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Transparency for the process of justice’ at Miami Federal Courthouse

“Transparency for the process of justice, literally and metaphorically, lots of natural light inside, extensive views of the Biscayne Bay and a feeling of openness” is what Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica says his firm wanted for Miami’s new federal courthouse, which is part of the U.S. General Services Administration’s “Design Excellence” program.

In spite of Miami’s tough hurricane codes and the substantial security risks that must be taken into account with the design of government buildings throughout the world today (in this case requiring impact resistance from potential bomb blasts and from hurricanes to be engineered into the glazing), Arquitectonica achieved its design goals through the use of extensive, point-fixed facades of insulating laminated glass incorporating DuPont™ SentryGlas® structural interlayer.

The design of the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse would have been a gigantic and ambitious architectural undertaking in any event. A 60,000 m2 space with 14 courtrooms covering two city blocks, it is one of the largest federal courthouses in the USA.

Arquitectonica’s founding principal, Bernardo Fort-Brescia, said: “Despite – or perhaps because of – the Miami Courthouse’s imposing scale, we wanted to underline the concept of transparency for the process of justice, literally and metaphorically in our design for this project. We also wanted lots of natural light inside and extensive views of the ocean and nature in all its beauty.”

Safety and security have been primary objectives in the design of government buildings throughout the world since 9/11; in the USA, this has been a major concern since the Oklahoma bombing.

Fort-Brescia said: “Despite the security concerns, we wanted people inside the courthouse to feel more comfortable than people do in United States courthouses constructed in previous decades; one thinks of long, claustrophobic, almost guilt-inducing, window-less corridors and barricaded courtrooms. We wanted as much natural light in the building as possible.”  

The Miami Courthouse’s fourteen courtrooms are stacked on top of each other. Arquitectonica’s design, with extensive skylighting, means that natural daylight penetrates each of the courtrooms.

Fort-Brescia continued: “Research has proven that natural daylight makes people inside the building feel better, more relaxed and more comfortable. We wanted people who were maybe spending many hours waiting to be called, or who were working on lengthy cases, to lose their sense of time, to relax. We wanted the judges and legal staff, the defendants and their families to benefit from extensive, multi-storey glass facades giving great views east to the Biscayne Bay and west towards the Florida Everglades.”

He continued: “To meet the two over-riding requirements of security and openness, laminated glass was the solution. Because we had to build both bomb-blast resistance and hurricane impact resistance into the building, laminated glass met both of these needs at once.”

As architects facing the challenge of building projects in hurricane or typhoon zones know, the true danger to glass in buildings is not the wind or rain itself, but the flying debris such as bits of detached drainpipes or roofing – even coconuts – which is blown around at terrific speeds and which can impact the glass at great force with critical consequences.

Fort-Brescia said: “We know that the laminated glass we used has been tested very thoroughly in laboratories and has passed stringent testing that meets Florida’s toughest hurricane codes.

“All of the glass used in the Miami Courthouse is insulating laminated glass. The insulated portion of the glass construction helps with the thermal properties of the building, as does the tint in the outer lite of the glass. In other words, the insulated laminated glass construction we used protects people inside the Courthouse from Miami’s hot sunshine and tropical climate.”

He concluded: “If I could sum up what we wanted architecturally for the Miami Federal Courthouse it would be three things. First, ‘The message of the building’ – that is, from the outside you see this monumental building that is a United States Courthouse but that it feels inviting and friendly, not intimidating. You have this feeling of equity and balance because of the way the architecture has been balanced across the two city blocks.

“Second, we wanted people to have a good experience while they are in the courthouse. Despite all the security that is built into the building we wanted them to always be conscious of the exterior world. We wanted a strong sense of openness and the nearby Bay to permeate the building. We wanted people to never leave the daylight, for nature to make them feel as comfortable as possible at all times.

“Third is the solution we found to combine the openness we wanted with safety and security; laminated glass was absolutely essential to the building of the Miami Courthouse. It provides blast resistance against terrorist bombs and Florida hurricanes. It prevents the build-up of radiant heat. It opens up the building aesthetically and visually – safely - and it ensures that the building looks majestic and yet does not feel intimidating. Miami’s courthouse could not have been built as it is today without laminated glass!”

Arquitectonica worked with the Miami office of Helmut, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), which was the associate architect on the Miami Courthouse.

Sara Theis of global glass fabricator Viracon confirmed: “We supplied 18 different laminated glass make-ups for the Miami Courthouse in a great variety of applications - from skylights to facades. For the main vertical façade (30 feet and under) we supplied insulating laminated glass with SentryGlas® for large missile resistance, including a Solarscreen® VE-52 coating with a green tint for thermal performance. For small missile requirements, the laminated glass incorporated a PVB interlayer.”

DuPont™ SentryGlas® offers five times the tear strength and 100 times the stiffness of traditional interlayers for laminated glass, plus higher clarity, better edge stability and weathering performance, and 99 percent blockage of the UV rays that damage fabrics and furnishings.