The Devil is in the Details: Making the Best Material Selections for Your Facility
While designing or improving your laboratory, a lot of time and consideration goes into casework, fume hoods, and equipment. However, the supporting elements of your laboratory—the materials and finishes—are equally important froma standpoint of maintainability, durability, sustainability, color, affordability, and constructability.This article will help guide you through some of the advantages and disadvantages of the options you have when making material selections for your facility.
Flooring-We walk on it all day, each day, without giving it much thought. Various flooring options have specific applications.
- Ceramic tile: Often found in locker and shower rooms and in cart wash areas. It is durable and affordable but requires some maintenance and upkeep.
- Resilient tile (VCT): Used in common areas, storage, and some laboratory areas. VCT is inexpensive and easy to install. VCT requires significant maintenance and upkeep. Tile joints collect dust and dirt making it a questionable choice for laboratories.
- Monolothic floor (sheet vinyl, rubber, linoleum): Used commonly in laboratories, seams are welded and coved at walls to create an integral base. Monolithic floors are easier to clean and maintain than VCT but do cost more. Linoleum and rubber have the additional advantage of being sustainable products.
- Epoxy/terrazzo floor: Recommended for autopsy and necropsy facilities, coolers, freezers, and chemical storage areas. Epoxy is impervious to water making it a great finish for areas that will require wash down. Epoxy is more expensive than many other floor choices, but is also the most durable.
- Sealed concrete: Used quite often in vehicle exam bays and utilitarian areas, sealed, stained concrete is gaining acceptance in other areas including laboratory spaces due to its lower cost and durable nature, particularly with chemical spills. When applied correctly, stained concrete can be quite attractive.
Laboratory walls-They are commonly covered by casework and equipment or supplanted by windows. However, there are considerations to be made regarding wall finishes.
- Standard paint: Used inmost laboratory environments. Paint on top of gypsumboard walls is typically all that is needed. Paint and gypsumboard walls can be easily touched up when damaged and are inexpensive to install and maintain.
- Epoxy paint: Used in laboratories and service areas where wall cleanup is necessary. It is successfully used in some wet areas. Epoxy paint is also relatively inexpensive to install and maintain.
- Solid surface wall application: Recommended for wet areas where hose use will be common such as autopsy and necropsy areas. With proper seaming solid surface is impervious to water and scratches can easily be sanded out. Solid surface can be expensive but is a long-lasting application with minimal upkeep.
Ceilings- In laboratory areas, ceilings require some forethought for security, easy cleaning, and light reflectivity.
- Acoustical tiles (standard): Recommended in laboratory areas, lay-in tiles add acoustical dampening to the laboratory space as well as a reflective surface for indirect lighting. Care should be taken in choosing a tile that is not too porous and is somewhat dense to control any shedding of the product. Acoustical tiles are inexpensive to install and maintain.
- Acoustical tiles (cleanable): Recommended for high-humidity areas and areas where cleanliness is of greater concern. These tiles typically have a Mylar coating and are dense with little to no texture. Cleanable tiles are typically more expensive than standard tiles but are inexpensive to install.
- Gypsumboard ceiling (painted): A full gypsumboard ceiling may be necessary in very clean areas. The paint on these ceilings is often epoxy for ease of cleaning. This type of ceiling is recommended in autopsy rooms for odor control and easy clean-up. Full gypsumboard ceilings are also common in secure areas, combined with wire mesh for penetration resistance.
- Exposed structure: Found most often in utilitarian rooms, this is often the ceiling type of choice for vehicle exam bays and other spaces requiring special clearance. Although laboratories can have exposed structure, there is an associated maintenance cost for cleaning.
Casework- Laboratory casework also has specific selection criteria that stem from laboratory processes. It comes in four finishes.
- Plastic laminate: Although chemical resistant plastic laminate exists, laminate is purely a surface-applied finish and does not wear well within the rigors of a laboratory. It is prone to scratching and delamination and is not recommended for laboratory areas whenever possible. Plastic laminate is the least expensive of the alternatives but will also wear poorly.
- Wood: Laboratory-grade wood casework has been treated with finishes that resist chemical spills and perform well inmost laboratory environments. Laboratory-grade casework in wood can be equally cost efficient as metal and is often preferred over metal for the warmth is brings into the laboratory environment.
- Painted steel: Steel cabinets wear well and can be ordered in a variety of colors. Door and drawer fronts can be coordinating or contrasting with the base cabinet. Steel cabinets can match the finish of fume hoods, umbilicals, and shelving and so help unify the appearance of the laboratory. Combinations of wood and metal can also be found such as steel cabinet bodies with wood door and drawer fronts.
- Stainless steel: Utilized in wet environments, stainless steel is the most expensive of the casework options.
Countertops- Laboratory countertops also come in a range of materials and colors. Countertops are a critical element of the laboratory furniture system and can be exposed to damaging situations that can stain, gouge, or chip them. Depending of the lab functions, the ability to easily clean the countertop may be an issue for user hygiene and preventing cross-contamination of forensic evidence.
- Epoxy: With the advent of epoxy resin tops in colors other than black, lab occupants can choose lighter finishes for better visual acuity and reflectivity—gray is the new black! Black is still the standby for many laboratories and is less expensive to purchase than other colors. Epoxy is a through color material, so scratches do not show as readily. Epoxy is a good universal product.
- Laminated wood: Sometimes referred to as “butcher block,” wood tops are constructed of hard maple or oak planks laminated together creating a 2” thick top. This type of countertop is often used in Firearms and Digital Evidence shops and CSI garages. Wood is porous so should be used only where appropriate.
- Phenolic resin: this is the newest countertop material on the market today. Wood fibers are thermoset in resin to create an extremely dense and flat countertop. Phenolic resin cores are black but additional finish colors can be applied.As this is not a through-color product, scratches can be more apparent. Phenolic resin is more expensive than epoxy when compared at the same thickness, but due to product stability, thinner tops can be used and thus compare favorably with epoxy.
- Stainless steel: This surface gets high marks for ease of cleaning as well as resisting absorption, bacteria, and impact. This is a preferred material for medical examination facilities and sometimes in evidence scraping rooms orALS rooms where wet biological evidence is present.
Material selection in your laboratory is paramount. As the old saying goes, “The devil’s in the details.” Material maintainability, durability, sustainability, color, affordability, and constructability are all important aspects to consider when selecting materials for your lab. By educating yourself and your project team on the pros and cons of material options you can make the best choice for your laboratories and create a “heavenly” facility.
Ken Mohr is a Principal and Senior Forensic Planner and Susan Halla is a Project Leader and Senior Forensic Planner with Crime Lab Design which provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examination facilities worldwide.