A view of the atrium inside the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix.
Eric E Johnson, flickr A view of the atrium inside the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix.
Sunrise over the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse.
Florian, flickr Sunrise over the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her namesake courthouse in Phoenix have been feeling the heat lately.

While O’Connor has been busy defending Chief Justice John Roberts for his decision to uphold President Obama’s health care overhaul, the people inside the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse atrium have been working up a sweat.

Many people working in and passing through the courthouse’s atrium say temperatures are unbearable, according to a story by Fernanda Santos in The New York Times. But the General Services Administration, which manages the building, says the cooling system operates the way engineers intended it to.

Traci Madison, a spokeswoman for the GSA, wrote in an email:

The atrium performs precisely as predicted by the engineers during the design phase. After exhaustive computational fluid dynamic studies, engineers found a combination of natural air currents and water mist would cool the atrium to acceptable comfort levels for most of the year, providing as much as a 30 degree temperature differential from the outdoors to the atrium.  For example, if it is 110 degrees outside, the atrium temperature is able to be cooled to approximately 85 degrees.

Madison says it’s important to keep in mind that the atrium was built to be a transitory space.

Santos wrote that employees say the building is beautiful, but impractical.

Designed by Richard Meier, the courthouse’s design is on par with the architect’s minimalist style. Often described as looking like a wave in the desert, the steel-and-glass building makes impressive use of light—perhaps a bit too much so. Inside the bright atrium temperatures have been clocked in the 90s, making it almost a necessity for employees to don shorts and short-sleeve shirts during the hot summer days.

“Court officers at the security station by the building’s entrance have special permission to take off the polyester jackets and ties that are part of their uniform and work in short-sleeve white shirts,” Santos writes.

Cooling the atrium with a conventional HVAC system would be too costly, Madison says. The GSA’s estimates put the price at approximately $800,000 per year with a traditional HVAC system; it costs approximately $51,000 with the adiabatic cooling system in place now.

While the current system does cool the atrium, many feel it’s not enough. This sentiment—and reliance on manufactured weather—is one of those unintended consequences that Lindsey Roberts described in her story on the history and invention of air conditioning. Energy efficiency, especially in states such as Arizona with high and rising average temperatures, then becomes that much more difficult when residents expect any indoor space to be cooled to 78 degrees.