Multnomah County Central Courthouse reaches 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 seventeenth floors where courtrooms will be located.
While construction is still underway on the topmost two floors, the lower floors are already receiving finishing touches. Jury seats and adjustable tables for lawyers and their clients are in place 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 seventeenth 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 light 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 floor 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 containment 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 slowing 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.
The 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 two of three 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 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.
A team effort
Project: Multnomah County Central Courthouse
Owner: Multnomah County
Owner's representative: DAY CPM
Architects: SRG Partnership (lead architect),RicciGreene Architects, Studio Petretti (Jefferson Station interior)
Prime engineers: Interface Engineering, KPFF Consulting Engineers
Construction manager-general contractor: Hoffman Construction
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