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Architectural Design of Labs by Mount (FSC, April 1999)

Architectural Design of Labs by Mount (FSC, April 1999)


April 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 1

Successful Development of Forensic Laboratory Facilities

Michael G. E. Mount

Forensic Facilities Specialist
SHG Southwest, A Smith Group Company
Phoenix AZ

Read about …
Why New Forensic Laboratories Are Needed
Why There Are Obstacles to Successful Development
Why the Forensic Laboratory Is Unique
Why a Needs Assessment Is Crucial
Needs Assessment Versus Design Program
Proceeding Without a Needs Assessment
Reference Standards Applicable to Forensic Laboratory Design
Completing the Needs Assessment First
Beware the Old Abandoned High School Building (and Why)
Why Laboratory Staff Input Is Critical
Why Offices for Forensic Analysts Are Essential
Why Forensic Laboratory Personnel Deserve Amenities


The forensic science community is experiencing an era of facility development. During the past five years, the design and construction of major forensic laboratory facilities occurred in Albany, New York; Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia; Columbia, South Carolina; Sacramento, California; Chicago, Illinois; Tampa, Florida; Honolulu, Hawaii; Phoenix, Arizona; and New York City, New York.

There are a number of factors influencing this trend. Computer technology applications to instruments, databases, and management systems have had a tremendous impact on how the forensic laboratory operates. New techniques, procedures, and equipment such as those pertaining to DNA have revolutionized forensic science. Also, high-profile cases have placed forensic science and its facilities under the public microscope. These and other factors highlight the inadequacies of many of the nation’s forensic laboratories and may cause administrators to examine their policies, procedures, and facilities.

This era of forensic laboratory development has not progressed without substantial obstacles. An initial step in the development process—gaining political support for project funding—only marks the beginning of what will likely prove to be a long, uphill battle.

As designers of forensic laboratories, my colleagues and I have learned through experience that the average time between the point at which the need for a new facility is acknowledged and the day the new facility is occupied is approximately eight years. The design and construction process for a forensic laboratory facility takes approximately three years. The remaining five years, the period of time between the conception of the need and the hiring of an architect to design the facility, can be frustrating, characterized by unforeseen conditions, false starts, and extensive delays.

Why New Forensic Laboratories Are Needed

Before exploring some of the obstacles to the successful development of a forensic laboratory project, it is worthwhile to note the general condition of some of the forensic community’s existing facilities. The experience of forensic facilities designers has been that by the time the need is acknowledged to replace an existing forensic laboratory facility, the facility is at least 25 years old. In some cases, forensic laboratories may operate for 50 years in the same building.

Typically, there is severe overcrowding in the older facilities. Forensic analysts do not have adequate workstation space to function efficiently. Instruments and other equipment are installed on bench tops without adequate side and rear clearances. Filing cabinets and other storage items are placed in corridors. Every square inch of space, including storage rooms and janitor closets, is used for some laboratory or administrative function.

Under these conditions there may be an absence of some of the newest procedures and equipment because there is no space to house them. These laboratories may be characterized by a large backlog of cases due to a shortage of staff, and new staff cannot be hired because there is no available work space.

The physical facility is generally an expensive maintenance problem, requiring frequent downtime for effecting necessary repairs and replacing old air-handling, plumbing, and electrical equipment. The inadequacies of the facility can threaten the safety of laboratory personnel. Most of the older facilities have antiquated air-handling systems that do not adequately handle airborne contaminants. Fume hoods frequently do not function properly. Some of the older forensic laboratories are not equipped with biological safety cabinets. Spaces between laboratory benches are frequently too narrow for the safe passage of personnel and equipment. Many older facilities do not meet current emergency egress and other building code requirements.

Fortunately, the accreditation requirements of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) address safety concerns. However, some forensic laboratories do not seek accreditation because preliminary assessments have revealed that they would not be able to pass the accreditation inspection. These are the forensic laboratories of greatest concern.

One of the necessary and preliminary steps in the development of a new forensic laboratory facility is to acknowledge and document the conditions of the existing facilities. Pointing to and, if necessary, emphasizing without exaggerating the unacceptable and unsafe conditions of the existing facility frequently can be aids in overcoming obstacles that are yet to be identified.

Why There Are Obstacles to Successful Development

My associates and I have learned that the vast majority of obstacles to the successful and timely development of forensic laboratory facilities often originate from those who control the funding process for capital improvements projects. This group may include facilities’ managers, contract administrators, department and division heads who oversee the forensic laboratory director, and politicians. The obstacles they may present usually fall within three categories:

1. A general lack of understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of forensic laboratories;

2. The perception that all that is needed is something similar to the existing facility, but just a little bigger; and

3. An unbalanced concern for project cost at the expense of project quality.

It is understandable that those responsible for the funding process feel committed to spend the taxpayer’s money in a manner that reaps the best value for the dollar. However, it is critical that the responsible parties are aware of what constitutes a modern forensic laboratory and of the fact that existing forensic laboratory facilities often represent obsolescence. Until this awareness exists, the necessary checks and balances between the legitimate facility needs and realistic project costs likely will be skewed.

Being involved frequently in the early developmental stages of forensic laboratory projects, my colleagues and I have identified questions that emerged from those in charge of capital project funding. These questions underscore a possible lack of understanding of high-quality and modern forensic facilities and an unbalanced emphasis placed on cost-cutting measures.

1. Why is a forensic laboratory different from any other laboratory?

2. Why pay for a needs assessment? Let the laboratory director tell us what is needed.

3. Why not take the old abandoned high school (office building, retail space, warehouse, etc.) and convert it into a forensic laboratory?

4. Why talk to the laboratory staff? Let the architect determine what is needed.

5. Why should there be offices for forensic analysts? Analysts should be in the laboratory.

6. Why include design amenities? Amenities add unnecessary costs.

Full exploration of these questions is essential to the successful and timely development of a forensic laboratory. The following discussion addresses each question.

Why the Forensic Laboratory Is Unique

Many people outside the forensic science community, and perhaps even some within forensic science, may not fully appreciate the uniqueness of the forensic laboratory. There are at least five general features of the forensic laboratory that make it unlike any other type of laboratory.

1. The Five-in-One Laboratory

From an architectural and engineering design standpoint, the forensic laboratory contains five distinct laboratory types, each of which has a separate and distinct set of design criteria. Those laboratory types are biological sciences, wet chemistry, microscopy, instrumentation, and physical properties analysis.

Instrumentation Spaces
Instrument spaces, another of the 5-in-one laboratory types, demand very special engineering design attention.

1a. Biological Sciences. Design criteria for biological sciences laboratories include features to contain and protect personnel from biological hazards and to protect the evidence from contamination. Some of the design features that accomplish this include biological safety cabinets, differential pressurization in the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, hands-free sinks, and bio-vestibules. Serology, DNA, and toxicology sections and any other areas of the forensic laboratory where biological hazards are present should contain the design characteristics of a biological sciences laboratory.

1b. Wet Chemistry. Design characteristics for a wet chemistry laboratory overlap those of biological sciences because any space in the laboratory where a fume hood is present is considered a wet chemistry space. This includes the majority of laboratory spaces in most forensic laboratories.

1c. Microscopy. Although most laboratory sections in the forensic laboratory incorporate the use of microscopy to some degree, a microscopy laboratory is considered to be where sensitive microscopy is concentrated. These include scanning electron microscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, microscopy in a trace evidence section, and comparison microscopy in a firearms section. Design criteria for microscopy laboratories include provisions for temperature, humidity, dust, and vibration control.

Scanning Electron Microscope
Design requirements for scanning electron microscopes and other sensitive microscopy are one of the 5-in-1 laboratory types comprising a forensic laboratory.

1d. Instrumentation. The drug analysis, toxicology, and trace evidence sections in a forensic laboratory generally employ a concentrated use of instrumentation. Some of the design concerns for an instrumentation laboratory include temperature and acoustical control, with significant considerations for instrument exhausts, distribution systems for multiple laboratory gases, and high-demand electrical requirements.

Drug Chemistry Workstation
Drug chemistry workstation.

1e. Physical Properties Analysis. Physical properties analysis laboratories include workshop areas of the firearms and toolmarks section and the forensic garage. These areas are characterized by features similar to those of a machine shop where parts of vehicles or firearms are disassembled for examination. Such spaces might include the installation of lathes, grinders, drill presses, and other machine tools.

Most laboratory facilities contain one or two of these laboratory types. Some might contain three types, and occasionally, a laboratory contains four laboratory types. Only a full-service forensic laboratory consistently contains all five laboratory types.

2. Special Laboratory Sections

The forensic laboratory contains sections that are not found in other laboratories. No other type of laboratory includes a latent fingerprints section with its specialized design features for using superglue, dusting powder, chemicals, and alternate light sources needed to develop and examine fingerprints. The firearms section with its firing range and projectile recovery systems is another section unique to the forensic laboratory. The questioned documents section adds to the forensic laboratory’s unique nature with its specialized equipment such as electrostatic detection apparatus (ESDA) and video comparisons.

Ballistics Test Firing Range
Ballistics test firing range.

3. Chain-of-Custody

The definition of the word forensic, “belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature or to public discussion and debate,” indicates a strong connection between the forensic laboratory and the courts. The thread that binds these institutions is the chain-of-custody of evidence. Court-mandated requirements for maintaining the chain-of-custody is another characteristic of the forensic laboratory’s uniqueness. No other type of laboratory must be designed around chain-of-custody requirements.

4. Diagnostic Examinations

Another unique feature of the forensic laboratory is that it is dedicated to diagnostic examinations. The forensic laboratory does not produce a product, is not designed to conduct research and development, and is not an academic facility. The forensic laboratory is designed to determine the what, when, where, how, who, and why of forensic evidence. This diagnostic mission further underscores the forensic laboratory’s uniqueness.

5. Resists Modularization

In the architectural principal of modular design, the laboratory designer develops a repetitive module to be incorporated into the floor plan of the building. This module is usually the U-shaped laboratory workstation with floor plan dimensions of 11 by 11 feet. The module is then repeated in the floor plan in both directions, ideally from one end of the building to the other. Mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems conform to the modular design as they are laid out over the length of the building, branching off laterally to serve each module. Even the structural system is designed to conform to the module. Modular design is extremely efficient and cost-effective, and it works well for most types of laboratories including research and development, pharmaceutical, and academic laboratories.

Unfortunately, the forensic laboratory resists the principles of modular laboratory design. This does not mean that the modular design approach is unworkable. It does mean, however, that the forensic laboratory designer may be forced to modify the modular approach by developing more than one module. It also means the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the single-module approach will not be fully achievable.

The problem lies in identifying a modular workstation that is compatible with all of the forensic laboratory sections. For example, the workstation for a DNA analyst is likely to be different from a workstation for a firearms examiner, which in turn is different from that of a latent prints examiner, which again differs from a document examiner’s workstation. Conceivably, in a very large forensic laboratory where there might be 30 drug analysts, a modular design could be developed for the drug analysis section. Similarly, a different module could be developed that would be compatible for each of the other laboratory sections. Multiple modules, however, tend to defeat the purpose of modular design because its efficiency and cost-effectiveness relies on the repetition of as few modules as possible and preferably a single module. The forensic laboratories’ resistance to a standard laboratory modular design principle, therefore, is another claim to its unique laboratory status.

Latent Prints Workstation
Latent prints workstation.

It is important to understand the forensic laboratory is not only unique among other types of laboratories, but it is a unique type of facility in its community. In most metropolitan communities, the publicly developed building projects include school buildings, government office buildings, post offices, and other public facilities such as libraries and maintenance facilities. Consequently, developers of most public facilities can take advantage of the learning curve developed from previous similar projects. In the same community there might be one forensic laboratory, if that. Therefore, there is no opportunity for a learning curve, and the resulting tendency is to try to relate the development of a forensic laboratory to some other type of public facility. This obscures the unique character of the forensic laboratory.

Why a Needs Assessment Is Crucial

A comprehensive needs assessment, prepared by a professional with experience in forensic laboratory planning and design, will be the document that is crucial to the successful development of a project. A good needs assessment seeks to answer at least four questions:

1. Why is a new forensic laboratory needed? This question requires a thorough assessment of the aging, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions of the existing facility.

2. What spaces should be included in the new forensic laboratory? Each room in each laboratory section, including utility spaces, should be identified.

3. How big should the new forensic laboratory be? Square-footage requirements for all identified needs should be tabulated to include the incorporation of applicable net-to-gross area factors.

4. How much will the new forensic laboratory cost? This question is usually answered by a dollars-per-square-foot cost estimate based on documented space and utility needs and on historical cost data.

Needs Assessment Versus Design Program

Frequently confused with the design program, the needs assessment is the first step in documenting graphic and narrative information from which the architectural and engineering design team designs the building. This information is completed when the needs assessment is taken one step further with the completion of a design program. The design program includes the needs assessment, but it goes farther to define room adjacencies, laboratory section adjacencies, architectural and engineering designer guidelines, office and laboratory space standards, and any special or unique conditions (for example, security requirements, evidence flow, laboratory gases, treated water systems, and special equipment needs). Although it is frequently practical to contract for the services of a needs assessment and design program at the same time, only the needs assessment document is necessary for the successful pursuit of project funding. As the first step in the planning and design process, the needs assessment can make the difference between a project that runs smoothly, on time, and without any surprises and a project that is characterized by unforeseen conditions, lengthy delays, and an apparent lack of direction.

The following describes a scenario that happens frequently and underscores the importance of a professionally prepared needs assessment.

Proceeding Without a Needs Assessment

The director of a municipal forensic laboratory realizes the need for a new laboratory facility. The current laboratory is overcrowded, and the building is obsolete. Through persistent lobbying, the director obtains political support for the project and receives the pledge of an influential member of the city council to spearhead the funding process. In view of the director’s experience in forensic science, it is determined that the director knows what is needed in the laboratory and can successfully document those needs. A staff engineer from the city’s facilities department is assigned to assist the director in preparing a funding request that includes the facility space needs and costs. The facility’s staff engineer will be responsible for calculating and documenting the building costs.

The director and the staff engineer prepare a formal funding request for presentation to the city council. The director identifies and tallies each required laboratory and administrative space, arriving at a total of 21,000 net square feet. The staff engineer suggests adding a 20 percent net-to-gross factor for circulation and utility spaces, a markup that has worked well for many other of the city’s public projects. This calculation identifies the need for approximately 25,000 gross square feet of space. For construction costs, the engineer refers to a cost catalog indicating university wet chemistry laboratories can be constructed for about $140 per square foot.

The final funding request submission is for a building of 25,000 square feet at a cost of $3.5 million. The funding request makes its way through the bureaucratic process and is eventually approved by the city council. Authorization is given to select a qualified architect to design the building.

The first task facing the architect is to prepare a design program that by definition includes a comprehensive needs assessment for use by the architectural and engineering design team. A needs assessment is a complex document that involves extensive input from division or department heads, building code officials, environmental quality officials, the fire marshal, forensic laboratory management and administrative personnel, the facility’s maintenance staff, and the building’s users including laboratory supervisors, technical staff, and support staff. The team preparing these documents led by the architect includes a mechanical engineer, a plumbing engineer, an electrical engineer, a civil engineer, a structural engineer, a telecommunications and security consultant, and a construction cost consultant.

After creating the needs assessment, which commonly takes up to 60 days depending on the scope of the project, the design team determines that if the gross building area is less than 35,000 square feet, the forensic laboratory will be overcrowded on the first day the building is occupied. In addition, it determines the construction cost for the completed facility will be approximately $6.3 million.

How can there be such a disparity between the amount funded and the amount the architect says is actually needed? Invariably, fingers first point to the architect, and many “Did you consider …?” questions are asked. Examples of such questions might be, “Did you consider a single floor versus a multifloor building?” “Did you consider the current contractor bidding climate?” and “Did you consider phased construction over time?” Because it is intended that a needs assessment cover all the bases, it can be considered comprehensive only if it answers these questions and many more.

The most significant question that must be answered before the project can proceed is, “How could the building be so much bigger and cost so much more than what was stated in the funding request?” The answer to this question is that probably the laboratory director and the staff engineer do not have the experience to know all of the factors that must be considered in arriving at accurate laboratory needs and costs.

There are many factors that might not be known to those without experience in forensic laboratory design that will influence the size of a facility. Fifteen professional societies, associations, institutes, and private organizations (click for listing) publish requirements relating to space needs. An experienced laboratory designer will no doubt know that 29 percent, not 20 percent, is the minimum net-to-gross factor used in determining laboratory space needs.

In order to determine accurate space and cost calculations, a comprehensive needs assessment should include a set of space standards, which consist of floor plan designs for typical laboratory, administrative, and equipment workstations. The needs assessment should also document the complexities of the forensic laboratory that place this building type at the high end of the laboratory construction cost range, whereas university laboratories are at the low end.

At this point, the director will have to obtain additional funding. As a result, the development of the forensic laboratory may be delayed indefinitely.

Completing the Needs Assessment First

Obtaining design and construction funding for a forensic laboratory project before having a needs assessment is equivalent to putting the cart before the horse. In the previous scenario, the laboratory director would have had greater success by pursuing initial funding for only the needs assessment. A needs assessment for a forensic laboratory will rarely cost more than $100,000 except for unusually large forensic laboratories and could be as low as $20,000. The approval process for such a relatively small funding request will likely proceed more rapidly than funding requests for a major capital improvement project.

Once the architect is selected and the needs assessment is completed, the advocates of the project will have an invaluable tool to continue the successful development of their project. They can point to this document and say, “This is the condition of our existing laboratory, and here is what we need. This is not just our wish list. It is an accurate statement of our needs as determined by a third party with experience in the development of forensic laboratories. This document covers all the bases, answers all the questions, and states the exact budget amount for which we are requesting funds.”

The needs assessment can also be used as a tool to assess future needs and costs. Demographic and forensic trend analyses are frequently among the studies included in a needs assessment. Using these studies, the experienced professional can predict with some accuracy future space needs and costs and future changes in forensic analysis needs as they relate to demographic and forensic trends projections.

The development of the project can then proceed smoothly and in a timely manner. Everyone emerges from the process as winners because of the successful development of a much-needed new forensic laboratory facility. Again, one of the major keys to success is doing the needs assessment first.

Beware the Old Abandoned High School Building (and Why)

Forensic laboratories constitute a very complex design challenge. They require an elaborate infrastructure of utilities and some unusual space requirements. It is extremely rare to find an existing facility designed as something other than a laboratory that contains the domestic water, laboratory water, laboratory gases, electrical utilities, and differentially pressured HVAC systems needed in a modern and safe forensic laboratory environment.

In addition, the critical space requirement rarely included in other buildings is the ceiling-to-floor height, more specifically the interstitial space between the ceiling and floor above. With the myriad of supply and exhaust ducts, HVAC equipment, and other plumbing and electrical utilities to be installed in an interstitial space, the floor-to-floor height for a laboratory should be at least 16 feet, a feature that most buildings do not have.

The biggest problem encountered when using the old high school or other existing building is that it is frequently not cost-effective. On the surface the concept appears valid because the existing building provides a foundation, floor, walls, and a roof (the shell) that will not have to be factored into the construction costs of a new building. Further examination, however, shows that the demolition costs can exceed shell costs.

Typical construction costs, on a national average, for the shell of a commercial building should be approximately $25 per square foot of building area. Depending on the condition of the existing building, demolition costs can, and frequently do, exceed $25 per square foot. Many of the specific issues pertaining to construction demolition are frequently overlooked during the initial cursory evaluation of the existing building. Some of these issues include utilities and infrastructure, mechanical systems, maintenance costs, drains, finishes, interior partitions, ceilings, building codes, seismic capabilities, asbestos, and roofing penetrations, each of which is discussed next.

1. Utilities and Infrastructure. Is the present condition of the building’s utilities and infrastructure, including domestic water, waste plumbing, HVAC distribution, and electrical distribution, sufficient to reuse, or does it need to be removed?

2. Mechanical Systems. What is the condition of the mechanical fans, blowers, chillers, and other systems?

3. Maintenance Costs. If the existing utilities are deemed satisfactory, will they become an expensive maintenance burden because of their age?

4. Drains. How much of the concrete floors need to be removed in order to install new laboratory sink drains, floor drains, and waste-line plumbing?

5. Finishes. Are the existing finishes acceptable for laboratory use?

6. Interior Partitions. How much of interior partitions with integral electrical distribution systems need to be demolished?

7. Ceilings. How much of the ceilings with their mechanical diffusers, light fixtures, and sprinkler heads need to be removed?

8. Building Codes. How much demolition and remodeling will be required for the building to comply with current and ever-changing building codes?

9. Seismic Capabilities. Does the building meet current seismic requirements, or will expensive upgrades be needed?

10. Asbestos. How much asbestos abatement will be required?

11. Roof Penetrations. In view of the extensive exhaust requirements for a laboratory, how many penetrations through the old roof will be required?

The possibility of remodeling an existing building always seems to have great initial appeal. It seems logical this approach will invariably save money and time. Proponents of the new forensic laboratory project should be aware this approach can frequently be far more expensive. If remodeling an existing building is to be considered for the new forensic laboratory, planners should include a feasibility analysis of the existing building in the needs assessment contract.

Why Laboratory Staff Input Is Critical

It is not uncommon for officials responsible for administering the project development funds to suggest that the needs assessment be prepared and the design of the facility be executed without input from the users of the facility. Their reasoning is that the laboratory staff will have the tendency to request spaces, utilities, or other laboratory features much larger or much more elaborate than what might actually be needed. The officials might claim they hired an architect as the expert with forensic laboratory experience, and the architect should accept the responsibility to determine space needs without input from the users.

As designers of forensic laboratories, my colleagues and I understand it is necessary not only to assess needs but also to validate needs. Validation of needs can include any of several processes including verification of requested needs with the section supervisor or the laboratory director, comparison of requested needs with other comparable forensic facilities, or seeking a second opinion from an expert in the same forensic discipline but from another forensic laboratory.

Although the architect might be charged with the responsibility of assessing and validating needs, the architect should not be responsible for determining needs. The determination of needs involves a number of factors to be considered over which the architect has no control and which require input from the users. Included among these factors is the laboratory’s organizational structure, administrative policies of the laboratory, laboratory equipment to be included in the facility, and laboratory procedures to be employed in the processing of evidence. All of these factors have a direct implication on the structure and content of the needs assessment and design program and have further implications on the design of the building.

It is generally understood in most scientific endeavors there is not a single right way to arrive at a valid scientific conclusion. There are usually many right ways, and this also holds true for forensic science. An example might be a firearms section that prefers comparison microscopy to be done at each examiner’s workstation, whereas in another laboratory a microscopy room might be provided for all firearms examiners to share.

The laboratory director or other management staff will be able to tell the architect their preferred way, but it takes the bench scientist to convey the precise details of the preferred procedures and equipment such that the architect can fully assess the implications of these preferences on the design of the facility.

User input in the needs assessment and design process should not be optional. It should be mandatory.

Why Offices for Forensic Analysts Are Essential

An article on laboratory design by W. David Gibson (“Lab Design Is in a State of Ferment as Facility Planners Seek Right Mix,” in Today’s Chemist at Work, Vol. 3, No. 5 [May 1994], pp. 22-27) referenced studies indicating scientists are spending less time working in the laboratory. The study stated, “Instruments are doing more of the manual work that scientists used to do. Scientists are spending more time in the office looking at data, much of it generated by those instruments in the laboratory.”

This trend appears to be applicable to forensic scientists also. A tour of most forensic laboratories will show office spaces are active with staff analyzing chromatograms, assessing DNA profiles, reviewing case files, completing examination reports, preparing for court testimony, and many other administrative tasks.

Those in charge of project funding will frequently suggest that a desk area be provided at the end of each laboratory workstation, thereby saving the cost of providing office workstations outside of the laboratory environment. However, the problem with putting office spaces in the laboratory is that it increases concerns for the safety of laboratory personnel.

A forensic analyst becomes instinctively aware of the safety hazards in the laboratory. If the analysts are required to remain in the laboratory while performing administrative tasks, many of their thoughts will be occupied with such concerns as the flammable solvent procedure their colleague is conducting in the adjacent fume hood or the laboratory cart full of chemicals being wheeled down the next aisle. The analysts will be instinctively calculating their reactions in the event of a fire or a chemical spill. This type of constant awareness is expected in the laboratory, but it is unnecessary in a relatively safe and less hazardous office environment.

Removing the analysts from the potential hazards of the laboratory and allowing them to focus on administrative tasks in a comfortable office setting relieves their minds of these laboratory safety concerns. The result is increased efficiency in performing the administrative tasks that occupy a significant amount of each analyst’s time. In addition, by spending less time in the laboratory, the potential for laboratory accidents decreases, thereby creating a safer environment.

The architect’s primary goal in the design of a laboratory and the laboratory administrator’s primary goal in establishing policy should be for the safety of personnel. Putting offices outside the hazards of the laboratory environment enhances the realization of this goal.

Why Forensic Laboratory Personnel Deserve Amenities

Politicians and bureaucrats charged with the expenditure of public funds are constantly aware of the need to get the absolute most out of taxpayers’ dollars. All buildings require minimal amenities such as drinking fountains and rest rooms. Additional amenities that might be considered include windows, skylights, artwork, display cases, and plants. Larger amenities might include a comfortably furnished breakroom with a kitchen or an open atrium in a multistory building.

The atrium, a space where staff can interact and discuss cases, enhances communication between laboratory sections in a multistory building.

My associates and I have found that forensic scientists are dedicated to their careers despite adverse working conditions in aging and overcrowded facilities. In order to increase both efficiency and morale, a pleasant and safe work environment with amenities is not only deserved, but it is essential.

The purpose of some amenities is simply to make the work environment a more pleasant place, so that coming to work is an event that people anticipate positively each day, and to provide a workplace in which one can take pride. Amenities such as skylights, art, and plants can turn a serious and technical environment into something more comfortable. Display cases in public entry spaces provide a means for staff to proudly display some interesting scientific apparatus, evidence from a past high-profile case, or other displays that highlight their profession to visitors.

Some amenities not only appeal to comfort and pride but have a very practical purpose. Windows can be included in the main corridor system providing views into laboratory spaces. This allows for laboratory tours to be conducted without taking visitors into the hazardous laboratory areas and among the evidence in the laboratories. Windows between laboratory spaces and even between laboratory sections provide a safety feature, through which staff in one room or section are provided with visual access to an adjacent space or section that can allow them to react more readily to a possible accident or safety hazard.

Even some of the larger amenities such as well-equipped breakrooms and atriums have a practical application toward laboratory efficiency. Analysts in many laboratory sections may be working on evidence from the same case, and communication among the analysts is very important. Interaction spaces, such as a comfortable and inviting breakroom, provide an excellent venue where analysts can look forward to meeting with their colleagues to discuss cases and brainstorm ideas.

An atrium in a multistory laboratory has a practical purpose. Many directors with multistory laboratories claim each floor of their laboratory tends to become its own separate entity, and one of their biggest problems is getting their staff on one floor to communicate with those on another floor. However, communication of staff from one floor to another is greatly enhanced if the facility is designed to include an atrium with an attractive open stairway or a partial glass elevator between floors. These features enhance the desire of personnel to communicate between different floors. Atriums tend to be magnets within the building and an ideal interaction space. Key features to an atrium can include balconied walkways around the perimeter of the atrium on each floor and a staff lunchroom/breakroom on the ground floor of the atrium. It is important to maximize traversing traffic through the atrium. This can usually be achieved by positioning the atrium between the laboratory spaces and the administrative spaces.

Building amenities are critical and vital elements in the design of a forensic laboratory. They promote efficiency, enhance communication and interaction, and provide a degree of congeniality to a working environment that can otherwise be technical and isolated.


In this era of intense forensic laboratory development, and in view of the aging and overcrowded condition of many of the nation’s forensic laboratories, the need for successful and timely project development is more critical than ever. In order to achieve success, it is important that the proponents of forensic laboratory development be aware of the complexity of their tasks and the obstacles that characterize the development process.

Overcoming these obstacles will involve a concentrated and dedicated effort to educate and enlighten. Issues such as the complexity and uniqueness of the forensic laboratory need to be fully explored. The inclusion of such practical and efficient concepts as user input, building amenities, and office workstations need to be encouraged throughout the development and design process.

Of prime importance to the successful development of any project is the understanding that a comprehensive needs assessment prepared by an experienced professional has the potential to cut the typical eight-year development process in half. A needs assessment that fully describes the inadequacies of the existing facility, defines current and future space needs, provides an accurate design and construction budget, and addresses the questions associated with the big picture is essential to the development of a successful forensic laboratory facility and to the overall efficiency and cost of the project.