Case Study: Consulting Engineering

Historic Fayette County Courthouse

Lexington Courthouse LLLPLexington, Kentucky

A Nationally Recognized Renovation

The original Lexington Courthouse was constructed in 1899 and served as the county courthouse until 2002 when courthouse operations relocated to a new facility. After that move, the Lexington History Museum occupied the bottom two floors of the building until 2012, when the discovery of hazardous materials and asbestos in the building forced the museum to relocate, and the building was closed to occupants. The 50,298 square foot building remained closed until 2016 when renovation work began to revitalize the building. The facility is now a focal point of the downtown community. It is complete with a ground-floor restaurant, bar, visitor's center spaces, two floors of office space, and event spaces on the top level that display the building's refurbished historic rotunda. The project has won design awards from Kentucky AIA, Downtown Lexington Partnership, the Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office, Bluegrass Tomorrow, and the International Making Cities Livable Conference.

The Challenges

  • The building's extensive deterioration requiring it to be closed for public safety in 2012
  • Incorporating state-of-the-art MEP systems in a 123-year-old building
  • Utilizing state and federal tax credits which required tight project construction deadlines to be maintained
  • Eliminating all exterior equipment in a dense urban environment
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It has been at the very heart of life in Lexington, geographically and culturally; its magnificent dome an enduring symbol of our city, firmly at the core of Lexington’s spirit. Created with Sketch.

Jim Gray

Lexington Mayor

The Solutions

How can you influence a historical modernization of a building designed and constructed in 1899? You bring in the engineering discussion at the beginning of the design process. There were many challenges. How do we air-condition a building that was initially designed not to have air conditioning? How do we provide a design that lessens the environmental impact in concert with preserving this old historic building? How can we do this in a tight urban setting and maintain the center of the city's original integrity? How can we accomplish this within a financial model that allows a "For-Profit Entity" to succeed?

CMTA's First 30 Process helped inform and bring alternative solutions to these complex problems. We analyzed system options and kept a keen eye on the end goal of a drastic modernization to a significant downtown landmark. The process resulted in an urban geothermal facility that completely hides all interior and exterior mechanical modern equipment in keeping with the historical significance of the building. We preserved the original architectural, historic lighting significance with modern-day technologies. These challenges and many more were all met. More importantly, though, we were also able to achieve a modernization that improved the environmental impacts of the building and the financial impacts. This was accomplished with an architectural and engineering integrated design solution.

Lexington Fayette Urban County Government had opened a brand-new state of the art courthouse in 2001. The original courthouse, which opened in 1900, had been repurposed for miscellaneous services until 2012 when it had deteriorated too far and was deemed unsafe for public use. Unable to finance and operate two courthouses, Lexington Government turned to a Public-Private Partnership to help fund the $33 million renovations, which used $11,000,000 in state and federal historic tax credits.

There are obvious challenges when renovating a 123-year-old building. The first thing the design team needed to do was create an accurate 3-D model of all building components. The model was designed using a 3-D virtual scan of the building's interior and exterior, which created a full model with precision level accuracy. In this design approach form needed to design function and the mechanical systems. The floor-to-floor heights were not conducive to today's requirements. The HVAC design utilized a water-source Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) system to minimize the above ceiling system and allowing them to be hidden from the architect. The electrical system uses a decentralized distribution network, which drastically reduced the above ceiling conduit requirements.

To use the historic tax credits, the project required private tenants to occupy the building. There are many challenges when designing for multiple tenants as they become projects within a project while still trying to bring consistency and cohesion to overall building design. In addition, to receive the tax credits, the project had to be occupied by December 2017, which required a 6-month design schedule and a 12-month construction schedule. This required a total of (6) different bid packages from the design team to meet this very demanding and aggressive schedule.

To preserve the historic nature of the interior of the building and the exterior of the building, the design concept was to eliminate all exterior equipment and maximize the original site design. A geothermal system was selected to eliminate any exterior cooling equipment. The geothermal well field consisted of (31) 650 feet deep wells, which provided the desired exterior look that the owner was looking for and provided excellent energy efficiency. The building was modeled to achieve an EUI of 24 compared to a code standard building of 95 for a similar building.

Efficiency, Innovation & Environmental Impact

Energy Efficiency

Numerous energy efficiency measures were implemented in the renovation projects. The water-cooled VRF system connected to the geothermal wellfield provides increased operating efficiencies over an air-cooled system. The VRF system was equipped with heat recovery capability and was zoned by floor to maximize heat recovery capabilities. The ground floor restaurant received a heat recovery dishwasher. The kitchen hood makeup was provided by transferring air from the building's outside air unit instead of a dedicated makeup air unit, reducing the energy required to heat the hood makeup air. An energy model was performed during design, with a predicted EUI of 24, a 48% improvement over the ASHRAE 90.1-2010 baseline. After 1.5 years of full occupancy, the building is tracking an EUI of 18.5 kBtu/sqft-yr.


The downtown urban setting and historical preservation requirements presented many challenges. The geothermal wellfield depth was selected to meet the site restrictions while ensuring that local drillers could achieve the installation. The building was originally constructed before the widespread use of air conditioning. The VRF system was selected to meet the existing floor-to-floor heights while being concealed to meet historic preservation requirements. The lighting in the existing rotunda was retrofitted with custom LED fixtures to match the original configuration.

Environmental Impact

The historical preservation requirements dictated that no equipment shall be installed on the exterior. The geothermal wellfield and associated systems accomplished this goal and reduced noise impacts on the site. The building height dictated the installation of a fire pump, which required backup power per code. A secondary electrical service was brought in to serve the fire pump instead of installing a generator, eliminating fossil fuel use for operations, and reducing the building's carbon footprint.

The Results

There were many challenges to this building. A historic building renovation in an existing urban setting. Providing modern-day solutions and amenities into a building that was built in 1899. Creating a financial solution that allows for long term viability of the property. All of these were accomplished to aid in a vibrant and growing downtown. The building created new opportunities for the downtown economic growth and the drastic energy reduction that allowed for a financially successful model.

Historic Fayette County Courthouse Energy Use

What does this data mean?
Baseline: The Modeled Annual Energy Use Goal
Actual: The Measured Energy Use of This Project