Courthouse Environment

The Courthouse should be dignified, comfortable, and businesslike in appearance. In addition, consideration must be given to lighting, acoustics, and temperature control.


For courtroom-specific lighting, see Courtroom Lighting.

Lighting design should enhance both the overall building architecture as well as the effect of individual spaces within the building. In general, lighting should provide adequate illumination for tasks performed, be sensitive to the occupants of the spaces, be economical to operate and service, and should provide an appropriate appearance for the use. Within designed spaces, the lighting system typically should not be the design feature but should focus on function, enhancing the illumination of the functions, people, and architecture.

Necessary lighting levels vary based on the activities being performed, but the lighting in court facilities should allow clear vision, color recognition, and fast cognition without eyestrain. The lighting system design should balance requirements for light intensity and the need for lighting contrast.

Natural Lighting

The use of natural lighting is highly desirable for workspaces. Typically, spaces located within 30-35 feet of a window are most suitable for occupied spaces. Depending on the design, the space within 20 feet of windows provides natural illumination and the potential for views. Open-plan offices can be arranged in a mixture of depths ranging between 20-35 feet from windows. Spaces more than 35 feet from windows are typically less suitable for offices but may be useful for equipment and storage rooms.

Other means of providing natural lighting, even in courtrooms, include exterior windows, skylights, light wells, and interior windows to capture reflected light from exterior windows. For enclosed study rooms, interior windows are preferred in case rooms need to be darkened. Interior windows also allow others to determine whether the rooms are occupied.

The design of office areas must balance the importance of natural light and external views to building occupants and the importance of light control to video display screens. Displays should be positioned so their sightlines are substantially parallel to windows to control contrasts and to provide more visual comfort at the terminals. Users should not be positioned with their faces or backs to a bright window or windows that are darker than surrounding walls (which produce sharply defined light and dark stripes).

Exterior Lighting

Exterior lights should comply with the values indicated by the IES Lighting Handbook. Illumination levels should provide even illumination for security requirements. Exterior lighting should enhance the architecture of the building, as well as enhance the safety and security of the building perimeter.

Provide lighting fixtures at all entrances and exits of major structures, including loading docks. Control exterior lighting circuits by photocell and a time clock controller to include both all-night and part-night lighting circuits.

Interior Lighting

Direct lighting, indirect lighting, downlighting, uplighting and lighting from wall or floor-mounted fixtures should be integrated. For those areas not listed in the table, use the IES Lighting Handbook as a guide.

Interior Illumination Levels

Insofar as possible, light fixtures and associated fittings should be of standard commercial design. To avoid obsolescence and upkeep problems, avoid the use of custom-designed fixtures. Minimize the number of fixture types in the building wherever possible. Bulb types should be common and readily replaced.

In renovation or historic preservation projects, some spaces may be identified which contribute to the character of a historic structure. These spaces should be lighted in a manner that enhances their historic and architectural character. Maintenance and rehabilitation of historic lighting fixtures may be required. Care should be taken to avoid placing fixtures, switches, conduit, or other electrical facilities through character-defining architectural elements.

Lighting design should comply with ASHRAE/IES 90.1, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. Power allowances for normal system receptacles should include provisions for task lighting. Lighting calculations should show the effect of both general and task lighting assuming that task lighting where it is used has compact fluorescent tubes.

Office lighting in court facilities is generally fluorescent lighting, but the availability and affordability of LED lighting is changing the lighting environment. Typically, a lighting layout with a fairly even level of general illumination in general areas of the building (public spaces, office areas, courtroom/chamber areas, etc.) is desirable. In open office areas with systems furniture partitions, lighting calculations should account for the light obstruction and absorption of the partitions. Task lighting – lighting at the workstations or under-bookshelf lighting systems -- may be used when systems furniture obstructs even distribution of lighting (e.g., the general lighting level would be insufficient for the specific functions required).

Offices and other areas using personal computers or other Video Display systems should use indirect or diffuser-shielded ceiling fixtures. Diffusers or lenses should be non-combustible acrylic. Generally, areas designed for intensive use of computers should have the same lighting as offices. If the area contains special work stations for computer graphics, dimmable lighting may be required.

Conference and training rooms typically should have a combination of fixed and dimmable lighting.

Special lighting design concepts should be developed for lobbies and public corridors. In general, the lighting design should be an integral part of the architecture. Wall fixtures or combination wall and ceiling fixtures may be considered in corridors and tunnels to help break the monotony of a long, plain space.

Lighting Controls

Use automatic or programmable microprocessor lighting controls. The application of these controls and the controlled zones will depend on a number of factors: frequency of use, available daylighting, normal and extended work hours, and the use of open or closed office plans. All of these factors must be considered when establishing zones, zone controls and appropriate lighting control.

Enclosed Space Controls

Enclosed space lighting controls may include switches, multi-level switching, occupancy sensors, light level sensors or micro-processors. The lights can be zoned by space or multiple spaces. If microprocessor controls are used to turn off the lights, provide a local means of override to continue operations when required.

  • Photoelectric sensors: reduce lighting levels in response to daylighting for small closed spaces with windows, for fixtures adjacent to windows, and for parking structures.
  • Occupancy sensors: used for small closed spaces without windows (enclosed office spaces and toilet areas). Each occupancy sensor should control no more than 12 fixtures.
  • Microprocessor control, programmable controller or central computer control: for multiple closed spaces or large zones.

Placement of lighting controls in courtrooms is critical, and a primary control station for all lighting, audio, video, and security operations in the courtroom should be provided with use of pre-set or pre-programmed lighting settings, with a second overriding control at the judge’s bench. Consideration should be made as to who operates the controls and what happens if a disturbance occurs with lights dimmed.

Open Space Controls

Open space lighting controls may include switches, multi-level switching, light level sensors for spaces adjacent to windows, and microprocessor controls for zones within the space. Remote control schemes and reductions from a programmable controller, microprocessor, and/or central computer should be considered. If microprocessor controls are used to turn off the lights, provide a local means of override to continue operations when required. Controls should be located on core area walls, on permanent corridor walls or on columns.

Consider photoelectric sensors for fixtures adjacent to windows and for parking structures.

Occupancy sensors should not be used in open office areas, or spaces housing heat producing equipment or corridors.


For courtroom-specific acoustics, see Courtroom Acoustics.

Acoustic control is important in courtrooms, attorney-client conference rooms, judicial chambers, jury deliberations rooms, attorney and probation offices, Prisoner holding areas, and open workstations. The concerns are different, however, in each of these spaces. The concern with prisoner holding areas is that noise generated within the space should not be heard outside so as not to disturb courtroom proceedings. The primary concerns in the courtroom are that everyone in the courtroom should be able to clearly hear the witnesses and other participants and that noise from outside the courtroom should not disturb the proceedings. In other areas such as conference rooms, jury deliberation rooms, private offices, and chambers the concern is that confidential conversations should not be able to be heard outside the space.

The growing use of hands-free telephones and advances in voice recognition systems and their integration into office workstations increases the importance of acoustics in the design of all open office workspaces. Design of courtroom workstations, offices, counter positions, and public reception area positions require good sound clarity where teleconferencing or video conferencing is likely to be used.

Ceilings, floors, and all furniture and workstation construction require high levels of sound absorption. Normal privacy between open-office workstations can be provided through the use of high sound absorptive ceilings and floors, moderately high screens, and sufficient ambient sound (either through general sounds in the office or through use of an electronic sound masking system).

Two factors—speech intelligibility and privacy—largely determine the acoustical performance of spaces in courthouses. Speech intelligibility refers to the ability of a listener to understand what is being said. Privacy is the measure of limiting speech intelligibility to the intended listener. For example, jury deliberation rooms require privacy to prevent persons outside the room from hearing jury deliberations.

Speech Intelligibility

Two primary determinants of acoustic performance with respect to speech intelligibility are the level of background noise and reverberation. Speech intelligibility is determined by the interaction of critical factors that affect the ability of courtroom participants to hear clearly, and understand speech and presented sounds:

  • The nature (quality and characteristics) of the sound and sound source.
  • Sound intensity, and particularly sound intensity at critical frequencies.
  • Architectural form (cubic volume, shape, and proportion).
  • Background noise, the characteristics of the noise, and degree of sound isolation between spaces.
  • Reverberation and sound absorption within spaces.
  • Electronic sound system.

Background, or ambient, noise is produced by several predictable sources; most common is the movement of air for heating or cooling the room. Sources of background noise include diffusers, fans, and the activity of people inside and outside the courtroom. Noise criteria describe the desired level of background noise.

Reverberation is measured in terms of the time it takes for sound to subside in a room. This measure is known as the “reverberation time” and is expressed in seconds. Reverberation times that are too long can create delays in reflected sound (echoes), which compromise speech intelligibility.


Spaces in a courthouse should be designed to provide various levels of acoustical privacy including confidential, normal, and minimal. Inaudible privacy, such as that required by jury deliberation rooms, requires that no sound whatsoever travels between spaces. Confidential privacy means that sound can be detected but it is impossible to understand what is being said. For a normal level of privacy, eavesdropping is required to understand what is being said in adjacent areas. A minimal level of privacy provides only partial control of distracting noise.

The level of privacy is determined by the loudness of speech or sounds generated within spaces, transmitting characteristics of the partition between spaces, and the background noise in the originating and receiving spaces. The acoustical properties of a partition can be specified by its Sound Transmission Coefficient (STC). Recently, the Noise Isolation Classification (NIC) was developed to describe the level of privacy that results from the combined determinant; however, the NIC can only be measured after a space is constructed and occupied.

The following factors affecting privacy must be taken into consideration during design:

  • The sound level inside the room is a major factor. It determines the noise reduction that an intervening wall must provide to assure that conversations are not heard outside the space.
  • Less-critical structures such as storage areas can be placed between the sound source and the receiving room. These structures are normally storage areas, less-critical offices, or other semi-public spaces.
  • Because traffic circulation adjacent to a space affects the type of construction necessary to ensure privacy, in certain cases, a sensitive space should be located away from traffic circulation. Court buildings located near airports or other sources of high noise levels should have special exterior glazing and gasketing systems, designed with the assistance of a qualified acoustical consultant.
  • Most acoustical decisions require a trade-off between cost, speech privacy, and speech intelligibility. These compromises can be anticipated and factored into the cost and performance of the project.
Temperature Control

Maintaining suitable environmental conditions within the courtroom is important. A courtroom that is too warm or too cool can have adverse effects upon the participants. Noise from ceiling diffusers and mechanical equipment should not be audible in the courtroom.

Controlling individual room temperature

Courtrooms and their ancillary spaces should have a heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system with individual temperature controls for each major room or area, and controls should be easy to adjust. HVAC systems should be designed with consideration for their users, video display terminals and computer equipment, photocopiers, printers, and other sources of heat in the occupied rooms. Adequate fresh air and exhaust ventilation is most important for courtrooms, jury rooms, food service areas, and other areas subject to dense occupation or strong odors.

Monitoring and managing energy use

For new or larger installations, consider an energy monitoring and management system to reduce energy consumption for those areas not subject to continual use. This system also allows for the adjustment of temperature in all areas from a single remote location, even during hours when portions of the facility are not occupied. Because a sunny day in the winter might call for cooling of the south rooms and heating of the north rooms, the HVAC components must provide zones of heating and cooling simultaneously. On mild days the system should take full advantage of favorable outdoor air temperatures. Provisions also should be made for humidity control where necessary, such as in historic document storage areas and electronic equipment areas.

Minimizing acoustical impact

Sound transmission and isolation features for HVAC equipment and air distribution systems should be included to reduce disruptive or annoying noises in all areas, but especially in courtrooms. Ductwork should incorporate acoustical lining and sound traps between rooms that require quiet for conversations or deliberations (i.e., jury rooms to the corridor, judges' chambers to the reception, etc.). Air distribution devices (grills and diffusers) should be constructed in low­ noise configurations. For further information, see the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association, Inc.

[1] Sources: The American Court House (ABA, 1973); and The U.S. Courts Design Guide, 1997.