Refit does justice to law courts
Sydney’s Queens Square Law Courts, recently refurbished at a cost of $214 million, feature a range of sustainable design elements that help redefine society’s relationship with the law, writes STEPHEN PEARSE, director of design at Group GSA.
The complete refurbishment and refit of the Queens Square Law Courts in Sydney posed significant practical and philosophical challenges. The result showcases a suite of high-efficiency building features, all presented within a design framework of institutional dignity and legal authority.
The Queen’s Square Law Courts, operating within a 27-storey building in Sydney’s prestigious Macquarie Street, house the High Court of Australia, Federal Court of Australia, Supreme Court of NSW, and Federal Magistrates Court of Australia.
The building is owned by Law Courts Limited, whose shareholders comprise the Commonwealth Government of Australia and the State Government of NSW.
The building was opened in 1977 and has a total net lettable area of approximately 33,000 square metres.
The Queens Square Law Courts refurbishment project has involved the improvement of the building’s services, as well as the quality, amenity and efficiency of the internal spaces. The objective has been to provide a solid foundation on which a proper maintenance program can be implemented to effectively prolong the buildings life span for the next 30 years.
The existing building was designed by architects McConnell Smith and Johnson and completed in 1976. The building received an RAIA Merit Award in 1977 and stands as a strong, singular statement representative of its time and a product of the ‘brutalist’ school of architecture. The original architectural language was informed simply and clearly by function, construction technology and methodology. The patterns on the façade were a direct interpretation of the open office, closed court and the varying sun control requirements of each façade. The relationship with the ground plane was single-minded in its realisation, providing an appropriate volume of entry and a detailed façade system that is shaped by environmental concerns of wind and light for a modern court; however, this address lacked a clarity of approach and a sense of the symbolism of the courts and the idea of justice.
The refurbishment of the existing building is a substantial investment in sustainability, designed to extend the life of the building for another 30 years. ESD (ecologically sustainable design) targets were as follows:
- comply with Local, State and Commonwealth Government objectives;
- improve thermal performance of the façade to reduce operational energy requirements;
- achieve a 3.5 Star ABGR rating for the base building;
- achieve a 4.5 Star ABGR rating for the tenancy services;
- compliance with BCA Section J Energy Efficiency (2006);
- achieve a 5 Star National Water Consumption rating (0.5kL/m2/year);
- comply with the Council of the City of Sydney waste minimisation policy;
- achieve savings in energy of up to 20 percent, saving $100,000 per year. Also, 480 NSW Greenhouse gas abatement certificates (NGACs) can be generated, worth $6,000 per year. ABGR ratings for tenancy services will achieve the target of 4.5 Stars;
- achieve potable water savings of 50 percent and cost savings of $40,000 per year. These initiatives will decrease the water consumption intensity to 0.43kL/m2, less than the ESD Target of 0.5kL/m2;
- increase water savings to 85 percent with the use of blue water supplied by the council;
- increase recovery and utilisation of materials from the commercial and industrial sector from the existing 28 percent to 63 percent; and
- increase recovery and utilisation of materials from the construction & demolition sector from the existing 65 percent to 76 percent.
LOBBY & ENTRY CONTEXT
The ground floor lobby benefits significantly from its scale, classical formal geometry and simplicity, and the presence of its neighbouring historic buildings. Forming the gateway to Macquarie Street, it is one of the most important civic places in the city, which is befitting of the symbolic importance of the courts. The dignity of the main entrance speaks of the importance of the system of Justice in the community and represents openness and accessibility.
The existing lobby suffered from a legacy of the separation of the Commonwealth and State Courts and from the later inclusion of security screening procedures and equipment. It also suffered from a lack of clarity in its address and identity.
The project presented the city and the courts with an opportunity to embrace the ‘imagebility’ and urban quality of this very significant space.
The primary objectives of the philosophy guiding the new design for the ground floor lobby were:
- create a lobby that provides the essential requirements of a modern court building;
- simplify and strengthen the sense of address and identity and ensure that the dignity of the court is reflected in the ambience and character of the space
- strengthen the relationship with Queens Square through improved visibility and transparency and through the use of materials and urban elements
- be more welcoming and supportive of the public
- use changes of scale of volumes to create a more appropriate sense of progression when entering or leaving the building
- use design and materials to integrate the security screening apparatus in an appropriate and dignified way.
A simple timber plane unifies the ceiling and the rear wall. This new lining is ‘minimal’ in its architectural expression, allowing the heritage elements to be contrasted and valued.
Simple screens and joinery elements contain the security systems, seating and other functional needs.
Direct and reflected lighting create a dignified ambience, which relies on the existing trachyte and sandstone floor. Electronic court listing and display boards provide legible and direct information for the profession and the public.
Universal access is provided for in the new planning and is compliant with current standards.
Lounge areas with carpet and low seating provide a welcoming atmosphere and encourage orderly and calm meetings and counselling within the public hall.
Access through the lobby continues to accommodate wheeled traffic such as book trolleys in addition to equal access requirements.
At the Macquarie Street end the removal of the current Federal Court information bench will open up the end wall to the street and provide informal meeting facilities.
INTERIOR DESIGN CONCEPTS
There are a number of common elements within the overall design of the building to provide a level of continuity needed within a building of this type.
There is, however, a need for differentiation between jurisdictions and this is predominantly achieved through the use of material and colour.
The High Court of Australia materials and finishes continue a strong reference to the previous scheme with rich, dark, textured timber wall panelling throughout the public lobby and courtrooms, with complementary lush dark reds and browns.
The material and finishes concept for the Federal Court of Australia, including the Commonwealth Attorney General, is more subtle in colour with a rich, warm timber lining the public lobbies and continuing into the courtrooms in the form of low-level wall panelling and joinery. The colour palette throughout the floors consists of warm earthy tones with muted greens picked up in the carpet and upholstery, creating an elegant and inviting environment.
The Supreme Court of NSW has blonde, textured timber panelling running the length of the public lobby, inset with a white glass repeating pattern to create a light, fresh environment. The same timber is then continued through to the courtrooms and matched with warm, calming greys to create a crisp, light-filled space of dignity.
The furniture throughout the floors follows a common language with a differentiation in fabric colour and material. The courtroom joinery applies the timber of its floor with coloured inset resilient surfaces. The chairs generally have upholstery colours to complement the palette of the jurisdiction.
The furniture selection across the jurisdictions follows a common language with a variation in fabric colour and material throughout the floors. The public seating to the courtroom has strict requirements encompassing security, flexibility, durability and comfort. The proposed selection shows two chair types that each address these requirements. The fabric proposed for the public seating is a non-staining crypton, the colour and pattern varying across the jurisdictions.
The executive seating consists of a family suite of chairs. Judges have a high-backed leather chair, Associates a mid-backed leather chair of the same family, and the Bar chair will be the standard back version. This suite of chairs will be the same across all jurisdictions with a distinction made in the leather colour, which will be matched to the courtroom colour palette.
The design of courtrooms and their associated spaces reflects both pragmatic and philosophical aims. In addition to establishing the desired character and ambience, the working relationships of the courtroom consider access and layout, key dimensions and sightlines, details, fixtures and integration of technology and services. Details include the depth of judges’ benches, door furniture, doorway widths that are adequate for trolleys, accessible and readily expandable data/transcription/video cable access, and location of court reporters to minimise movement within courtrooms. The importance of amenity for these spaces is considered for views and outlook, lighting and acoustics and the exclusion of external noise and minimisation of internal noise through building materials selection.
The courtrooms are designed to reflect the needs of particular cases, ease of change without compromising the desired character of the court, and the incorporation of sophisticated new technologies.
E-courts provide full electronic access to parties, distributed through a 100mm-high raised floor. These layouts allow for video conferencing and accomodate remote and concurrent witnesses for a range of courtroom scenarios.
Flexibility of courts and public spaces allow for large-volume attendance, secondary bar tables, extensive records and documentation, high-level data transfer and the printing of documents.
Flexibility and accessibility in the courtroom design has been vital. Highlights include clear lines of sight by all parties and from the bench to witnesses, including disabled persons in wheelchairs. Bar tables and bar rails must be capable of being easily repositioned and a number of bar tables are capable of being moved from one courtroom to another to accommodate large trials.
The treatment of the public spaces has been a critical issue. For many, the experience in the waiting/concourse area outside the courtroom is stressful. The opportunity for private discussions, reflections and a sense of safety is essential. Balancing the need for separation, ease of response to call-overs by the court officer, and minimal disruption directly outside the courtroom requires careful consideration.
The security accommodation needs to ensure adequate control and observation of the building, in addition to prompt attendance to emergency situations.
The location, arrangement and layout of judicial accommodation at both a macro and micro level within the building should encourage good working relationships among judges and staff, including ease of interaction.
The grouping of accommodation should likewise promote operational efficiency, minimise travel (especially to amenities), and eliminate conflicting traffic movements. The needs of judges and court staff with disabilities have been considered within the design.
Juries in criminal matters are composed of up to 18 people, while juries in civil matters typically have four people. The refurbished facility provides additional jury facilities.
All of the court floors contain a communications room. Selected floors contain an IT room dedicated to the parties involved in the court process to accommodate their computer hardware and contract resource associated with electronic (E-Court) hearings. The facility provides space for them to establish their own server on-site (together with an operator) that can link back to their office as well as to the courtroom. It will enable them to access material from their office network.
THE REFURBISHMENT AT A GLANCE
The project consultant design team that has been undertaking the design development phase is identified below:
Project Director: Evans & Peck; Project Manager: Crown Project Services; Architecture and Interior Design: GROUP GSA + HASSELL; Town Planner: GROUP GSA + HASSELL; Accessibility and DDA: Morris Goding; Acoustic consultant: PKA Acoustics; BCA Consultant: Dix Gardner; Electrical Engineer: Meinhardt; Hydraulic Consultant: Meinhardt; Fire Services Engineer: Meinhardt; Mechanical Engineer: SKM; Lift Engineer: SKM; ESD: SKM; Structural Engineer: TTW; Façade Engineer: TTW; Fire Engineering consultant: Defire; Quantity Surveyor: Currie + Brown; Principal Certifying Authority: Davis Langdon; Security, Communications and In-Court Technology: IPP Consulting; In-Court Acoustics: ICE; Wind Modelling: WindTech; Crowd Modelling: SKM Crowd Modelling.
Stephen Pearse is director of design at Group GSA. His many years of experience include the design and management of projects locally, interstate and overseas.
Group GSA is an award-winning design practice specialising in master planning and urban design, architecture, interior design and sustainability.