Civic Building and Civic Center Architecture: Design for the Public

What Is a Civic Center?

A civic center is a network of spaces or buildings that provide essential services to a city or town. It can include everything from government offices and public meeting spaces to free classes and memorials honoring important members of the community. Civic centers are tailored to support the often very specific needs of communities. As a result, civic center architecture design varies dramatically across the country in size, scope, and overall appearance.


The Challenges of Designing a Civic Center

Civic center planning can be very challenging, as architecture and design options are as diverse as the members of the public the buildings will serve. Planning also involves weighing the importance of short-term issues against long-term objectives and can often mean dealing with conflicting political agendas. These things can be particularly challenging given that taxpayers are footing the bill.

To begin, city planners join forces with an experienced architectural firm, such as HMC Architects, and hold public meetings to gain a deep understanding of the community’s needs. They then review their own operational needs while also considering public safety and the strict federal, state, and local building regulations they must adhere to in design. Once that information is examined, goals are weighed against the needs and the budget, clear objectives and responsibilities are established within timelines, and solutions are suggested and ultimately chosen.


The Challenges of Designing a Civic Center

The Top 10 Civic Center Architecture Design Tactics

While all civic center projects are different, there are 10 primary design tactics that experienced architectural firms implement to create a beautiful and highly functional civic center that reflects the diversity and values of the community it will serve:

  1. Design for Functionality
  2. Choose the Most Effective Layout
  3. Inject Character
  4. Offer Community Amenities
  5. Set the Tone Through Landscaping
  6. Provide Efficient Wayfinding
  7. Design with Technology Top of Mind
  8. Foster a Sense of Security   
  9. Design for Sustainability
  10. Prioritize Cost-Efficiency

These tactics are briefly described below.

1. Design for Functionality

Civic centers serve many purposes and people and, therefore, must operate efficiently. For that reason, civic planners and their architects must consider the external needs of the community, the internal operational needs of the center’s staff and the building itself, and city, state and local regulations.

External Needs

External needs are the design elements that the local public demands. At HMC, we understand that the public wants to not only be heard, but also truly listened to. To meet the needs of the South Whittier, California, community, HMC Architects designed the 20,000-square foot Liberty Community Plaza with the community’s involvement. The building includes a much-needed multipurpose lobby with rolling chairs and tables that can be arranged to support various needs and circumstances, as well as a dedicated space in which to hold meetings and support after-school programs. We also designed a game room, conference rooms, and a youth counseling room for after-school tutoring.

Internal Needs

An efficient civic center should be easy to operate and maintain on a daily basis. By talking to civic planners and civic center staff an architect can then identify the issues they face and implement the design features that will not only solve problems, but also adapt to anticipated future needs. For example, if your civic center has a multipurpose room that can be leased out for community events or parties, you can make this space easier for staff to maintain by installing resiliiant flooring, as these types of floors are faster to clean. You can also use wheeled furniture in the space to make it easier for staff to arrange the room for the next event.   

Mandatory Features

Civic centers are heavily regulated by city, state, and federal agencies. For example, in New York City, civic centers are required to have lactation rooms for breastfeeding women. This is just another reason why it is important to work with a knowledgeable and experienced architecture firm.


2. Choose the Most Effective Layout

Layout is one of the most important aspects of civic center architecture design. You’ll want to thoughtfully choreograph the visitor experience while making the center efficient for staff. Be innovative but also scrutinize the difficult quickly, keeping an eye out for the unexpected in terms of logistics and budget. Focus on the following:

Seamless Flows

Design your civic center around the most frequently used spaces. Information centers, multipurpose halls, and the cafeteria or cafe should all be easily accessible and placed at the entrance or in the center of the complex. Specific-purposes spaces, such as permit and license offices, can be located farther away.

Wide Corridors

Wide corridors foster improved navigation and better accommodate wheelchairs, motorized scooters, and visitors with service animals.

Comfortable, Appealing Courtyards

Your courtyard should be beautiful enough to draw the public and comfortable enough that people will sit for a time to enjoy it. Include local plants, trees, and sculptures, and position outdoor seating in areas that provide shade throughout the day. Also consider indoor-outdoor transition spaces, such as eco-atriums.

Future Needs

Always include soft spaces that can easily be adapted to a community’s future needs. A room currently used to store voting materials, for example, might be designed with more outlets to easily convert it into an electronic voting center as your community’s needs evolve.

Purposeful Lighting

Parking lots and exterior pathways that are well lit will make visitors feel safe and can help prevent theft and vandalism. Indoors, use thoughtful lighting to highlight artwork and impressive civic center architecture design elements. The high ceilings we designed at the entrance to Liberty Community Plaza look even more dramatic due to our choice of large, circular lights.  


In order for your center to best serve the public, it must be conducive to clear communication. Acoustic panels on interior walls will absorb excess noise and improve efficiency. Outside, a smartly placed fountain can drown out the sounds of traffic.


3. Inject Character

Civic center architecture design should mirror the qualities and values of the community it serves and be a source of public pride. Experienced architects help their clients incorporate the center’s ethos and logo or motto into the design, as well as understand the most admirable trends in color and design versus those that are fleeting. Most important, architects inject character into buildings, focusing on the following:


People are the first priority in any civic project. So, a civic building must not simply respond to diversity, but also respect and embrace it. A good balance between traditional and divergent perspectives must exist.


To attract visitors, a civic center should provide a wealth of information and a taste of history from the local region. At the California Welcome Center in the Ontario Mills Shopping Mall, we included four information kiosks, including one embedded inside a faux plaster boulder that sits beside faux tree trunks that provide the feel of California forest.

Local Artwork

Commission local artists to create murals and sculptures that represent community values and exude positivity. At the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro, California, a large, colorful mural welcomes visitors at the entrance. In the hallways, hand-painted images, including one depicting a counselor helping a child with her homework, are hung to promote learning and confidence.


4. Offer Community Amenities

In addition to meeting the needs of your community and staff, consider additional amenities that will draw more visitors to your civic center and make them feel comfortable while there, including:

Public Transportation Access

When possible, site your civic center close to public transportation to not only provide all community members with easy access to the facility, but also to help the environment by reducing automobile emissions. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program provides credits to projects that are close to public transportation.  


Offering classes, such as yoga, art, and computer training provides your community with resources they might not have access to at home, and will give them reasons to come back to the center frequently.  

Coffee Shop

A coffee shop or cafe, such as the one we designed at the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, California, can make your center more attractive to visitors. Consider partnering with a local business to further support the interests of the community.


5. Set the Tone Through Landscaping

The landscape design you choose for your civic center, especially at its entrance, will set the tone for the entire plaza. It should be aesthetically pleasing and welcoming to visitors, yet easy for groundskeepers to maintain. Consider these design strategies:

Grow Local Plants

Plants that are native to a town will tie the center’s landscape to the community and, in some regions, will require fewer resources to maintain. At Quail Hill Community Center in Irvine, California, where the average rainfall is less than 15 inches per year, we planted only native species of trees, grasses, and shrubs that can withstand periods of drought.

Use Hardscaping Elements that Reflect the Natural Environment

Hardscape features, such as stone or brick pathways and short walls, can add both color and texture. Rather than using grey concrete as a wall material in a desert environment, for example, use rough native stone that closely matches the rugged rock formations and colors of the region.

Carve Interesting Pathways

Design scenic, calming pathways around the complex that your visitors will enjoy walking. Paths that wind around beautiful gardens and that are lined with comfortable seating areas will encourage visitors to take their time and stop to relax as they navigate from one building to another.


6. Provide Efficient Wayfinding

From the moment visitors arrive at a civic center, clear directions should lead them to their final destinations. To ensure that your campus is easy to navigate, implement wayfinding design elements outside and inside your center:

Street Wayfinding

Entrances and parking areas should be clearly marked from the road or roads that lead to them. Colorful numbered or lettered signs will help visitors better navigate a large campus.

Exterior Wayfinding

Plenty of parking should be available and parking spaces should be placed near wide walkways. Parking for visitors with limited mobility should exist closest to the main entrance. Signage on all walkways should be clear and lead visitors to the main entrance.

Interior Wayfinding

Place directional signs throughout the entrance hall, in elevator and stair bays, and in corridors. Every room should also be clearly labeled. Many civic centers now include at least one digital welcome station at the front entrance to provide visitors with maps and visual aids to help them navigates the building.


7. Design with Technology Top of Mind

Modern technology allows you to offer more and better services to your community. But, given the speed at which technology advances today, your building must also be designed to adapt to the changing needs of tomorrow. Approaching this with an open mind will allow for innovative solutions that best support the public, including:

Informational Touchscreens

Implement the technology that community members are comfortable with and find most helpful. At the California Welcome Center, we worked closely with tech experts to install touchscreen kiosks at the entrance of the building and three more inside. Visitors use the kiosks to access information, book lodging nearby, buy tickets to local theme parks, and reserve seating at popular restaurants.

Charging Centers

Create areas where visitors can charge their mobile devices. Design them with plenty of outlets and furnishings with built-in chargers.

Online Resources

Offer computer workstations that are centered around the resources your community needs most. For example, electronic voter registration stations encourage members of your community to register to vote and to keep their records up to date. They won’t have to ask for assistance, as the screen will walk them through every step of the process.


8. Foster a Sense of Security

City planners and architects face a slew of security concerns when designing new public buildings. There are a number of effective security measures that you can take to ensure that visitors feel safe in your civic center, including the following:

Consult the Experts

No one knows your town like your local law enforcement agencies. Reach out to them in partnership with your architect to plan a course of action in times of natural disasters and other emergencies. How you respond in the first few minutes can save lives and help prevent damage to the center.

Train Staff

Every member of your staff should know the emergency protocol and the role they need to play during an emergency, especially when an evacuation or lockdown is necessary.

Improve Lines of Sight

Open layouts improve visibility and lines of sight to allow your staff and visitors to notice and quickly respond to an emergency. Unobstructed outdoor views can reduce incidents of theft or violence, especially at night.

Use Materials that Support Security

Bulletproof glass and durable doors prevent people from breaking in. Steel-paneled doors are more durable and secure than traditional wood doors, for example. You can also install electronic locks that automatically activate when an emergency alert system is triggered.  

Install Security Cameras

Security cameras inside and outside can promote safety. Placing signs around campus that remind visitors cameras are present can help discourage unwanted activity.


9. Design for Sustainability

With the advent of LEED and zero net energy goals, more civic center architecture design planners are seeking ways to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and create more sustainable spaces. By looking at existing LEED-certified civic spaces you can discover ways to create a more environmentally-friendly civic center in your neighborhood.

Promote Energy Efficiency

At Quail Hill Community Center, we used solar panel arrays and efficient LED lighting to reduce the building’s reliance on fossil fuels and lower energy costs over time.

Reduce Water Consumption

The native landscaping and low water use fixtures we installed at Quail Hill Community Center ensure wise water use. Native plants require less water to maintain and updated bathroom fixtures prevent unnecessary water loss.

Improve Cost-Efficiency

Sustainability can have an impact on your bottom line. When you add sustainable features such as natural lighting, solar panels, and native landscaping to the center, you’ll reduce operational costs and leave more room in the budget for expansion projects.


10. Prioritize Cost-Efficiency

Nearly all civic center projects are paid for by tax dollars. As a result, budgets are usually tight. To make the most out of a limited budget and focus on cost efficiency, you should:

Use Durable Materials

Strong materials like stone, precast concrete, and steel might cost more upfront, but they can last for decades without requiring significant maintenance.

Avoid Over-Designing

While you should offer your community exactly what it needs and as many amenities as you can, don’t over-design your project or stray from your focus. Minimal, clean design that requires fewer building materials will reduce costs.

Plan for Expansion

Design for current needs but don’t neglect the prospective needs of future users. If there’s no room in the budget for a full-scale cafe, design a soft space for a food cart instead and save the more expensive details for a future renovation.


Civic Center Architecture Design: The Next Steps

When you’re ready to start planning your new civic center, partner with an experienced civic center architecture design firm. HMC Architects employs an interactive, charrette-style process, meaning that we collaborate with you at every stage of the project to respond to the needs of the community you serve and bring your vision to life. We also perform a post-occupancy evaluation to ensure that all of our solutions are effective and foster community engagement.

For help designing a beautiful, modern, and efficient civic center that’s tailored to the diverse needs of your community, contact HMC Architects today. If you have specific questions about incorporating our 10 essential design solutions into your project, email Managing Principal Kyle Peterson, directly.