A layout unique to Jeffersonian courtrooms posed interesting design challenges to audiovisual and acoustic engineers Thorburn Associates, Inc. in the restoration/expansion of the Madison County Courthouse in Madison, Virginia, which houses the Madison Circuit Court of the state’s 16th Judicial Circuit. The project is slated for completion around the end of the year.
“Like most of the judicial facilities our company has designed for, the Madison County Courthouse called for a combination of sound recording, sound reinforcement, and video display,” says Thorburn Associates’ Senior Consultant Lance Sturdevant, CTS-D. “But the layout of the main courtroom here is quite different from what people generally expect. The jury box is located directly in front of the judge’s bench facing into the room, and the witness stands at a podium facing the judge and jury (instead of sitting to the judge’s left). Hiding the audio system components in this space was relatively simple, but video systems presented a special challenge.”
“The sightlines for projectors or other visual aids presented some unique circumstances to design around,” concurs Eric W. Amtmann, AIA, partner with Dalgliesh Gilpin Paxton, PLLC Architects, which brought Thorburn Associates onto the project. “The boilerplate solution for a courtroom didn’t fit. This is Thomas Jefferson’s courtroom layout and you only find it in Virginia.”
Thorburn Associates’ design locates microphones for recording and speech reinforcement at the normal positions (judge, witness and counsel tables). As in all courtrooms, attorneys occasionally get up and address the jury directly. Small, surface-mounted microphones will be mounted in the railing in front of the jury box to pick up the voices of these wandering attorneys. The ability to record court sessions is also provided, via an automatic microphone mixer/DSP (digital signal processor) plus a wall-mounted audio connector.
For the video display, small, individual monitors were considered but would have cluttered the “old world” look of the Jeffersonian design. Two large, wall-mounted, flat panel displays were also proposed, but one would have blocked a new window that the architect had carefully placed near the front of the room. Thorburn Associates’ ultimate design solution was a large, fixed wall-mounted projection screen at one side of the room, and a wall-mounted video projector on the opposite wall, providing very good sightlines for judge, jury and counsel tables, and for most observers in the gallery. A 23-foot high ceiling prevented a more typical, ceiling-mounted, recessed motorized projection screen.
Now under construction, the finished project will add a total 15,020 square feet to the facility’s core 3,260 square feet. Thorburn Associates provided audiovisual and acoustical design for the new construction spaces as well.
“The court needs to be able to conduct proceedings that are undisturbed by noise outside of the room, and have good audio intelligibility within the room,” notes Amtmann. Thorburn Associates’ design includes ADA hearing assist systems and sound-dampening material that simulates the look of a plaster ceiling, plus suggestions for mounting equipment and insulating ductwork. Thorburn Associates will oversee and approve the installation of these systems when they take place near the end of the construction phase.
“Thorburn Associates was very adept at meeting our particular design needs on this unique and challenging project,” testifies Amtmann. “There are all kinds of things you encounter in an historic courtroom project and you need to do things in a sensitive way. They were successful in that, proposing various options for how to make things work. They were good at staying within the budget, too: We had a contract and they followed it.”
“This has been a remarkable project and we look forward to seeing the finished result,” says Thorburn Associates Principal Steven J. Thorburn, PE, CTS-D, CTS-I. “As audiovisual technology system consultants, we often have to wait two or three years for our designs to come to fruition. We believe that this particular courtroom project will be worth the wait.”