Civic & Government, Justice

San Diego Central Courthouse

The new 71-courtroom, high-rise building provides the local community with a larger more modern facility offering greater security. The previous courthouse, 48 years old, posed security and ongoing maintenance issues.

The new Superior Court of California San Diego consolidates San Diego County’s criminal trial, family, civil, and probate courts into a 24-story downtown tower. The building advances the high-rise court house typology with a design that allows for critical future flexibilities through a carefully designed structural system. In the spirit of civic buildings with a strong but accommodating presence, the design integrates this formal repertoire with a language of robust subtractive massing that encloses a secure and welcoming interior.

The courthouse comprises a tower and podium clad in precast concrete, as well as a public plaza. Located on a former brownfield at the intersection of Union and C Streets, the project is designed as a catalyst for an emerging government district.

The first four levels of the courthouse support high volume functions of the court, including arraignment courts, misdemeanor courts, offices, and a 500 person jury assembly hall. These functions are serviced by a cascading stair and escalator along a three-story lobby.

On its exterior, the courthouse features a distinctive soffit at its crown. With shaped aluminum panel sections, the soffit shades the building during the morning hours. It also captures and dynamically reflects southern and western light back onto the underside of the structure's surface. Both practical and symbolic, this luminous design feature celebrates the San Diego skyline.

Working with the client, the project team delivered on several key owner objectives, including:

— Flexible, adaptable spaces. The client desired a building that could easily adapt to meet future needs. For example, the design of the family, probate, and civil courts is identical to the criminal trial courts, with the exception of the jury box. This allows the criminal courts to be converted to family or civil courts. Also, the jury deliberation rooms are sized to be convertible to judicial chambers, and the business offices in the podium feature large open floor plans for future programmatic evolution.

— Landmark design that celebrates the skyline. While not the city’s tallest building, the courthouse is among its most distinctive high-rises, with its angular, monolithic form topped with a distinguishing canopy structure that shades its east façade. Shaped aluminum panels form the soffit for the canopy and are arranged to capture and reflect southern and western light back onto the underside of the structure’s surface. This design feature gives the courthouse a bold civic identity within the skyline and “celebrates the unique light of San Diego,” say its designers.

— Enhanced seismic design. After evaluating several structural options, the team selected a solution that was both cost effective and would meet the client’s “enhanced” seismic performance objective. The structural system consists of a cost-efficient steel-framed superstructure with two-way lateral special moment frames that incorporate 106 nonlinear viscous damping devices (VDD). The VDDs were placed along the height of the structure, from level six to the roof, with four to six VDDs at each level. The viscous dampers provide a distributed supplemental energy dissipating damping system over the height of the structure to reduce seismically induced building story shears, story drifts, floor accelerations, and inelastic rotational demands on moment frame beam-column joints. They are also effective in providing damping for wind loads.


“Our extensive experience in high-rise construction in earthquake-prone California along with our exceptional ability to build structures of superior quality on time and on budget are a few of the reasons we were awarded this project.”

Martin Sisemore President and CEO Rudolph and Sletten
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