Monday, August 24, 2009
Courthouse Work Wrapping Up
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
Some courts have slogans like "Equal justice under law" — the words chiseled onto the lintel at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
But for the New Mexico Court of Appeals, one slogan is equally apt: "Timing is everything."
"We got our money just in the nick of time," said Cynthia Fry, chief judge of the state's 10-member intermediary court. The court's new $15 million building is in the final stages of construction. It is the first new statewide courthouse New Mexico has constructed since the Depression, when the charming but cramped state Supreme Court building was built under the Works Progress Administration.
The 17 staff attorneys and five judges working in Albuquerque are expected to move in by the end of October. The court's official seat remains in Santa Fe; the new building offers more breathing space for everybody.
It was work by then-Chief Judge Michael Bustamante started five years ago that ensured the state appropriations were in place and the land lease from the University of New Mexico was in hand before the economy took a nose dive.
The result is an impressive three-story structure with eco-friendly features that should earn it a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Design) certification.
It features abundant natural light throughout, including bamboo paneling and a skylight in the sole courtroom. A pair of classrooms with one-way glass flank the double doors to the courtroom, so students from the UNM School of Law next door can watch and discuss oral arguments before the court. Proximity to the law school offered other benefits, such as not having to spend $2 million to $3 million on a law library.
A light well cuts through the upper stories. Some areas, such as the north-facing stairwell overlooking the University of New Mexico North Golf Course, are partitioned by glass walls to capitalize on natural light.
Budget concerns prompted the building commission to trim some items, such as the travertine facing featured in the initial design by NCA Architects of Albuquerque. The downturn in the economy, however, worked to the court's advantage. The price of steel dipped, allowing the travertine to come back in.
And the "green" roof that was to be a signal feature of the design was "value-engineered" (read: cut) out of the plans when the budget looked tight.
"As things shook out, we were able to do it," Bustamante said. "This will be the first sizable green roof in the state, so it's really an experiment to see how it works."
The second-story roof, which is covered with a heavy membrane, will channel water to an 8,000-gallon subterranean cistern. Water will then be pumped back up to sustain the drought-tolerant plants that form a sort of xeriscaped garden.
"I want this building to be useful as a courthouse 100 years from now," Bustamante said, "since the state only builds one a century."