Fact Check: Courthouse Construction Costs

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
  • Planned courthouses vary widely from single story with basement to mid-rise and high-rise buildings, which affects such cost elements as structural supports and elevators
No basement
  • Basements are used frequently for secure transfer of in-custody defendants and secure parking for judicial officials
  • Basements require site work that is not included in the RS Means model
No holding areas
  • Holding areas are necessary for the vast majority of the courthouses we are building.
  • Judicial Council design standards must meet requirements of the state's Corrections Standards Authority
  • Holding areas contribute significantly to square foot costs
No allowance for seismic requirements or other aspects of building code
  • Stringent seismic requirements in California add as much as 15% to structure and exterior construction costs
Very simple construction methods; no allowance for blast resistance
  • Security features such as blast resistance are part of the Judicial Council design standards

No allowance for sustainability features

  • Inexpensive HVAC and electrical systems in the RS Means model do not meet California's Title 24 Building Standards Code for energy efficiency
  • All state buildings must meet the LEED Silver rating of the U.S Green Building Council; this may add to initial costs but makes buildings cheaper to operate in the long run
No allowance for equipment, such as

  • Life safety/emergency equipment, such as smoke detectors and emergency lighting
  • Data/communications
  • Audiovisual
  • These items are included in AOC budgets

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 opinions from professional associations and cost-estimating firms

More information:  white paper on courthouse construction costs in California

California courthouse construction costs average
As of July 1, 2012, the average construction cost of new courthouses for California trial courts is $591 per square foot. This figure excludes the line item for furniture, fixtures, and equipment. This average is based on actual costs for completed projects and authorized budgets for projects either in construction or appropriated by the Legislature for working drawings and construction. Figures have been normalized to a common point in time.

In light of the state’s budget crisis, the Judicial Council has directed court construction budget reductions, so this figure is subject to change. 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.

Completed projects
To date, the AOC has completed 10 courthouse projects. These range from projects jointly funded by counties, to renovation projects, to brand-new construction, so their budgets have ranged widely. These successful projects, many of them award-winning, are the best demonstration of the professionalism of the AOC's deeply experienced courthouse construction staff.

Listed below are a few of the 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
Richard E. Arnason Justice Center, Pittsburg 7 $576 Completed in 2010
B. F. Sisk Renovation, Fresno 15 $304

Completed in 2010
Lassen-Susanville 3 $590 Completed in 2012

* Updated based on final costs at project completion.

Cost reduction efforts are ongoing
Since 2009, more than $1.7 billion of funds generated by the court system specifically for court construction have 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 Advisory Committee was formed in July 2011 to oversee the facilities program. In light of the state's budget crisis, one of the committee's first recommmendations to the Judicial Council was to mandate construction budget reductions.  A cost-reduction subcommittee now regularly reviews project budgets for cost-cutting opportunities that could reasonably be made without compromising safety, security, or basic functionality.  To date, the subcommittee has identified more than $123 million in savings. 

Updated August 2013

Site Map | Careers | Contact Us | Accessibility | Public Access to Records | Terms of Use | Privacy