Frequently Asked Questions: Court Construction Costs

What is included in the Judicial Council’s courthouse project budgets?

For full transparency, the Judicial Council reports total project budgets, which include far more than construction. Other elements beyond construction are:

  1. The cost of land and costs related to land acquisition, such as appraisals, title exams, environmental impact studies, and legal fees.
  2. Soft costs, such as architectural and engineering design and project management.
  3. Furniture, fixtures, and equipment.
  4. An estimated cost of escalation over time. The Judicial Council currently budgets construction cost escalation at 5 percent per year, to the midpoint of a construction. This escalation figure is set by the state executive branch. Because escalation represents such a significant element of overall cost, it is inappropriate to compare raw construction costs from projects completed several years ago with those planned for the future without applying an escalation factor.

Certain elements of project costs can vary widely depending on location. Land costs vary widely in California markets. Construction materials and labor costs at prevailing wage also vary by locale.

How are these budgets developed?

Before each California courthouse project was authorized by the executive and legislative branches, the Judicial Council worked with the local court to develop a detailed space plan that drives 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.

Who approves the budgets?

Each California courthouse project receives extensive oversight from within the judicial branch and from both the executive and legislative branches. The Judicial Council oversees the capital program, and its Court Facilities Advisory Committee provides ongoing review of Judicial Council staff work and makes recommendations to the council about project prioritization and cost reductions.

Each project budget undergoes numerous other reviews by the executive branch and the legislature as the project proceeds through site acquisition, design, and construction. All changes in project scope and budget must be approved by the executive branch, and some must also be approved by the Legislature.

Also, because of the state’s budget crisis, $1.5 billion in court construction funds have been borrowed, swept to the General Fund, or redirected to court operations. As a result, numerous courthouse projects have had to be delayed. To keep the program moving forward on much-reduced funding, all planned courthouse projects are undergoing construction budget reductions directed by the Judicial Council.

What about costs per square foot?

Most dollar-per-square foot figures in the construction industry reflect construction costs only.  That’s why it is incorrect to use total project budgets to calculate costs per square foot.

California courthouse construction budgets have been validated by outside experts, and, as noted above, undergo several authorizations as the project proceeds. In addition, all projects are currently undergoing cost-reduction mandates of the Judicial Council. For more information about the Judicial Council capital program's construction costs per square foot, please see this Fact Check.