Thunder Bay Consolidated Courthouse

As Originally Seen in Award Magazine :

Location: Brodie and Archibald streets, Thunder Bay, Ontario 
Agency Responsible: Infrastructure Ontario 
Client: Ministry of the Attorney General 
Design-Build -Finance-Maintain: Plenary Justice Thunder Bay 
Design-Build -Finance-Maintain Design Builder: Bird Design-Build Construction Inc. 
Architect: Adamson Associates Architects 
Structural Consultant: Read Jones Christoffersen 
Mechanical Consultant: Vanderwesten Rutherford Mantecon 
Electrical Consultant: HH Angus & Associates Ltd. 
Interior Design: Figure3 Interior Design 
Facility Manager: Johnson Controls 
Courthouse Consultant: RicciGreene Associates 
Landscape Architect: Baker Turner Inc. 
Security Consultant: Lobo Consulting Services Inc.
Total Area: 255,000 square feet 
Total Value of DBFM Contract: $247 million

Most of the time, we convene in courtrooms to mend conflict. But Thunder Bay’s new courthouse may bring a new approach to the work being done in these spaces: one that is more healing than conflict resolution.

That’s not to say this isn’t a best-inclass justice facility. And its consolidation of the region’s superior court and provincial court is an exercise in longterm efficiency.

“A consolidated courthouse brings those courts together, and by doing so you get reduced operational costs, more effective use of resources, scheduling and co-ordination, as well as ease of public access,” says Angelo Gismondi, VP of project delivery for Infrastructure Ontario, the agency responsible for four other courthouse consolidation projects throughout the province.

Fully operational in April 2014, the new 255,000-square-foot courthouse features a high-security courtroom for multiple accused and another sizeable adjudication space that can handle large jury trials.

That’s in addition to the 13 other courtrooms housed in this six-storey glass and precast structure located between Brodie and Archibald streets, in the city’s downtown south core.

Its courtrooms are all barrier-free, wired for the latest technology and fitted with millwork that is reconfigurable at a moment’s notice. But what sets this courthouse apart is its conference rooms – and one in particular.

Even from outside the main entrance, standing on the granite paved 1,200-square-foot plaza looking into the glazed atrium, you’ll notice an intriguing beehive shape staking its claim to the least side of the building. That’s the Aboriginal Conference/ Settlement Room (ACSR).

Clad inside and out with four-inch wide white maple battens, the ACSR, evoking a roundhouse, is an Ontario first: a hearing room inspired by the aboriginal notion of restorative justice, where everyone takes ownership of an issue when a matter is being investigated.

All the key players – the accused, the victim, social workers, families and leaders – congregate in this single-level room where a circle of millwork surrounds a stone hearth. The hearth’s centre will be used for smudging ceremonies before the start of proceedings.

Ministry of the Attorney General architect Wei Chiao sees this space as one of the building’s key architectural and cultural elements. “It’s saying: Let’s take a step to collaborate on all the issues that we face. And here’s an environment that is more conducive to dealing with dispute,” he explains.

It is a space intended to be used not only for adjudication but also for community functions, explains Claudina Sula, Adamson Associates Architects’ partner in charge of the project.

The design-build-finance-maintain project was undertaken by the Plenary Justice Thunder Bay consortium, which includes Bird Design-Build Construction, and as part of its team Adamson Associates Architects and Johnson Controls. From the main entrance, the ACSR acts as a bold statement in an otherwise open and intuitive public space. To the right are the public counters and court services and ahead, users can move to the elevator core to access courtrooms and office areas on the upper floors.

A large portion of the tower’s north side is clad in a mix of vision glass and spandrel glass, but on the south side, where the private circulation corridors run, the design calls for more discretion while allowing for natural light. Here, the facade is a combination of metal panels and vision glass.

The deep brown precast concrete panels that clad much of the podium as well as the tower’s east side draw inspiration from the region’s dark earth, while the strong vertical pattern formed by the south side’s glass and metal mixture is meant to evoke a waterfall (a nod to the area’s Kakabeka Falls).

All this glazing allows the building to harvest daylight throughout its spaces (every courtroom has some level of natural light – much of it is “borrowed” through the use of clerestories) and makes it easy for the public to navigate.

The large central atrium is a key part of the complex’s intuitive way-finding strategy. “All the major public spaces are directly accessible from this atrium,” explains Sula. “We organized the building so that the main means of vertical circulation, the public elevators, are centrally located. You just need to know what floor to go to and you can easily navigate to your courtroom.”

The complexity of modern North American courthouses today, explains Sula, is that each must incorporate three internal circulation systems that cannot overlap, but that meet in the courtrooms. The public circulation system must be easy to understand. The private circulation system for judiciary and key staff must be efficient, and the secure circulation system must provide for the safe transport of prisoners and other in-custody users.

“When you organize this circulation, it impacts everything we do. The challenge then, is to design a dignified structure that meets all these other programmatic requirements,” says Sula.

Bird Design-Build Construction’s Kevin Farrow recalls hearing the term “architectural gymnastics” frequently as work was being done on the triple circulations systems. But as a builder, one of his biggest challenges was meeting the timelines in a location notorious for cold weather.

While a typical large courthouse project would call for concrete, structural steel was used here to allow the crews to work through the winters. “But it added the complexity of having to manage the building acoustic afterwards,” says Farrow.

Acoustic consultants worked their way through the design adding supplemental materials – for example, steel columns were wrapped in drywall to encapsulate structural elements. Later, another layer of drywall, the actual architectural finish, was used to obscure the soundproofing.

While elements of circulation and judiciary offices are hidden out of necessity, much of the building’s attitude conveys a sense of openness. “We wanted a building that would convey the dignity and imagery of the courts,” says Chiao. “It should show confidence in the justice system. And to do that it had to be a building that is easy to understand and clear about what it does. That will give the public confidence.”

From outside, the multiple accused high-security courtroom, the large jury courtroom and court tower are all elements that protrude from the podium’s bulk. They speak to its judicial purpose specifically. And the ACSR speaks to the space’s intent as a public place.

It is a well-planned space that balances its need for privacy by evoking the dignity of the courts. By making the adjudicating spaces prominent features of the building, and making the complex easy to navigate, the courthouse offers a coherent statement about the ambitions of the province’s justice system and its place serving the public interest.
Thunder Bay Consolidated Courthouse : News & Media : Bird Construction