The new old Ottawa County Courthouse

February 16, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The cupola on top of the new Ottawa County Courthouse under construction in Grand Haven looks just like those on many majestic courthouses built in 19th century America. In fact, the entire exterior style will resemble the original courthouse built there around the 1880s. But there won't be any pigeons in this cupola, the granite isn't real granite, and the old-fashioned “slate” roof isn't really slate.

The new $21 million courthouse, scheduled to be completed in June, was actually designed to resemble the original 1800s courthouse that was on the site, said Tom Smith, a vice president at Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber architecture/design firm in Grand Rapids.

But here's the kicker: "It will be a LEED-certified building," added Smith.

Smith, who is the FTCH project manager of the new courthouse, said the sloping portion of the roof on the four-story, 120,000-square-foot building is LEED-certified, artificial slate tiles made partially from recycled rubber tires.

About 20 percent of the roof is flat, where there will be a "green roof" from LiveRoof LLC, a subsidiary of Hortech Inc. in Spring Lake. A green roof has small succulent plants growing in trays to retain storm runoff and absorb heat buildup from the sun.

Like the original Ottawa County Courthouse, which was replaced in 1965 by the existing courthouse, the upper walls of the new structure are red brick above a massive base of granite — but the granite is actually a form of cement formulated to look like granite, said Smith.

Some of the interior floors are bamboo. Because it is a fast-growing plant, bamboo products are in the sustainable category, earning more LEED points. Other areas are fitted with carpet tiles made from recycled carpet. Window sills and countertops are made from a hard material that incorporates particles of recycled glass.

"The cupola on the building actually houses mechanical equipment that helps ventilate the attic," said Smith.

The new courthouse is located on Washington Avenue in the heart of Grand Haven. The peak of the cupola on the new building is about 120 feet above the ground and is visible from Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, more than a mile away, according to Craig Willison, construction manager at the site for Owen-Ames-Kimball, the general contractor.

Smith said the goal for this project "was LEED certification, and that involves using recyclable materials and recycling a lot of content on site from construction debris and such, and we're on track to be LEED certified."

The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System developed by the U.S. Green Building Council sets measurable goals for design and construction. In general, the goals are to minimize energy use and negative impact on the environment, and safeguard the health of individuals using the building.

Interior paints used in the courthouse are low in VOCs, which can be hazardous to health in high concentrations. The traditional smell of fresh paint is generally due to VOCs, noted Smith.

"I walk through this building weekly," Smith said in early January, "and they have been doing a lot of painting lately. For the amount of wall surface that's being painted, you walk through the building and you don't smell anything."

The existing courthouse next to the new one will be torn down this summer and a new parking lot put on that site, but it will be "green" too, according to Smith. Normally runoff from parking lots goes directly into storm drains, but this one will have a gravel retention bed under it to store runoff, releasing it gradually to the storm drains. Overflows from sudden, heavy runoff are often too much for municipal sewage systems to handle.

Although it will be LEED certified, the new courthouse won't qualify for a higher LEED rating such as silver or gold.

"To get into the higher areas of LEED certification requires some more exotic mechanical systems, and that just didn’t fit the county's budget," said Smith.

He added that with a good design and experts who are familiar with LEED goals, "you can achieve LEED certification on a project if you set your mind to it, without blowing the budget."

Smith said the design originally called for a standing-seam metal roof on the sloping part of the roof, but two problems became apparent. Although it would last a long time, a metal roof is "fairly expensive," said Smith, and accumulated snow tends to slide off a sloping metal roof like an avalanche.

"With such a large building and with so much snow in Grand Haven, we were very concerned about snow flying off this building," he said, which could threaten people or damage property below.

Smith said they also considered a higher-end asphalt shingle, which would have cost less but wouldn't last as long. Along with front-end costs, lifecycle costs must also be considered, "especially on a building of this magnitude. And with all governments being strapped for cash, they don't want to have to turn around 15 years from now and replace the roof," he said.

The portion of the roof with the simulated slate shingles cost $250,000, according to Lou Stein, vice president of Modern Roofing in Dorr, which installed the entire roof. The simulated slate is called Lamarite Slate, from Tamko, a Missouri company. Stein said about 50 percent of the material is recycled tires; the rest is a colorized polymer. Lamarite Slate has been on the market for about 12 or 14 years, said Stein, adding that it has a 50-year warranty. A key advantage is the light weight, compared to real slate, which requires a substantial support structure under it.

One aspect of LEED construction is the energy cost entailed in production and shipment of building materials. Real slate and granite are heavy natural minerals that would have to be quarried and then shipped a long distance, which might count against LEED certification.

The new courthouse has extensive security features, including a holding cell to accommodate prisoners who are there for legal proceedings, and a drive-in "sally port" where prisoners enter and leave the building. There are also electronic "dockets," which Smith described as flat LCD screens mounted outside each courtroom that help the public find their way around.

FTCH worked on design of the courtrooms and other interiors with assistance from the Chicago office of HDR Inc., an architectural, engineering and consulting firm based in Omaha.

Both Smith and Willison said one of the biggest challenges was the lack of space. The existing and the new courthouse, plus a prisoner detention facility and parking areas, occupy one city block — and the existing courthouse has to function as usual until the day all the courthouse employees move over into the new one. One end of the new courthouse "is five feet from the end of the existing courthouse — pretty tight," said Smith. Temporary stairs had to be built to maintain access into the existing courthouse.

Smith said the people of Grand Haven wanted a new courthouse that reflects the history of the city at the mouth of Michigan's biggest river. The first settlers' dwellings in 1833 were on the Grand River at the foot of Washington Street, only three blocks from the rise where the county courthouse has stood for many generations.

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