Arcadia arcadiainc.com