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 the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) must budget for in California trial courthouses.
|RS Means Model Assumes||AOC 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.
The AOC 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
More information: white paper on courthouse construction costs in California
California courthouse construction costs average
The average construction budget for the most recently budgeted California courthouse projects is $587 per square foot. This figure excludes construction cost escalation and the line item for other furniture, fixtures, and equipment. More about courthouse construction budgets.
How courthouse construction budgets are created
Before each California courthouse project was authorized by the executive and legislative branches, the AOC 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 AOC has completed eight courthouse projects. These range from projects jointly funded by counties, to renovation projects, to brand-new construction, so their budgets have ranged widely.
Listed below are courthouse projects that the AOC 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|
|California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Santa Ana||1||$422||Completed in 2009|
|Richard E. Arnason Justice Center, Pittsburg||7||$520||Completed in 2010|
|B. F. Sisk Renovation, Fresno||15||$301||Completed in 2010|
|Mammoth Lakes Courthouse||2||$637||Completed in 2011|
|Plumas-Sierra Courthouse||1||$651||Completed in 2009|
Cost reduction efforts are ongoing
Since 2009, more than $1 billion of funding generated by the court system specifically for courthouse construction has 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 Working Group was formed in July 2011 to oversee the facilities program. The working group is moving quickly and taking a hard look at costs, given current and future resource limits.
The working group's first recommendations to the Judicial Council, adopted at the council's December meeting, have already identified over $200 million in one-time savings. Meanwhile, the working group is forming a courthouse cost-reduction subcommittee that will review project budgets for other cost-cutting opportunities that could reasonably be made without compromising safety, security, or basic functionality.