Central Courthouse project heads into final stretch
In November 2018, the new Multnomah County Central Courthouse had just topped out.
A little more than one year later, the $324.5 million project is getting down to the details.
From the bottom to the top, interior work is reaching the point where a visitor can begin to imagine what the new 17-story tower and renovated three-level Jefferson Station building on the site at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge will look like once construction is complete in five or six months.
Defining the details
During construction of the courthouse tower, interior work has progressed mainly from the ground up on the seventh through 17th floors where courtrooms will be located.
While construction is still underway on the topmost two floors, the lower floors already are receiving finishing touches. Jury seats and adjustable tables for lawyers and their clients are in place. Oversized screens that will be used for cases when witnesses or defendants can't physically be in the courtroom are in place on a wall. Computer monitors for judges and court staff are being unboxed
Acoustics in the courtrooms are paramount, according to Hoffman project manager Josh Durham.
In an average room with 12-foot-high ceilings, a hand clap would cause an echo. That same sound in one of the courtrooms in the central courthouse, however, is strangely abrupt. The reason is a series of acoustic features designed to create the quietest environment possible.
Instead of overhead vents displacing air in a downward direction, air enters each courtroom through grilled sections in the walls on either side of the room, eliminating the usual "whoosh" sound.
The ventless ceilings are covered in acoustic tiles to absorb sound. Reverberations also are reduced courtesy of perforated drywall at the back of each courtroom, above the main entry area. The side walls also feature sound-absorbing material behind wood slats placed about an inch or so apart, allowing the grooves to expose the material.
The result is an environment that almost eliminates unimportant or distracting sounds while amplifying the important ones, like witness testimonies.
"You can stand in opposite corners of the room and have a conversation," Durham said.
While the components for all courtrooms are consistent, there are some differences among the floors.
The ninth through 17th levels all feature identical floor layouts: four courtrooms laid out with two on the north side of the building and two on the south side of the building, with holding cells in the middle. The southern end courtrooms feature windows along the Jefferson Street side of the building that flood the rooms with daylight. The north side courtrooms lack the large windows but feature clerestory windows above the main entry doors. Those windows pull in abundant daylight from the public hallway areas, which feature floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the Willamette River, Hawthorne Bridge and Tilikum Crossing, and the city's east side.
The floor configuration and courtroom sizes vary on the seventh and eighth floors. The seventh floor holds a single large courtroom for the presiding judge on the north side and public defender office space on the south end, along with public defender offices.
The eighth floor has been designed and configured so that it can be used for civil commitment cases. There are only two courtrooms, allowing for larger holding rooms. The bigger spaces, outfitted with cushioned walls and painted in a blue-green hue proven to create a calming effect, are designed to accommodate inmates who may be dealing with mental health issues.
Each courtroom floor also contains a secured area with offices for judges. The judges have already toured the building intending to pick out their courtrooms and office locations.
"I was here when they came through," Durham said. "It was cool to hear their comments."
Stopping by the Station
While the number of workers is slowly scaling back in the courthouse tower, construction is still in full swing in another part of the project site.
Jefferson Station, a 100-year-old former power substation building on the corner of Southwest First Avenue and Jefferson Street, is being incorporated into the central courthouse project.
Multnomah County initially had considered demolishing the building and filling the entire block with a tower, but then decided to keep the older structure for several reasons.
Demolishing the entire historic building would have pushed the timeline for the project out to the end of 2021, instead of the anticipated finish this year, Mike Pullen, a spokesman for Multnomah County, said.
Keeping the lower-profile building also allowed the design team to create a taller L-shaped main structure around the Jefferson Station portion, which has provided more light to the interior of the tower, Pullen said.
Two original sides of the Jefferson station building were retained. The other two walls were taken down, and the entire building was gutted, which offered the project team a glimpse into how buildings were constructed in the early 1900s.
"There were some interesting decisions they made back then that we wouldn't do now," Durham said.
The demolition also provided some insight into the types of materials used roughly a century ago. Modern-day rebar, used to add strength and support to concrete, is round with raised circular ribbing. The rebar uncovered during the demolition of concrete in the building, however, was flat and thin. Instead of the ribbing, each piece had a spade-shaped piece of iron attached along the length every few inches.
"It looked almost like a spear," Durham said.
Even as a new interior is created, evidence of the building's past has been carefully preserved. Because the structure is concrete masonry, it had to be seismically upgraded. Crews built a new structural wall that meets modern-day codes inside the building's original exterior, but original brick still shows through. A ceiling crane has been preserved, although the piece of equipment was moved from the front edge of the structure toward the center and a new rail was installed.
When construction in Jefferson Station is completed, the building will contain high-volume courts that will handle small claims and traffic cases, a day-care drop in center, and lower-level bike storage and showers for courthouse employees.
The first three stories of the new tower also are works in progress.
On the third level, an area that previously was used for materials, is being prepared for transformation into an assembly area for future jurors. Meanwhile, a central security checkpoint area is filling in, the grand staircase awaits its metal and glass, and a radiant heating system is being installed in the floor of the lobby area. Similar systems have been installed in the floors of the public hallways on the courtroom floors.
The lower three levels were designed to give the impression of a single, continuous yet multilayered space, Durham said.
"When you enter, you can see through the building from east to west," he added. "Once you go through (the main security checkpoint), there's a straight line of vision where (people) will need to go."
In addition to being visually connected, the levels also feature a similar design element: generous columns with unique wood-grain surface patterns, resulting in the impression of trees rising in a Pacific Northwest forest. While the columns are concrete, the exterior patterns are the deliberate imprint left behind by board forms that were made from cedar wood.
The 60-foot height of the columns caused more than a little head-scratching when it came to pouring the concrete, Durham told the Business Tribune. To avoid cracks or gaps, the first 20 feet of concrete were pumped from the bottom of the forms. When the concrete couldn't be pushed up any further, it was pumped in from a higher point. The end result, a smooth textured finish, is a tribute to a determined and persistent effort to find a solution.
"It took us about a year to figure that out," Durham said with a chuckle.
See something, say something
Construction isn't the only thing that will wrap up at the Multnomah County Central Courthouse site by the time summer arrives. Since the project broke ground, Hoffman Construction, as the construction manager-general contractor, has used the central courthouse as the project-of-choice for a test run of a national program called Green Dot.
The program, which uses a "see something, say something" approach to stopping instances of bullying, harassment or hazing, was created for use on college campuses before being adopted on military bases. The courthouse project marks the first time the program has been used on a construction project.
As far as Hoffman is concerned, it won't be the last, according to project manager Justin Paterson.
While Hoffman has taken the lead on implementing the Green Dot program on the courthouse project, the undertaking was the result of support from the county, Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry and others, Paterson said
The nonprofit group Alteristic, which licenses the program, provided initial training to Paterson and others at Hoffman. Then it was up to Paterson and his team to figure out how to adjust the basic program to fit the unique parameters — and needs — of a construction site.
"Our job after … being trained by Green Dot trainers was to finalize that curriculum environment," Paterson said. "We needed to add our piece of how to turn it into a (program) for a vertical construction environment.
"We asked ourselves a lot of questions. How does this work in terms of the timing? How do you get the people together on a large construction project like this? What's the right number of people to give the training versus more of a program that we roll out to everyone?"
On college campuses and military bases where Green Dot is in effect, the program teaches bystanders to step up and speak up when they see instances of harassment, bullying or hazing. At its peak, the courthouse project had between 350 and 400 workers associated with different subcontractors on site. Hoffman's team knew it wasn't reasonable or feasible to have everyone go through the full training.
Instead, Paterson and his team went out to the project and identified what he calls "key social influencers."
"(A social influencer) isn't necessarily the foreman," Paterson said. "They are people whom other people are watching. (The plan was to) go out in the field, find the social influencers on every crew, get them on board, and then get them to work with us on making this something that's cool do. If you can get those people on board, then you get some momentum.
Those key social influencers each received about 90 minutes of the program's "bystander" training, including learning skills to respond to incidents of bullying, hazing or harassment that they might feel crossed a line. They then incorporated aspects of the training into their morning safety "toolbox" talks with their crews. Among the topics were how to identify inappropriate behavior and how workers could respond to incidents.
While the Green Dot program is designed to provide support for people who see harassment or bullying and provide opportunities to report it to management, it also offers ways to nip those situations in the bud before they escalate. Hoffman also incorporated another aspect of the basic Green Dot program into its pilot version, encouraging each person involved to use their standards for defining and determining behaviors that are offensive or cross the line.
"If you make this a mandatory thing … it loses its cache," Paterson said. "It's no longer something that's selective, and it just becomes another 'check the box." That's not what this is. This is very grassroots, and it relies on those social influencers to make this the new norm."
Josh Durham, a Hoffman project manager on the central Courthouse project, feels the Green Dot program had a positive impact.
Before working on the courthouse, Durham had worked on other similarly sized projects. At most, he would hear concern from one person. During the courthouse work, though, Durham had five or six people approach him to talk, mostly about how they reacted to minor situations they encountered.
Paterson also had workers on the courthouse project approach him, often just to share their experiences.
"People came to us and said, 'At lunch I had this thing happen, and it crossed my line, and here's how I handled it.' That's what green dot is," Paterson said. "It's not meant to be just another reporting system. The community is working it out … it's more hearing stories of people out there moving the needle on their own."
Hoffman plans to continue using its version of the Green Dot program, Paterson said. The company is already looking at future projects to see which ones might be the best fit for the program, with the understanding that the program can't be applied with a one-size-fits-all mindset. That's something Paterson recommends other contractors keep in mind if they're considering using Green Dot or even creating an in-house program.
"Ultimately, what works for this project won't necessarily work for every project out there," Paterson said. "Everyone's going to have to put their own stamp on it."
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