Turner Construction: Duval County Courthouse

The modern-day phoenix

Turner Construction is on course to deliver a splendid new courthouse for Florida’s Duval County. Project executive Mark Alles talks to Gay Sutton about the unique features of good courthouse construction.


For many years the people of Duval County, Florida, have understandably been skeptical about the promise of a new courthouse. The current courthouse, located on the Jacksonville waterfront, was built over 50 years ago for a population that numbered just over 450,000. But it has long been perceived as cramped and inadequate for a population that, according to the census of 2000, has swelled to nearly 780,000. 

A splendid new courthouse was a key element of the Better Jacksonville plan created more than 10 years ago, and work began on a new site in the downtown district of LaVilla. However, numerous financial problems—including the massive building boom in China, which led to materials shortages and skyrocketing price inflation—beset the project, and construction of the courthouse finally ground to a halt in 2003.

Little wonder, then, that when the county took a new tack in 2008 and awarded a design-build contract to Turner Construction and KBJ Architects to deliver the new courthouse, the announcement was met with skepticism. “The previous project had been stopped a couple of times, and one of our biggest challenges has been convincing the community that the courthouse is now actually going to be built,” explains Mark Alles, project executive at Turner Construction. With many years’ experience in courthouse construction, he had never encountered a situation like this before. “In fact, it was not until we were well into concrete coming out of the ground that people actually believed it would happen.”

Construction began in May 2009. Today, Turner is one-third through the project and on schedule for completion in May 2012. Key to winning the contract was Turner’s considerable depth of experience in courthouse construction, the company’s vision for the design of the building, which would avoid the pitfalls inherent in the previous attempt, and the guaranteed maximum cost of $225 million. Once completed, the seven-story unified courthouse will undoubtedly be an iconic landmark, incorporating some 51 courtrooms and reinvigorating the downtown district of LaVilla. 

From the community perspective, the project will not only rejuvenate the local district but also provide the added benefit of boosting employment around the county during a time when the construction industry has seen a dramatic slump and unemployment has risen considerably. It’s a benefit that Turner is working hard to deliver. “We’ve been focusing our efforts on maximizing local participation in the project and on employing local contractors where we can,” Alles says. 

“We’ve done this by engaging in town hall meetings with the community, not only informing them about the project but also about the contracts that are coming up and how and where they can bid for them,” he continues. As part of the design-build contract, for example, Turner was tasked with employing small and emerging local businesses for 25 percent of the work and is currently on track to exceed that goal.

The overriding aim with this splendid new building, however, is to relieve the overcrowding and space constraints of the current courthouse and to provide capacity for many years to come. “Our focus is therefore on the long-term durability of the building,” Alles explains. “This is one of the unusual elements of courtroom construction in general.”

Duval County has had just four new courthouses over the past 175 years, and this new building will be expected to last for a considerable period of time. “In most construction projects the cost of materials and the speed of construction are the primary factors,” says Alles. “In this project, if we thought that way we’d be short-changing the project and the community. So we’re looking for durable materials that will last longer and deliver a significant long-term payback.” Issues such as the frequency and cost of maintenance and the repair and replacement of equipment and materials are significant factors in the decision making.

The security considerations that go into courthouse design are also a unique feature of this type of construction. The paths of the three groups of people who will use the building—the public, the judges and staff, and the detainees—should never cross. So with 51 courtrooms, all enclosed within the seven-story building, there have been some serious logistical design challenges. Turner’s solution to the problem has been to design the entire building around the courtroom modules by drawing on its considerable experience of best practices in courthouse construction and paying particular attention to the separation of occupancies.

Today’s courtrooms also differ from their predecessors by being almost painfully quiet, which is achieved by using an array of sound-attenuation construction techniques. The silence, however, can come as a shock to staff used to the noises inherent in the earlier buildings. To solve any such issues of usability and to ensure the building meets expectation, Turner always builds a full-sized mock-up of each type of courtroom before construction commences. “In this way we’re able to let the judges and staff walk in, feel, touch, sit and see the sightlines of their new facility when it’s open,” Alles says. This, he believes, has been the most significant tool in making the project a success.

Although only seven stories in height, the project is large and complex, and it is subject to tight time schedules. One of the secrets of maintaining those time schedules, Alles believes, is thorough and extensive pre-planning. The company therefore spent a considerable time projecting scenarios for anything that could go wrong during construction and then devising contingency plans for coping with it. Now when anything does occur—and with a construction project, problems inevitably do arise—the team simply switches to the contingency plan and no time is lost.

The project now has the full backing of the local community, and at last there is a sense of excitement and expectation. After all these years of delay and failure, there is a confidence that Turner will deliver the courthouse on time and on budget. Meanwhile, the construction project is already delivering significant benefits throughout the county. www.turnerconstruction.com