The new Durham County Administration Building II will be the central location for Durham County’s management and administrative functions. Once home to the Durham County Judicial Building (constructed in 1978) the newly renovated structure will house nine county departments, community meeting spaces, a fitness center, TV studio, and two-ground floor retail tenants. The design had to address numerous issues including how to retrofit the building envelope, modernize the current office space, respond thoughtfully to the downtown urban landscape, and extend the longevity of the building. The building, once complete, will help to transform East Main Street and improve connections with the community.


The challenges associated with renovating a nearly 40-year old structure were numerous. The original building housed many of Durham County’s government and judicial functions including the Sheriff’s Department, Board of Elections, Tax, Courts, Finance, Planning & Zoning, and the Durham County Jail, among others. The Judicial Building opened on October 21, 1978 and was designed by architect Archie R. Davis of Durham. The need for the complex was necessitated by expansion concerns at the 1916 Durham County Courthouse (located across the street). Over the years interior updates and renovations had allowed the County to continue to use the building but with the completion of the new Durham County Courthouse (completed in 2013), the building was abandoned and all departments and courts moved out of the building. In 2014 a study was undertaken to assess existing conditions and the ability to re-purpose the building for county administrative offices.

Existing Building and Design Process

The existing Judicial Building was constructed as a 7-story, steel frame structure. Although the overall condition of the building was good, the age of the cladding was an issue. Current energy code requirements necessitated the need to study alternate methods of replacing the facade materials. The precast concrete panels and aluminum curtainwall, although in acceptable condition, were not adequate to meet the thermal resistance required by code.  The design team approached the process by identifying 3-levels of exterior cladding replacement:

  1. Replace only curtainwall /open up plaza level
  2. Selective replacement of exterior cladding /open up plaza level
  3. Replace entire exterior cladding system


After reviewing these options for cost, constructability, and appropriateness, Durham County opted to replace the entire cladding. Ultimately, the desire to extend the longevity of the building and re-brand the site were primary factors in this decision. Although nearly all of the existing cladding would be replaced, only selective demolition to the structural frame would be undertaken. Careful cost comparisons and analysis were reviewed by O’Brien Atkins and the construction manager, Whiting Turner. Numerous estimates and alternates were analyzed not only for their cost, but for their adaptability with the existing structure, their compatibility with the Historic Downtown Core, and their durability over the lifespan of the building.

Development and Assembly

The decision to remove the exterior cladding came with a myriad of concerns. The existing structure, although nearly 40-years old, was over-engineered and in some ways over-built. However, this would allow for the addition of cladding components without significant concerns about weight. Four-primary materials were proposed that would not only operate as high-performance cladding options but also exhibit a high-degree of appropriateness, noting that the new Administration Building is located across the street from the Historic Durham County Courthouse. These were:

  1. Aluminum Curtainwall with insulated, transparent glazing
  2. Terracotta rainscreen panels
  3. Zinc metal wall panels
  4. Granite veneer panels

The intent behind these selections was to help blend the building into the historic downtown fabric. Although the contemporary design of the exterior on one level might be somewhat jarring for the preservation-minded viewer, the incorporation of materials that age well, acquire a well worn patina, and work well with the scale of the surrounding context would help to integrate old and new.

Renovation: Inside and Out

The renovation of the former Judicial Building not only necessitated the updates to the exterior but also to the interior. The space planning aspects of the process included challenges associated with consolidating county government departments, redefining the first floor as retail and meeting space, and updating the building core to reflect a more modern layout. The identification of county departments, as well as long-range planning goals, proved to be difficult tasks. Although the current Judicial Building could easily accommodate many of these departments, it was a tougher challenge to meet the flexibility and usage needs. In addition to these programmatic goals, it was necessary to reconfigure the core that included elevator redesign, toilet room updates, and exit stairway renovations.

The first floor of the building proved to be a significant driver of the renovation. Activating the plaza level with retail tenant space and community meeting rooms helps to reanimate a portion of East Main Street that had previously been isolated from urban growth. New building entrances and plaza updates will improve the pedestrian and urban scale as well.

The reconfiguration of the building core was a significant planning priority for the project as well. Inherent in this process were modifications and renovations to the elevators. The original elevator layout provided for 3-passenger elevators and 1-jail elevator. These elevators were placed back-to-back in the original building. However, the changing occupancy of the building necessitated not only replacing the elevators but also changing the configuration so that there would be a central elevator lobby. The lobby would function as an orientation element for employees and users.

The final component of the renovation consisted of redefining interior spaces and offices. Most interior partitions, finishes, and doors were removed leaving only pertinent shaft walls, stairways, and structural elements to remain. The original Judicial Building, although clad in reflective glazing, was not a model for daylighting.

Courtrooms, combined with numerous private offices at the perimeter, limited the amount of natural light that penetrated the interior of the building. The design team sought out solutions to office layouts that encouraged open workstations, glazed partition walls, and lightweight finishes. Although the existing structure did not allow for significant ceiling height variation, interior spaces were configured for maximum daylight usage.

Opportunities and Challenges

Much of the design interventions slated for the Durham County Administration Building II came with both opportunities and challenges. Working within the framework of an existing building is akin to opening a time capsule. The existing Judicial Building was constructed to stand the test of time. However, it was not designed to enhance the surrounding environment or provide for programmatic flexibility. The design of the building recalls a time in architectural discourse when solidity and mass were driving forces. Some examples of this discourse have remained curious examples of experimentation and have garnered the public’s interest and in some instances, fondness.

In the case of the Judicial Building, the challenge was finding where those opportunities could be realized.