New $90M Durham County Human Services Building opens

mschultz@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

— The Durham County Department of Public Health gets 40,000 clinic visitors a year.

But until now, most of the people who entered the department’s Main Street offices each day didn’t see sunlight again until they left.

“There was one room with a window you could see out of,” director Gayle Harris said and laughed. “And we called it ‘the window room.’”

Now visitors and staff alike can see the light, thanks to the new Durham County Human Services Building that formally opened Saturday with a ribbon cutting and public tours.

About 85 percent of the workspaces in the building now have views to windows onto the street or to an inside courtyard with grass and benches.

In addition to the health department, the new $90 million, 300,000 square-foot building houses the Department of Social Services, the Alliance Behavioral Healthcare office (formerly the Durham Center) and the Department of Veterans Services. There is also a 16,000 square-foot meeting and wellness center, with a 500-seat auditorium that can be divided into smaller rooms.

The building, designed by Durham architects The Freelon Group, is energy efficient, County Engineer Glen Whisler said, with automated lighting, below-floor air circulation, and low-flow toilets and sinks, as well as waterless urinals.

It’s also sleek, with recessed lighting, glass-paneled, exposed staircases and terra-cotta wall trim that give the building an almost convention- or performing-arts-center feel.

Social services

About half of the new building, located at 414 E. Main St., replaces the Department of Social Services’ former offices two blocks west on Main Street and on Duke Street.

That’s going to make it easier to assemble staff for meetings and help the department’s 300 to 400 daily visitors, who may not have always known which office they need to go to get help, director Michael Becketts said.

“It’s so much more efficient,” he said.

The new digs also give the department two observation rooms where staff can monitor visitations through one-way mirrors, as well as an apartmentlike space with a refrigerator, washer/dryer and TV where those in crisis can get help in a more homelike setting than a typical office.

But the county building is also a boon for the city, which will benefit from having the government offices, their workers and visitors joining the county’s new judicial center just off the Downtown Loop a short walk away.

“This has been a long-range project – a very long-range project,” Mayor Bill Bell said at the ribbon cutting. “But good things come to those who wait.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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