ACT Law Courts Facility, Canberra, Australia

New justice precinct with key heritage features

  • Aurecon’s role: Structural, civil and facade engineering services
  • Client: ACT Government
  • Project team: Architects – Lyons; Contractor – Laing O’Rourke

Aurecon helps to create operational efficiency with new justice precinct while retaining key heritage features.

A new AUD 150 million justice precinct has risen from the ground as a standout feature in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. The new precinct, a combined law courts facility for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), will maximise operational efficiencies while still respecting the jurisdictional separation between the Supreme Court and the Magistrates Court.

Designed to meet the ACT’s growing needs for the next 50 years in a more functional, flexible and sustainable way, the new combined facility serves as a purpose-built environment, with the project itself creating around 350 jobs during construction.

Aurecon was contracted by the ACT Government to provide structural, civil and facade engineering services for the new precinct.

A new approach for ACT’s infrastructure projects

As the ACT’s first Public Private Partnership (PPP), the courts project was also an important pathfinder. It demonstrated the ACT Government’s commitment to working in partnership with the private sector to deliver Canberra’s future infrastructure needs.

This method of delivery was also chosen to provide a value-for-money solution for the city.

The redesigned law courts accommodates the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, Magistrates Court and Children’s Court within a new four-storey building fronting Vernon Circle, and linking the existing refurbished Magistrates and Supreme Court buildings.

The open space between the original two buildings is now connected by a large atrium forming a new public entrance and registry area. This gives the public and legal community a centralised point of access to all courts and common facilities.

Maintaining the building’s heritage features

The existing and architecturally significant Supreme Court, built in 1963, has now been fully refurbished to accommodate the new Supreme Court and other judicial functions. It has been completely integrated into the facility in a way that respects and retains its unique heritage value. Testament to its cutting-edge design, in the year it was built, famed Australian lawyer and politician Justice Henry Higgins declared the building state-of-the-art.

The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory, Helen Murrell SC, has publicly praised the redevelopment for its preservation of the key heritage features that made the original building so significant, despite the challenge of restoring them. She acknowledges that the judges and staff of the court are fond of the building’s historical charm.

One of the main challenges in maintaining the heritage features was the unknown condition of the existing building. The Magistrates Court building had some existing structural documentation, however the Supreme Court had none.

Aurecon undertook a heritage structural assessment of the building to determine its load capacity and modified load capacity. This included floor loading as well as the building’s ability to withstand wind and earthquakes.

This assessment enabled the construction team to conserve the important historical aspects of the building and reveal and highlight their history. Key heritage features that were maintained include the old Wombeyan marble cladding, the internal atrium and the inscribed ‘Law Courts of the Australian Capital Territory”.

Using precast design and construction

Aurecon worked closely with the building contractor to create a design suited to offsite manufacture and assembly, using precast and structural steel elements for most of the new build. This reduced the clutter of formwork, in situ concrete works and reinforcement, and provided a high-quality finished form with a quicker erection time for the building envelope.

Precast and structural steel elements included the formation of structural load-bearing precast walls and columns, new basement retaining walls, facade panels and long-span, hollow-core floor slabs and beams.

Each component was designed to allow the construction team to have confidence in the installation timeframe, and it limited the ‘hook’ cranage time with simplified reinforced structural connections between the precast elements. The methodology also resulted in a robust and earthquake-resistant structure.

Canberra’s justice precinct has been transformed with the construction of the new ACT Law Courts facilities. The Magistrates Court and the Supreme Court are now in the same building and the additional courtrooms and modernised facilities will support the city’s judicial system for many years to come.

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