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Principals of the San Francisco-based HOK Architects countered complaints Tuesday that their courts complex design was simply a minor variation of structures in other cities.

They put on a two-hour presentation packed with slides and technical talk of footprints, elements, signatures and linear solutions. They gave their word they didn't copy the courthouse in St. Louis, which looks similar.But it was Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson, R-Orem, who summed up their defense in about 30 seconds before the Legislature's Executive Appropriations committee.

"Lots of capitol (buildings) look like ours, and it is still a symbol about this place," he said, referring to critics who say the courts-complex architects blew a chance to create a structure that reflected the local culture, such as the State Capitol and City and County Building.

With that said, the dozen architects, state planners and construction consultants fielded a few questions about parking spaces at the complex and who would fill the empty Supreme Court offices in the State Capitol, then they left.

Out in the hall, principals of the San Francisco-based HOK Architects, which submitted the winning design in a contest pitting six teams of designers and builders, said they had never experienced such controversy over a building design.

A press conference was held two weeks ago at which local architects blasted the design, and Tuesday's meeting was a briefing before legislative leaders on the final design of the $77 million project. Lawmakers have already approved increases in court fees to pay for the courts complex.

The winning architects strongly defended the building's originality. "We started from a blank sheet of paper and a philosophical discussion about courthouses," said HOK's Bill Valentine, who headed the design team and has designed courts buildings elsewhere.

"It's not a copy of anything else we've done," Valentine said of the building's size, function and materials. "But we purposefully tried to make it look like a courts building."

He explained to the committee that courts buildings throughout the country have distinguishing features - domes, rotundas, columns, ascending front stairways, stone walls with inset windows - which depict a frugal, simple icon from which justice is done. There were some exceptions in the 1960s and 1970s, when justice centers resembled the surrounding office highrises.

The Salt Lake courts building will be located on State Street, west of the City and County Building between 400 South and 500 South. Valentine said the building will reflect some of the simple aspects of local architecture and culture, such as limestone walls and a copper dome.

"Its simplicity fits the culture here," Valentine said.

And its cost fit the budget constraints that competing design and building teams had to consider. Original design was not a factor, while efficiency and flexibility to change the interior and expand were top criteria.

Valentine said the 417,000-square-foot facility would typically cost about $200 per square foot. But the state's requirement that architects collaborate with a local builder in creating their designs enabled them to knock the cost down to $112 per square foot.

The builder, Bid D Construction of Ogden, has signed a contract with the state guaranteeing it will not go over the $68 million construction cost.

But Rep. Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, said the budget and time constraints handed to competitors limited the number of entries and the chance to build something that better reflected local culture.

"I realize we are saving money," said Jones, a former interior design executive. "But I hope in the future we approach it in a different way and use a different process."