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Balancing Needs and the Budget in Corrections Construction
By Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor
Published: 07/27/2000

It's not unusual for money to be tight during a prison or jail construction project. Often the officials who set the budget have little practical experience with the operations of such a facility and don't understand the programmatic space needs. This forces architects and builders to work with corrections administrators to whittle down the priorities in order build within budget constraints. Solutions to this problem are available, including the Design/Build concept which some believe not only saves construction time, but also money.

"[Design/Build] saves money in that the process is expedited and that translates into cost savings. Usually you can get a better price from the contractor because they know [the architect] they are working with," said Charles Kehoe, Vice President of Securicor New Century Inc. and Vice President of the American Correctional Association.

Design/Build may not be the answer for everyone, however. Some feel that the process causes corrections officials and county or state administrators to lose some control over the design of a building. In this is a concern, then there are other steps that can be taken ahead of time to ensure your construction budget meets your needs.

Planning Ahead

One common problem that arises when constructing juvenile facilities, is when decision-makers set a budget based on bed costs related to adult facilities. Kehoe said this practice is dangerous because two facilities with 100 beds each may house vastly different populations with different requirements for cell space, activity space and programming. "County commissioners will look at the cost per bed for one facility and transpose it onto a juvenile facility. But you have to have more space for juveniles. They need classrooms, space for education; it's a population that is very program intensive," Kehoe said.

In most juvenile facilities, for example, 10 to 20 residents are in a housing unit, versus a much larger number for adults. This allows for improved classification, special programming and behavior management for juvenile populaitons. As a general rule, smaller juvenile facilities with 100 beds or less require 700 to 800 square feet per resident.

A failure to understand this when costing-out a project can lead to under-budgeting. "If you have a situation where a county wants to build a detention center and they think you're spending one amount, but after design, you find out it's more per bed, they go ballistic," Kehoe said.

There are several steps that corrections officials can take, however, to avoid this situation. They include:

  • Always conduct a feasibility study. Do a feasibility study to find out your county's needs before hiring an architect. Consider the level of security needed and primary purpose before setting the budget.
  • Shop around. "You need to look around before you get into design work and see facilities in other states to see the square footage that is out there," Kehoe said.
  • Choose an architect with experience. One mistake that is often made is hiring a local architect with no experience in building justice facilities. "As a client you don't want to be the architect's first shot at design," Kehoe said.
  • Consider sharing resources to save operational dollars. According to Kehoe, a county in Illinois recently located its new facility on a site with a nursing home next door. The home provides food service for the facility residents at a cost savings. Other shared resources could be laundry facilities, maintenance and medical services.
  • Think carefully about renovating. Renovations can often cost a county or state more money than building new because of the new codes the buildings must meet. "There's a lot of requirements that have to be met. A lot of places are into adding additions on to a building and then renovating," Kehoe said.

Juvenile Facility Balances Budget/Needs

The Northwest Juvenile Detention Facility project in Virginia faced budget constraints but, by utilizing design/build, officials were still able to create a facility that fit their needs. The facility was completed in 1997.

According to Waller Poage, NCARB, CCS, Senior Project Manager for HSMM Inc., who was the architect for the detention center, the project was scaled according to the budget. "We told them what they could afford. We cut the building to fit the cloth. Usually, it's the other way around," Poage said.

Poage said in cases like this one, usually the amenities are sacrificed. One complication with juvenile facilities is that room for recreation and classrooms are mandated. "There are construction standards for different levels of security, so there wasn't much room for change," he said.

The secret for the architects was knowing the primary driver for officials. Poage said each project should have a primary driver: either cost, quality or time of delivery. "You have to ask the owner which driver is the primary one. You can't control all three," he said.

Architects were able to meet the cost driver by reducing the number of beds in the facility and by giving officials the option of adding onto the facility as the need increases. Architects were also able to provide the facility with new technologies, such as a touch screen control room, with the ability to improve and expand the system if the need for more beds arises.

From the operations standpoint, corrections administrators knew they would save money operationally because the facility was co-located with an adult detention center on the same campus. The adult facility shares its food, maintenance and medical services with the new juvenile detention center.

Bob Hurt, who was hired as Superintendent for the facility only six months before completion, said the design of the facility was very close to what he would have chosen himself.

"In this situation there was a lot of good luck involved. The staff had a good idea of what the needs would be. Ideally, as a superintendent, I would have loved to be there from the start. It would be nice to have the program concepts in place and design a building around it," he said.

The changes Hurt would have made are: a slightly larger pod size for juveniles, a special pod for female offenders, a separate space for pre and post disposition offenders, and locate classrooms closer to residential pods. The best scenario is to have a new hire in place about a year before completion so that the new superintendent can make needed changes at the design phase.


Some in corrections have had success with the concept of Design/Build -- where the choice of architect is given to the builder/contractor rather than the agency paying for the construction. With the cost of creating building documents rising, choosing Design/Build may eliminate some of the cost and time of separately seeking design bids from architects.

The problem associated with this strategy, loss of control over design, has been addressed by some in the field. For example, the firm HSMM has developed a process of holding design workshops so that "owners" have more of a stake in design.

"Before we set the budget and schedule for a project, it's worth having a series of workshops led by the design professional. Don't go into the project with anything pre-conceived," said Poage. Following these sessions, then architects and builders can take into account staff plans, and programs to give owners "the best bang for the buck."

Others are using Design/Build fast tracking. Larry Briggs, Director of Central Services for Kane County, Ill., found that using the Design/Build approach from within his agency helped shave three months off the building schedule for it's new juvenile facility.

"When we built our 80-bed facility, the footings went in the ground before the total building was designed. We bid the utilities, then bid on concrete, then bid the interior design and HVAC. We did this because it saves dollars," Briggs said. The county and the architectural firm with the county then reviewed the bids and awarded them. There was no contractor involved, Briggs said.

The benefits, according to Briggs, included:

  • saving the three months it would have taken to go the standard design/build system
  • working with the architect on the project and bidding the elements directly to contractors, and
  • obtaining a guaranteed price from the architect, without drawings being completed.


For more information on Design/Build and these projects contact:

Charles Kehoe at 804-754-1100.

Larry Briggs at 630-232-5910.

Waller Poage at 888-452-4766.


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