Providing access to justice through safe, secure, accessible, functional courthouses is a critical priority for the California judicial branch. The courthouse construction program focuses on the most immediate and critical needs in the branch—buildings that have been identified for years as in need of replacement or renovation. Recent media reports have contained errors and misleading statements about courthouse construction costs. Get the facts here.
The Cost of California Courthouses
Data from construction industry reference source RS Means has been cited to assert that state courthouses in California should cost no more $250 per square foot to build. These reports misrepresent the purpose and nature of RS Means data. This industry database provides a valuable but very limited reference point for those in the industry familiar with how to use it. The data is not intended as a comprehensive baseline for what buildings should cost. RS Means themselves notes that their costs must be adjusted for owner requirements.
The table below provides examples of some of the differences between the RS Means reference model and what Judicial Council staff must budget for in California trial courthouses.
|RS Means Model Assumes||Judicial Council Budgets Must Factor In|
|2–3 story building||
|No holding areas||
|No allowance for seismic requirements or other aspects of building code||
|Very simple construction methods; no allowance for blast resistance||
No allowance for sustainability features
|No allowance for equipment, such as
Other factors in California that RS Means does not adequately reflect include other state legal and regulatory requirements, such as insurance, environmental requirements, and prevailing wage requirements.
Judicial Council staff asked professional associations and cost-estimating experts for their opinions of the applicability of RS Means to California courthouse construction costs. The consensus was that the RS Means cost model is inadequate as a benchmark for actual courthouse construction budgets in California. Here are sample responses:
“AGC of California, the largest general contractor association in California, surveyed its members regarding the construction costs of courthouses built in California. The cost histories were based on factual data. Those histories, on projects which were procured and built in a competitive environment (none were negotiated), point toward a construction cost of at least $550 per square foot for California courthouses in the current, highly competitive market” --Tom Holsman, CEO, Associated General Contractors of California
"The RS Means square foot cost for a court building represents a base model specification. It does not represent an historic cost of an actual courthouse. For an accurate and comprehensive construction budget, one needs to add excluded scope, code requirements, site costs, and higher program requirements, such as for security, as well as government mandates. Our analysis indicates that those factors more than tripled the Means reference cost."
--Bill Rodgers, Managing Principal, Cumming
California courthouse construction costs average
As of July 1, 2012, the average construction cost of new courthouses for California trial courts is $591 per square foot. This figure excludes the line item for furniture, fixtures, and equipment. This average is based on actual costs for completed projects and authorized budgets for projects either in construction or appropriated by the Legislature for working drawings and construction. Figures have been normalized to a common point in time.
In light of the state’s budget crisis, the Judicial Council has directed court construction budget reductions, so this figure is subject to change. More about courthouse construction budgets
How courthouse construction budgets are created
Before each California courthouse project was authorized by the executive and legislative branches, Judicial Council staff worked with the local court to develop a detailed space plan that would drive building sizing. Independent, professional cost estimators then prepared construction budgets based on the size and location of each building and its specific requirements. The estimators took into account relevant local considerations, such as labor costs and any special conditions, such as building in dense city centers or remote mountain areas. The budgets were also based on Judicial Council design standards that call for building materials and systems that will last at least 50 years with periodic renewal in an environment of heavy public use.
To date, the Judicial Council has completed 10 courthouse projects. These range from projects jointly funded by counties, to renovation projects, to brand-new construction, so their budgets have ranged widely. These successful projects, many of them award-winning, are the best demonstration of the professionalism of the Judicial Council's deeply experienced courthouse construction staff.
Listed below are a few of the courthouse projects that the Judicial Council has completed start to finish. All have been completed on budget, and all are highly functional, secure, durable, energy-efficient buildings that have vastly improved operations for the courts who occupy them.
Courthouse Courtrooms Construction Cost Per Square Foot* Notes Richard E. Arnason Justice Center, Pittsburg 7 $576 Completed in 2010 B. F. Sisk Renovation, Fresno 15 $304 Completed in 2010 Lassen-Susanville 3 $590 Completed in 2012
* Updated based on final costs at project completion.
Cost reduction efforts are ongoing
Since 2009, more than $1.7 billion of funds generated by the court system specifically for court construction have been borrowed, swept, or redirected to soften the impact of unprecedented cuts to court operations budgets. Under the leadership of the Chief Justice, the Court Facilities Advisory Committee was formed in July 2011 to oversee the facilities program. In light of the state's budget crisis, one of the committee's first recommmendations to the Judicial Council was to mandate construction budget reductions. A cost-reduction subcommittee now regularly reviews project budgets for cost-cutting opportunities that could reasonably be made without compromising safety, security, or basic functionality. To date, the subcommittee has identified more than $123 million in savings.