Designing for Rehabilitation—The Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility

Tetra Tech’s High Performance Buildings Group provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and lighting design as well as energy modeling services for the entire facility—which comprises 26 buildings across 46 acres—and helped the project achieve LEED Gold certification.


  • Size: 26 buildings/512,537 square feet
  • Construction Cost: $268 million
  • Client/Owner: San Diego County
  • Architect: KMD and HMC
  • Contractor: Balfour-Beatty and Barnhart
  • Completion Date: 2015


An innovative approach to a correctional facility that shares a cross street with a residential neighborhood is a project that requires buy-in from more than just ownership. For this public facility, community involvement was essential to meet public expectations of safety and to achieve sustainability standards of low energy use costs. The Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility design-build project in Santee, California, features six levels of security and a design focused on inmate rehabilitation to prepare them to reenter society and minimize recidivism rates.

Traditional lighting requirements for a detention facility are in high demand, flooding nearly every inch of the campus with bright white light to ensure safety. However, the tight proximity to residential space and the facility’s sustainability goals demanded a creative solution. This led our High Performance Group to create a lighting system that is designed for the digital eye rather than the human eye. The facility does not feature a single guard tower, instead making use of an extensive network of security cameras to monitor the facility. Tetra Tech designed a responsive system that minimizes the output to a point that allows the cameras to function properly while not flooding the night sky with light pollution and distressing the neighborhood.

Operable amber nightlights were placed in prisoner cells in lieu of regular, white light fixtures that would run throughout the night. Guards were given control of the lights to use when they deem necessary, and the color—which is less taxing on melatonin production—optimizes the circadian rhythms of inmates, improving their psyche, which leads to an overall improvement in safety during the day-to-day operations of the facility. Daylighting was also prioritized in the day rooms of the Level 1 area (library, cafeteria, religious facility, etc.) to provide energy savings and create biophilic connections to nature, supporting the morale of guards and the rehabilitation of inmates.

A central plant was constructed from the ground up, rare for a campus of this size. The plant provides chilled water for the facility, which can house more than 1,200 inmates. The plant was constructed outside of the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility’s fence to provide a safe working environment for the maintenance staff.