civic center, downtown los angeles

Downtown LA’s New US Courthouse Will Have 1,672 Energy Efficient Glass Panels

Downtown LA's new $318 million federal courthouse is now about 2/3 completed and will open in August of 2016

For ages, the ugly dirt lot at First and Broadway across the LA Times building sat as an eyesore and an embarrassment to LA’s disconnected Civic Center becoming a flooded pit after the occasional SoCal heavy rainfall. Definitely shameful for the nation’s second largest city in my book. Then about two years ago in August 2013, the $318 million US Federal Courthouse project finally broke ground and has been actively under construction ever since then filling in this 3.6 acre lot. About a week ago, I took a hard-hat tour of the construction site with some of the main principles involved with the project (including the building’s architect from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and contractors from Clark Construction) to give our readers an inside look at the current state of what’s going on here.

We started in the construction office trailers near Second and Hill and began to check out the perimeter of the project. We gazed up at the gleaming courthouse, which is now almost completely wrapped in its distinctive blue glass panels that form a zigzag pattern meant to allow a certain amount of sunlight in that helps to keep the building energy efficient. The courthouse is on target to reach platinum status for LEED certification. Altogether, there will be 1,672 panels that wrap around the cube-shaped building.

Currently, with tons of scaffolding, construction equipment and debris everywhere, it’s still pretty hard to really tell how the finished project will affect the surrounding area from a pedestrian level. Will it enhance the walking experience? I am optimistic that it will help toward making our Civic Center more coherent and less disjointed. Obviously, anything would be better than the former dirt pit that once sat here, which was beyond anti-pedestrian.

Nevertheless, SOM’s goal was to design the project to balance the needs for security concerns while also contributing to the urban environment. Along Broadway, First, and Hill, there will be attention paid to landscaping along large terraced steps that will match the incline of First Street that eventually greets the Civic Center subway station at First and Hill. Although there won’t be any commercial retail facing the street that would truly help to generate pedestrian activity, aesthetically, it will still be a nice experience on the street level for those who walk by.

Going inside the courthouse, the public will enter through the main lobby oriented toward First Street. High above the lobby entrance, a large white emblem of the eagle representing the Great Seal of the United States is etched into the zigzag windows becoming perhaps the most compelling feature of the building when viewed from First Street.

Upon entering the lobby, I am told that you will immediately notice how bright it’ll be from natural sunlight penetrating into the atrium from windows all over from the sides of the building to the very top. The cavernous atrium will rise to the full height of the building at 220 feet tall, topped with its own zigzag glass. Currently, a large yellow crane extends the height of the atrium blocking out most of the sunlight. In addition, the lobby floor will be heated and cooled by coils circulated with temperature controlled water, helping again to increase energy efficiency within the building.

For me, I wanted to know if the public would be allowed to enter the premises without actually being involved with the courthouse in any way. The answer: Yes. For architecture and city enthusiasts like me and you, we’ll be allowed to enter the lobby on the ground floor, pass security, and enjoy the lobby as well as grabbing a snack at the future dining cafe that will be located toward the back of the building closer to the Second Street side. There will be an outdoor patio connected to the cafe for everyone to enjoy.

When completed in July 2016 less than a year from now, the new federal courthouse will replace the existing one at Temple and Spring (click here to read what I think should happen for the current historic courthouse) and will have 24 courtrooms and 32 judicial chambers that will be used by federal judges, the US Marshals Service, the US attorneys’ office, and the Federal Public Defender. The courtrooms will be concentrated on levels 5 through 10 out of eleven floors of the 630,000 gross square foot building. What’s interesting to me is that each floor is particularly taller than usual at 20 feet instead of the usual, say, 10 feet. So instead of getting a 110 foot structure, we’re getting a taller 220 foot high-rise.

Also, an interesting note I was told before our tour started was that once the courthouse is completed, the area where the construction trailers are currently located could become another future development site. Perhaps we’ll get another high-rise with ground floor retail facing Second Street. One can hope.

To also view renderings of the project, check out architect SOM’s website.

Our tour started here by the construction trailers near 2nd and Hill, which may become a future development site for another project

Our tour started here by the construction trailers near 2nd and Hill, which may become a future development site for another project

This open area will become a terraced outdoor space accessible to pedestrians

This open area will become a terraced outdoor space accessible to pedestrians

A closer look at the 1,672 zigzag blue glass panels that will help control sunlight penetration into the building to increase energy efficiency

A closer look at the 1,672 zigzag blue glass panels that will help control sunlight penetration into the building to increase energy efficiency

The limestone base of the federal courthouse

The limestone base of the federal courthouse

The future lobby entrance facing First Street

The future lobby entrance facing First Street

A close up view of the Great Seal of the United States above the lobby entrance

A close up view of the Great Seal of the United States above the lobby entrance

The grand staircase in the lobby

The grand staircase in the lobby

Coils underneath the flooring will have cool or heated water circulating through to help regulate the temperature in the building

Coils underneath the flooring will have cool or heated water circulating through to help regulate the temperature in the building

A landscaped outdoor patio connected to the cafe will be available for the public to enjoy

A landscaped outdoor patio connected to the cafe will be available for the public to enjoy

Let's take the construction elevator up to the top

Let’s take the construction elevator up to the top

The view of the DTLA skyline from the rooftop

The view of the DTLA skyline from the rooftop

Large glass panels wait to be installed on the top of the rooftop atrium

Large glass panels wait to be installed on the top of the rooftop atrium

The plywood will be removed here and the zigzag glass panels will be installed to allow sunlight to penetrate into the atrium all the way into the lobby below

The plywood will be removed here and the zigzag glass panels will be installed to allow sunlight to penetrate into the atrium all the way into the lobby below

Back inside, this is the cavernous atrium in the center of the courthouse that stands 220 feet tall

Back inside, this is the cavernous atrium in the center of the courthouse that stands 220 feet tall

Walkway bridges like this will connect floors through the atrium

Walkway bridges like this will connect floors through the atrium

According to SOM's Design Director, Jose Palacios, these horizontal lines on the panels are spaced closer together as they reach the bottom so people who are afraid of heights (like me) will see less of the ground far below the bridge and feel more comfortable walking across

According to SOM’s Design Director, Jose Palacios, these horizontal lines on the panels are spaced closer together as they reach the bottom so people who are afraid of heights (like me) will see less of the ground far below the bridge and feel more comfortable walking across — genius!

A view out to First Street looking through those zigzag glass panels

A view out to First Street looking through those zigzag glass panels

This will be an interior walkway for courthouse employees

This will be an interior walkway for courthouse employees

Another view of the panels from the inside that controls the amount of sunlight that can penetrate into the building increasing energy efficiency

Another view of the panels from the inside that controls the amount of sunlight that can penetrate into the building increasing energy efficiency

Here's a look inside a future courtroom

Here’s a look inside a future courtroom

A jury deliberation room

A jury deliberation room

Finally, a look out the window of the DTLA skyline where the zigzag glass panels meet at the corner of the building

Finally, a look out the window of the DTLA skyline where the zigzag glass panels meet at the corner of the building

Bonus Shot

A view of the federal courthouse under construction relative to other surrounding buildings

A view of the federal courthouse under construction relative to other surrounding buildings

13 Comments

  1. Michael says

    cool, 50% of the empty dirt lots on 1st and B’way are gone!

  2. Another wasted moment. Instead of imaginative design that looks to the future, we have this sad backward looking building. A friend recently visited downtown. As we passed the construction site, she asked: are they renovating that building? I said, no, they’re finishing building it. She was incredulous.

    • Josh says

      Oh boy YOUR out of town friend doesn’t like the building?! Tear it down! We must not upset your friend! What kind of monsters have we become to allow such a building to upset your friend!?

  3. I do wish they had stuck to the original 20+ floors, but the budget cuts killed that. It definitely hails a new era and look for Federal Courthouses from that last 20 years. The Ronald regan Courthouse in Santa Ana is a prime example of that shared design from the last 15-20 years. Tallest 8 story building you will ever go into lol.

    Oh and M, the design follows the funtion of the building. It must be a secure facility while also remaining accessible and human. Dont be a snob.

  4. I love this blog, but the concerns about “commercial retail” on the ground floor enhancing the pedestrian experience are a bit out of touch. This is a federal courthouse in Los Angeles. They don’t want people hanging out.

    • Lawrence Aldava says

      Which is exactly why civic centers are often the most pedestrian unfriendly spaces in a city, but that doesn’t have to the case. I think you can marry official civic, state or federal business with community serving functionality.

      • Not when a bunch of people would blow it up for some axe grinding. 19th Century Civic buildings were open affairs, but that was before people would drive a car full of explosives into one. Imagine how juicy a target it would be for an axe grinder to be able to freely deposit 2000lbs of TNT into a Starbucks at the base of that building.

        At least with this building it is visually more interesting, vs some of the stuff they built from 1970-2000. It sure as hell beats the Roybal/VA/Prinson complex down on Alameda.

        • Under the current UFC code 2000 lbs of TNT wouldn’t drop that building. Not that there wouldn’t be damage but these structures are designed with anti-terrorist hardening in mind. I once worked on a 200′ vertical tower that had 4 main columns and we designed it to be able to stand on only 2 without risk of collapse. And that was any 2 columns could be obliterated and the structure would still stand minimizing the loss of life due to progressive collapse. Its one of the reason federal buildings and courthouses cost so much money. They have serious redundancy designed into the structure.

  5. corner soul says

    Handsome building. Too bad they couldn’t orient the cafe towards the street (civic center could use more mixed use, and foot traffic outside of business hours.) But maybe some tactical urbanism could fill the gap… food trucks and parklets can do wonders for these ‘monument’ style buildings.

  6. Federal security and blast requirements make it impossible for a Federal courthouse to be a good urban building. I one heard someone declare at a meeting that the best thing we could hope for is that Civic Center is not allowed to spread any further south than 2nd St, because there is no way to prevent government buildings from creating a dead zone. That’s certainly true about the Police Headquarters, s it was with the old Parker center.

  7. Well now that the building is completed, I have an afterthought. Defense. Defending building. Unlike the other older courthouses, this structure does not look defensible. If the guards should have to defend this building they have no cover, the building is transparent. From the air or from ground level the building seems to have no defenses at all. The guards are sitting ducks. Am I the only one who has noticed this complete lack of attention to defenses?

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