Polk County Criminal Courts

Des Moines, Iowa
  • SQ. FT.
  • Budget
  • Market
  • Year
  • 2020 • American Institute of Architects
    Justice Facility Review Award, Citation
  • 2019 • American Institute of Architects, Iowa Chapter
    Honorable Mention Award

To transform a former 8-story county jail into a criminal courts facility, the top six floors were removed while the remaining two were taken down to structure. Three new floors were then added to create a five-level, 110,500 square-foot building. Use of Indiana limestone, glass curtain walls, and zinc cladding at exteriors unify the urban courts campus and reinvent the nearly windowless brick façade of the 1980s-era jail.

As a criminal courthouse, maintaining separate circulation patterns for the public, judicial staff, and detainees to ensure public safety was critical to the design. Detainee holding in the basement allows a secure and isolated location for drop-offs while a separate stair and elevator core between courtrooms allows detainees to travel vertically. Judicial circulation is pulled to the exterior of the building, with general public access to the courtrooms at the center.

Six high-volume criminal courtrooms and four criminal jury courtrooms are now located in the building, with the flexibility to add five more in the future. These now serve court functions with adjacent support spaces for attorney negotiation space, jury deliberation, assembly rooms, clerk functions, chambers, detainee holding and support staff. All courtrooms are also equipped with state-of-the-art technology, security, and access control systems.

On the public side of the courtrooms, wood and zinc elements identify the courtroom entrances and complement the exterior material pallet. These material accents along with clearly defined circulation and wayfinding, warm and effective daylighting, and comfortable seating combine to create a calming environment for what can be a chaotic, stressful experience.

By activating an abandoned building, an eyesore in a redeveloping downtown core was replaced by a facility that instills a sense of civic pride. The courts are now accessible, transparent in their function, navigable, and welcoming.

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