Q+A with a Chief Judge and an Architect
My colleague Marsha Crockett recently sat down with Rock Island County Chief Judge Walter Braud and myself to learn more about the design process for a new courthouse annex in Rock Island, Illinois. Words like partnership, passion, and pride punctuated the conversation just as those values have informed the design process from beginning to end.
Let’s break the ice. The two of you have worked together on this project for quite some time. What has that been like?
Judge Walter Braud: It’s fun! I find it difficult to say in one word, but Jake has a real passion and energy for what he is doing and so do I. It just works out well.
Jake Davis: I feel like it’s a partnership. Some projects that we work on are more transactional, some more dictatorial, but I feel like this is a real partnership, an exchange of ideas.
How would you describe the current condition of the existing courthouse, and how did you get to the point where you are today?
JWB: Our existing historic courthouse was built in 1896 when the population was 50,000 people and I assume some arrived here on horseback. The building hasn’t changed materially since then and it just doesn’t function well. Couple that with politics over the decades that diverted monies to other needs rather than maintaining the building and public services. As a result, the building is literally collapsing into and onto itself. So we found a legal route to get bonding to build an annex with four additional courtrooms as part of the justice center built in 2001.
The first step was to solve the money question and then to find someone to do this project. In Illinois, that task falls to the Chief Judge and I was convinced of one thing: That the old had to go. So, I had to figure out how to get there. We considered ten architects and two construction managers. The team that stood out was DLR Group and Gilbane.
JD: You mentioned that as Chief Judge you had to figure out a way to do this. In effect, you are the Project Manager in addition to the Chief Judge, and you allowed all the various stakeholders to have a voice in this project. It’s commendable given the fact that you also figured out how to raise the capital, hire the architect and CM, and make primary decisions about scope. Amazing.
Thinking ahead, what do you envision for the new spaces and what difference will it make? How will it help the community?
JWB: It’s already changing everything. The entire community in Rock Island City is excited. We haven’t had much uplifting news in the city since I can’t remember when. Now, up to 300 people will have work because of this project over the next year-and-a-half. We just bought a big bunch of furniture from a local manufacturer right here in Illinois. There’s no one who isn’t excited about this project. The community is cheering, and the staff, judges, and lawyers are all over the moon. I try to keep every user’s hand in the mud, so they know what is coming. DLR Group is very collaborative and spends many hours on site, on the phone, video conferencing – it’s been quite a process.
JD: I think one of the unique elements of this process is how we worked with a life-sized, physical mock-up of the courtroom. The number of people the Judge invited to participate helped generate excitement and understanding of the project. It was an incredible consensus-builder, and it made the process so enjoyable for the stakeholders as well as for us.
JWB: When we started this project, you and I, along with your courts designer Todd Orr, walked around the existing Justice Center. I expressed how unhappy I was with our existing courtrooms because they weren’t functional with the judge and court reporter literally looking at the back of the head of the witness, which meant we couldn’t properly make a decision. How a witness reacts is just as important as what they say. So, we discussed cornered versus centered courtrooms and the variabilities and I said, “We just need to build the courtroom right. I don’t care about how pretty it is. If it doesn’t function, we missed the point of building the annex all together.”
So, you suggested we address that problem with the mock-up. As soon as I heard it, I thought it was a great idea. We could sit in the courtroom before we spent the money on construction and ensure that the site lines were right or maybe needed some adjustment. That mockup was invaluable because we were able to cure unanticipated problems with the court reporter and the clerk. Everyone gave input. I told everyone if they saw something that didn’t work, tell us. And they did. I think it was a stroke of genius to use the mock-up because we could get it right before we built it, and we could go and see it more than once.
JD: We were fortunate to find column-free vacant grocery store, so we could keep the mock-up in place for an extended period. Did you have your group go through it again?
JWB: Yes, some of us went two or three times more, double-checking our first reactions without other people there, so they wouldn’t countermand our instincts.
Judge Braud (seated) presiding from the bench during review of the mock-up, with plans unfolded in front.
How did you feel about the collaboration with so many different people from DLR Group around the country?
JWB: Every person has brought their own specialty to the project and they are all so open and reachable. Ronok has been available to answer so many questions as we planned the new annex. And Kevin Curran has been with us from the beginning as the anchor, managing the project on your end, and he’s still involved even now into construction. But the thing that really baked the cake was when we selected furniture. We assumed that someone would show us a bunch of furniture pictures or maybe you would pick it out and get our opinions. But instead, we get Darcy Royalty and Stephanie Yeager from Los Angeles, and it seemed we had the greatest people in the world coming to “No Place Illinois” to help us pick out furniture. Then we go to your offices in Chicago where we get a good understanding of what we are going to try to figure out. Then we go across Wacker Drive to the Merchandise Mart and spend about four hours, and we buy the furniture together.
The point I’m making is I never would have imagined that we would have the quality of expertise throughout every stage of this building. I know we pay you a certain amount of money to do what you do, but it’s up to you to figure out how to make it profitable. You didn’t have to bring a Darcy or a Stephanie. You could have convinced us to buy furniture some other way. But frankly, Jake, I am just so grateful.
JD: Thanks for saying that. Of course, we are in business to do what we do and share the expertise we have, but there is more to it than that. You mentioned the fact that we have a passion for what we do and part of it is working in communities to make a difference in people’s lives. We aren’t making a widget here. We are building relationships. This is about long-term, long-range relationships, not the short-term dispatch of resources. It’s my job to figure out what we can spend and offer, but I think it has been a real partnership in terms of defining scope. Some owners don’t give us that same opportunity, but you are generous with your thought process, and I think that’s what allows us to shine.
JWB: Early on we went to have a sandwich after a meeting and we talked about feeling called to our professions to be the very best we could be and to do the best. You’ve heard me say from time to time to your team, and I say it to the contractors, “I don’t want you to come in here and dig a hole. I want you to do something wonderful for the city of Rock Island.”
It sounds like you both enjoy what you do and working together, but every project of this size has challenges along the way. How have you handled those harder conversations?
JWB: I remember we had an uncomfortable conversation when the numbers were too high. I think you and Gilbane were looking for a soft-landing to tell us our budget wouldn’t buy us six courtrooms. We were in a meeting with all the stakeholders there, and I expressed my concern that we weren’t going to get six courtrooms. I referred to it as getting less quality than we wanted. Todd Orr, who is not a loquacious person, looked at me and said, “DLR Group only builds great buildings.” And I thought, “Oh, I’m satisfied with that.” When Todd talks he says only what you need to know and then he stops. He’s not like you and me, Jake.
JD: You hit the nail on the head. And I couldn’t agree more.
Rock Island County Justice Center in Rock Island, Illinois by DLR Group.
When the day comes to cut the ribbon and walk into that new space, what will each of you be thinking or feeling?
JD: I will be thinking of how extremely proud I am of what we’ve done together, and I’m proud of it mostly because it’s been a collaborative effort. I travel a lot and work with a lot of folks, but to be able to call a client a friend is my measure of success and what I will remember above all.
JWB: I can imagine when citizens come off the bridge they will see this building shining like the morning sun. It’s a feeling of pride. Every person who walks through the door into this facility can say, “Rock Island is a proud place. This is a proud facility and you’re going to get justice here.” In fact, we’ve put our money on it.
The 46,000-square-foot Rock Island County Justice Center Annex is scheduled for completion Fall of 2018. Sign up for our email newsletter to get project updates delivered directly to your inbox.