There is necessarily a period of learning how to use the new facility. The planning, design, and construction of a new court facility (or the significant renovation of an existing one) can take as much as three to five years from initiation of the project to actual occupancy. After so much careful planning and design, users often find that the new facility does not always function in accordance with their expectations. Sometimes expectations are unrealistic; in other cases, new facility operations are not thoroughly understood by facility users. Operating policies and practices developed for the prior facility will need to be revised. A period of time should be allowed in the project schedule for training and fine-tuning operations. The planning for this should begin early in the construction phases of the project and continue after occupancy. Prior to moving into the facility there needs to be a period of time devoted to commissioning of the building to break-in the new systems and exhaust caustic fumes of products used during construction.

New detention facilities, for example, rarely open without detailed activation plans, which describe staffing assignments, operating policies, special security and technology features, and special training needs. But court facilities, which also have very complex operations, frequently open without such detailed activation plans. Such activation or "occupancy" plans can help staff to develop realistic expectations regarding facility operations and to meet those expectations within a reasonable period of time.

The actual construction of a courthouse is based on any number of planning and design assumptions. Those assumptions proceed from the very general to the very specific, forming a logical chain reaching all the way back to the earliest strategic planning. For instance, the general decision to provide secure parking and court floor access to judges may generate a whole series of specific design and construction features relating to private vehicle access, remote surveillance elements, and private access to judicial elevators. Assumptions restricting on-site records storage for clerks' offices could generate additional assumptions relating to special record retrieval systems or to the use of couriers to and from remote locations. Assumptions related to holding facilities could influence the location and nature of contact between defendants in custody and public defenders or private defense attorneys.

Typically, a jurisdiction makes general operating assumptions, which lead to very specific design, construction, and technology choices, which in turn lead to very specific operating policies. During the design process, both the users and the design team concentrate on developing a physical facility. Operating policy is a consideration only as it influences the design of specific areas and the selection of specific technology to support the area designs. After design is completed, however, during the fairly lengthy hiatus before construction is finished, users can consider operating policies in the context of the specific choices they made during design. As construction is completed, and as users can actually walk the spaces and visualize the facility operations, occupancy planning should accelerate.

In many cases, individual components will develop some internal operating plans as a matter of course during design and construction. Frequently, however, as the users and the design team complete the construction documents, their attention shifts to normal daily operating concerns. Knowing that occupancy is 12 to 18 months away, facility users may delay the development of detailed operating plans until occupancy is imminent. But at that point, the physical logistics of the move also compete for time, leaving users unprepared to deal with the daily functions and operating problems of the new facility.

Unless jurisdictions deliberately concentrate on the post-construction aspects of a new facility, just as they did on the pre-design aspects, they will frequently fail to use the new facility to its full potential. An occupancy plan should combine immediate operating assumptions with long-term assumptions regarding flexibility and expansion opportunities. The plan should integrate physical facility maintenance with specific security and staff considerations. As an example, the manner in which defendants in custody are to be transported to the facility, housed in a central holding unit, staged to the individual court floor, and then to the courtroom, should be detailed. Questions relating to custody staff, contact and non-contact interaction with defense attorneys, and court recess and meal policies should all be addressed. Some of these questions can be answered during architectural space programming and early design, but many of the details requiring policy and training will depend on the final combination of space design and technology.

Some trial-and-error is inevitable and appropriate, because not all consequences of a particular strategy or of a finished facility can be foreseen. But a thorough occupancy plan, completed toward the end of the construction process, can provide a framework for testing and modifying specific operating practices. Such a plan should address the following elements:

Physical operations of facility
  • Heating/cooling, lighting, plumbing, telecommunications systems with published activation/deactivation sequences, maintenance schedules, and service contract provisions
  • Routine maintenance of materials and finishes, including appropriate schedules and products
Special operations of facility
  • Security policies and features:
    • Public entrances and exits
    • Restricted entrances and exits
    • Items to be banned or restricted in the courthouse
    • General and specific parking provisions
    • Perimeter security
    • Special monitoring provisions
    • Internal access and circulation for public, judges and court staff, juries, defendants in custody, attorneys, victims, and witnesses
    • Duress alarms and quick-response policies and teams
    • Court floors and courtrooms
    • Central holding
    • Firearms policy
  • Records storage and retrieval systems
  • Mail distribution
  • Cafeteria/snack bar operation
  • Receiving/Loading dock, building storage
  • Special technology, such as computer-assisted legal research or video recording of testimony
  • Evidence storage
  • Visual aid and evidence exhibits

There are many subjects that a jurisdiction may address through an occupancy plan. Some subjects will be addressed, to a degree, during the planning and design processes. But many specific policies regarding the use of the new facility will be decided during planning and design. As with pre-design planning, good post-design and construction planning represent an investment in time and effort that can significantly enhance effective and efficient operations.