RALEIGH — Retirement does not beckon Phil Stout from a distance, like some shimmering oasis on the horizon. It looms 11 stories tall. He can see it out his office window.
The new Wake County Justice Center, where judges and juries will attempt to decipher truth for the next three to four generations, will be the last — and the largest — project Stout oversees as director of the county’s facilities design and construction department. People who work with him say it’s fitting that Stout, who will leave the job April 30, will cap his public-service career with a building that embodies the notion of fairness.
It’s the way he has tried to treat every architect, designer, contractor and subcontractor who has helped the county erect its libraries, fire stations, jails, offices, museums and other buildings for the past 27 years.
“He’s firm, but he’s fair,” said John Atkins, president and CEO of O’Brien/Atkins Associates, whose firm has been the architect on some of the more than 170 buildings that have gone up on Stout’s watch, including the new Justice Center.
O’Brien/Atkins also worked on the Wake County Public Safety Center, the project Stout was hired to oversee back in 1986. The two buildings that bookend Stout’s years with the county also mark the launch and near-completion of the 25-year plan the county developed in the 1980s to make sure the wheels of justice would have room to turn as Wake’s population exploded.
Stout, 60, says that when he took the job, he promised Richard Stevens, then the county manager, that he would stay long enough to get the Safety Center built. But he wouldn’t commit longer than that.
“I had always worked on the private side,” said Stout, who was born and reared in Siler City and attended East Carolina University before going to work as a surveyor and then a construction manager. The work took him to Florida, where he helped build town houses and condominiums for several years before he and his wife, June, decided to move back to North Carolina to be closer to their parents.
Stout didn’t think he would like working for a bureaucracy.
“I didn’t think I would stay, because I thought government work was just too cumbersome,” he said. “I always thought it took too long to get things approved and get them through the process.”
It does take time.
A rare combination
When Stout was hired, the county was partway through building a new office complex off Poole Road, and its contractor had gone belly-up. As the county’s first professional construction manager, he had to find a new contractor and finish that project, as well as assume work on the Southeast Regional Library in Garner.
At the same time, the county was under a court order to relieve jail overcrowding, and voters had approved the sale of up to $70 million in bonds for the construction of a new jail. Even so, the $56 million Public Safety Center, containing the new jail, wasn’t completed until the fall of 1991, and it, too, was overcrowded almost as soon as it opened.
By then, as Stevens had asked him to, Stout had turned his one-man operation into a small department that recognized the need for long-term planning so the county wasn’t always moving from one building crisis to the next. To keep up with growth, the county would need capital improvement plans for all the services it provides, from parks and recreation to fire suppression.
Stout has a reputation for being that rare combination of a big-picture guy and a stickler for detail. He could visualize a building as large as the high-rise, 577,000-square-foot Justice Center before its foundation had even been laid. Now that it’s nearing completion, he’s going floor-by-floor to make sure everything is perfect, down to the medium-cherry shade of the wood stain on the walls of the commissioners’ meeting chambers.
“He has an attention to detail that drives contractors absolutely bananas,” said David L. Goodwin, director of the county’s General Services Administration. Once Stout’s department builds it, Goodwin’s department has to operate and maintain it, and the better it’s built, the easier and cheaper it is to care for.
While the county contracts out all its design and construction work, Stout and his staff are involved throughout the process to help guide plans and material choices.
Besides the labyrinth of regulations that govern them, Stout says, the biggest difference between the construction of public and private buildings is their need for durability. Public buildings need to have a long life span, and they have to withstand heavy use, even abuse. Some, such as jails, are in use 24 hours a day and must be fortified while providing a safe place to house hundreds of people at a time. Most public buildings must include some kind of security system. All have stringent life-safety requirements.
Manufacturers are constantly introducing new building materials and technologies, and designers often bring samples to Stout.
“They’ll say, ‘This is indestructible. No way anybody is going to tear this up,’ ” Stout said. When he hears that, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out an old key that used to fit some door in the 1930s-era building on Fayetteville Street where his office is. He drags the key across the surface of the sample, leaving a gouge.
“If I can scratch it, somebody else can,” he’ll say, sending another designer back to the drawing board.
“He’s a vandal at heart,” said Goodwin, but all for the good of the taxpayers, who shouldn’t have to pay to replace carpet every five years when the floors could be made of long-lasting terrazzo, or to patch and paint plasterboard when walls can be made of concrete or stone.
Planning for long use
Likewise, Stout and his staff figured, the people of Wake County should have a building large enough to house its court proceedings for the next several generations so it doesn’t have to build an annex in a few years.
There is no question among those who work or are called to appear in the Wake County Courthouse that Lady Justice has outgrown her local digs. Lawyers and clients are often late for appearances because they have to wait in line to get through security screening and then get stuck waiting to squeeze into one of the building’s four creaky elevators. The building, opened in 1970 on the site of a previous courthouse dating to 1915, wasn’t designed for the 4,000 people who sometimes try to use it in a day.
By about 2000, the county had projections saying the current courthouse would be out of space by 2015. But Stout felt that planning was shortsighted, and he ordered projections 30 years into the future, taking into account additional growth. Those forecasts indicated a need for about twice the original planned space. The price tag: about $214 million.
To design it, Stout assembled a steering committee of people who would use the building, both from the legal side and the county administration, which will have offices there. Architects got advice from judges, lawyers, prosecutors, court clerks and others to design a building that is spacious without being extravagant, is secure and easy to navigate.
In the Justice Center, a driver coming in to plead to a speeding ticket will be able to queue up at the first-floor dispositions court, meet with an assistant district attorney, sign the forms and pay the fine at a cashier’s counter, all without having to climb into one of the building’s 17 elevators.
Courtrooms are larger to accommodate crowds. Inmates being held in the Hammond Road Detention Center — also built during Stout’s tenure — can appear before a judge by camera, reducing the need for deputies to escort them to and from the courtroom. Detainees who do have to appear in person will traverse the building by way of secure hallways and elevators, unlike in the current courthouse.
“Did everybody get 100 percent of what they wanted? No,” said Wake County Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman, who was surprised to be asked to serve on the committee, or that there even would be a committee. “There has to be some give and take. But the process made for a great building that will serve the needs of Wake County.”
iPad, fishing vest
The clerk’s office will be among the first tenants of the new building; its move is scheduled for the weekend of June 16, ahead of the Justice Center’s formal opening planned around July 1.
The old building still will function as and be called the Wake County Courthouse, because of a provision in the deed for the land on which it sits. The provision stipulates that if the building ever stops being a courthouse, the land under it reverts to the family that gave it to the county.
That’s why the new building is called the Justice Center, and the courthouse will still host special proceedings, civil courts, small claims, family and juvenile court, among others.
As it gets closer to completion — two months ahead of schedule and at least $30 million under budget — the Justice Center is crawling with contractors and subs finishing up their work, many of them making repairs or corrections per Stout’s punch lists.
To check for problems and keep track of them, Stout uses an iPad and a fishing vest. To check the slope of a bathroom floor, to make sure any spilled water will flow toward the drain, he pulls a marble out of his vest pocket and sets it down to see if it rolls. He keeps a flashlight in another pocket to shine down drywall to check for imperfections, and a tiny mirror to test the tightness of a door seal.
Where he finds a problem, no matter how small, he makes a note on the iPad and places a sticker, the kind used to mark prices at yard sales. There are thousands of them around the building, and somebody has to check off every last one.
They won’t all be done by the time Stout leaves the job, but he has carried the project close enough to the finish line that he’s looking forward to what comes next.
Though the clerk says she tried to get a court order to force Stout to stay, he’s going.
He has plenty to keep him busy; he serves on the board of Galloway Ridge Retirement Community in Chatham County. He’d like to take up duck hunting again. He has a long honey-do list waiting. And one of his two sons recently bought a house in Raleigh.
It could use a little work.