A Strong  
LA’s New Federal Courthouse Takes  
the Stand for Innovative Glass Designs  
b y E l l e n R o g e r s  
ome architects, when faced with the strict instructions “not  
to exceed budget with design,” may feel challenged or lim-  
ited in terms of what they can achieve in both aesthetics  
and performance.Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) isn’t  
one of those architects. Completed in August 2016, SOM de-  
signed the new United States Courthouse—Los Angeles, constructed  
by Clark Construction Group-California LP, under the General Service  
Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program.  
The 10-story, 633,000-square-foot courthouse is located within the  
city’s Civic Center neighborhood, housing 24 courtrooms and 32 judi-  
cial chambers. According to SOM, its design is both modern in spirit  
and rooted in classic principles of federal architecture. While it incor-  
porates some traditional architectural elements including processional  
S
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Appeal  
The new United States Courthouse  
in LA is rooted in classic principles,  
sustainable strategies and a  
contemporary spirit. The building’s  
expression “is an inextricable union  
of site topography, functionality,  
environmental performance, form  
and democratic principles that  
honor the public realm,”  
according to the American  
Institute of Architects.  
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steps, grand public spaces and materi- you have that collaboration, you can  
als such as limestone,the courthouse is present the curtainwall to the architect  
unique. The architects envisioned it as and together work through the design  
a “floating” cube. It uses an innovative, to find what works.”  
structural engineering concept that  
He adds,“Both of us [SOM and Ben-  
cantilevers the glass volume above its son] knew that our intent was to make  
stone base. SOM worked closely with a monumental building for the city of  
Benson Industries, the curtainwall Los Angeles. Because of that, we had  
contractor, to create a structure that mutual respect and the best interest of  
combines aesthetics as well as energy, the project in mind to make the con-  
blast and seismic requirements.  
cept work.”  
Behind the Design  
Curtainwall Considerations  
From the beginning, the architec-  
At first glance, the complexity  
tural team knew this courthouse would of the project’s façade may not be  
be unique. Jose Palacios, director with noticeable. However, the curtain-  
SOM, was involved early on, particu- wall units combine multiple lay-  
larly with the curtainwall design. He ers of performance and aesthetics.  
explains their intent from the begin- About 80 percent of the project features  
ning was to create a civic building for triangular-shaped units, which Gomez  
this specific site that would not com- says were quite challenging. Typical  
pete with the nearby city hall in terms units were 6 feet wide by 20 feet tall  
of shape and form. They also didn’t with an apex of about 3.5 feet.  
want it to be like any other commercial  
office building in the background.  
The large-sized units also posed an  
installation challenge, which the team  
So we ended up with a form that is addressed by using a tower crane. Ac-  
a cube …” says Palacios. “We lifted it cording to Gomez, this allowed for a  
from the ground to engage the city’s nice stream of units to be hung quickly.  
urban fabric.” This design allows the “This worked well because of the loca-  
natural topography to flow underneath tion. Without the tower crane it would  
the elevated glass cube, creating usable have been harder. And again, that was  
public spaces.  
part of the collaboration with the gen-  
Palacios continues,“We had the idea eral contractor and the entire team.”  
that a modern-day courthouse building  
should be light and transparent,and that Focus on Sustainability  
it should be anchored by a solid base.We  
Creating a high-performance, sus-  
wanted it to be all-glass to evoke light- tainable building was a driving factor.  
ness and appear transparent.We placed The new courthouse was designed to  
it on a limestone base, a traditional ma- achieve LEED Platinum certification  
terial for civic buildings. This was the and meet the GSA’s 2020 energy objec-  
idea our team embraced very quickly tive. One challenge in this was manag-  
in the competition stage. We knew that ing intense sun exposure from the east  
if we make an all-glass courthouse, the and west while maintaining the build-  
curtainwall has to be special, and for ing’s alignment with the street grid.  
that we had to engage with someone  
Palacios explains that the city grid  
like Benson. So, they soon became a in LA is 38 degrees from being a true  
participant in the team and we worked north/south orientation. “So the solar  
together to design the curtainwall.”  
exposure of the building on the site  
In addition to its glassy façade,  
the courthouse uses traditional  
architectural elements such  
as processional steps, grand  
public spaces with limestone,  
white granite and other enduring  
materials.  
Benjamin Gomez, director of design was not favorable. Alignment with the  
with Benson, adds, “Because of past grid made the diagonal of the cube the  
working relationships and trust, we sat broadest face,so instead of rotating the  
down with SOM and created a cohesive building to improve our solar exposure,  
design that accomplished what the ar- we chose to design a pleated façade in  
chitects and the city were looking for.It a way that each fold has a cool north-  
all starts with that collaboration.When or south-facing (vision) side and a hot  
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The courtroom design  
optimizes daylighting and  
provides a second source  
of natural illumination  
into all major spaces,  
significantly reducing  
energy usage.  
east- or west-facing (opaque or lou- componentry that changes within each around the central light court, a verti-  
vered) side,” he says. “This design not wall unit depending on the function cal space that delivers daylight into the  
only allowed us to improve the solar behind the curtainwall unit. For exam- heart of the building through a massive  
heat gain radiation by 47 percent, but ple, within the light court on the north skylight.  
also allowed us to keep the urban grid side, which is a public area, vision glass  
In program areas (where offices are  
alignment and improve on the required is used on both the cool and hot sides. located),vision glass is on the cool side  
setback distances for blast mitigation.” According to architectural information,  
He adds that they also created some each typical court floor is organized  
continued on page 62  
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AcontinuSed frtomrpoagen61 g Appeal  
and a “shadow box” spandrel is on the side, because it’s at an angle, is not too ing to SOM, the design mitigates blast  
hot side.  
In the back of court rooms, along ing in, and that diffuses the glare and ing the standoff between the perimeter  
the sides of the building against an area brings daylight in,” he adds.  
and primary structure, while still al-  
used for secured circulation, there’s an  
The team also employed unique mea- lowing the cube to appear as a single,  
area used for the staff/judges to come sures to ensure energy performance.  
in, and there’s a tall 20-foot, all-glazed  
“Benson built a‘cart,’a box on wheels,  
dark since it’s reflecting light com- threats through a truss system,increas-  
hovering form.  
Palacios says that one of the most  
unit that has louvered shading devices arranged to simulate a pleated wall unit important decisions they made was  
on the‘hot’ side that mitigate glare and for us to test different types of glass on. “lifting” the cube to create the canti-  
diffuse light coming in over the bench We would move and rotate the cart ac- lever providing for public open space  
into the courtroom,” says Palacios.  
cordingly to see the different exposures and at the same time helping to po-  
According to SOM, the façade’s for all sides of the building—to make sition the building, maximizing set-  
pleated design helped minimize solar sure it looked right and it was within backs. Also, given that the cantilever  
impact by aligning planes of glass to- the performance range needed to get the allows for a column-free perimeter at  
ward the north and south, while also targeted energy savings,” says Palacios. the ground floor, the setback distance  
maximizing natural daylight inside the “It was laborious,but Benson facilitated to structure is even greater.  
courthouse. It includes 1,672 panels, that to allow us to physically see and  
According to Gomez, since Benson  
with glass fabricated by Viracon, de- understand how light reflects and trans- has worked on many blast projects,  
signed to respond to the building’s lo- mits in a pleated façade arrangement.”  
cation.The company supplied 1 ¼-inch  
including Tower One at Ground Zero,  
also with SOM,they already had a solid  
blast design experience, which “was  
VRE-59 insulating, laminated glass.  
Given the courthouse requirements,  
Strength and Security  
As with all federal buildings, the LA vetted through structural engineering  
and glare control,and the folded panels blast requirements.Add to that,seismic tion, despite being complicated, was  
help with the glare because one side is design was also necessary given the  
we could really focus on daylighting courthouse was also designed to meet and previous testing, so the blast por-  
opaque and one is vision. The opaque earthquake-prone location. Accord-  
continued on page 65  
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AcontinuSed frtomrpoagen62 g Appeal  
familiar to us.  
The seismic considerations were a  
little more difficult, actually. Because  
of the size and shape of the curtain-  
wall units, the movement of each unit  
was more than we normally see. With  
our design philosophy we were able  
to accommodate the movement …  
the ability to take up the seismic drift  
is an inherent advantage in a custom-  
designed Benson system more so than  
a stick-built system. It can rock/rotate  
more freely.”  
To ensure aesthetics as well as per-  
formance, Palacios adds that they built  
a one-story visual mock-up for a larg-  
er-scale viewing of the glass and shape,  
in addition to the customary two-story  
performance mock-up.  
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A Stand-Out Design  
Before its completion, the court-  
house was already being recognized. It  
received a 2016 GSA Design Award for  
the best of unbuilt GSA projects.Under  
the umbrella of the GSA-led Design  
Excellence program, the awards cele-  
brate the best of federal architecture  
at all scales. The Design Excellence  
program “advocates for quality in the  
federal built environment, establishing  
nationwide policies and procedures for  
selecting the finest and most appropri-  
ate architects and integrated design  
teams for GSA commissions.”  
Palacios says that through this proj-  
ect, “we were able to achieve a pretty  
high design and a great addition to  
downtown LA in both civic and ar-  
chitectural perspectives in an urban  
setting. And, it was done in a short  
period of time for this type of build-  
ing.” He says from the time they began  
drawing and design to when it was  
built was around 40 months, start  
to finish. s  
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