In today's modern forensic facility many criminalists and examiners have expressed the need for flexible laboratory space. Rapid changes in laboratory instrumentation and forensic science methodologies, as well as increased case loads, have made a more flexible and open laboratory environment a goal. How can the multiple benefits of an open laboratory environment (improved floor plan efficiency, introduction of natural light, increased communication among staff, and future flexibility) be achieved and still provide a secure and safe environment for both evidence and staff? Today's forensic planning consultants have the knowledge and the skills to deliver a safe, open laboratory environment for the forensic community.

Forensic Laboratory Planning
In the last eight years, the planning of forensic laboratories has evolved. Historically, they were planned by healthcare or criminal justice architects, where now they are programmed, planned, and designed by specialized forensic laboratory consultants. These new forensic laboratory consultants combine the lessons learned from a variety of laboratory facility types to create tomorrow’s state-of-the-art forensic lab. Today's forensic facility occupants wish to be a part of the design process that will provide the best possible space for today and the future. One tool forensic planners use to achieve this is called modular design planning. While modular design organizes the laboratory building, it also organizes the utility systems and their distribution throughout the facility. The combination of building organization and infrastructure creates a facility that is intrinsically more flexible and adaptable, easier to renovate and modify, extending the useful life of the laboratory.

Modular Planning
Modular planning uses blocks of space of proportional sizes to give the designer and the user multiple options for achieving a flexible facility. These blocks of space, or modules, respond to the functional dimensions necessary for forensic science activities. Modular planning takes into consideration acceptable lengths and depths of laboratory casework, structural systems and column bay spacing, fixed and movable laboratory equipment, ergonomics and the user's health & safety, along with code requirements.

Once a module size is developed for a specific user or facility, the modules can be laid out together as a floor plan and the laboratory begins to take shape. Modular planning does not mean that each module has four walls and a door, rather it is a space assigned to a specific function, activity, or occupant.

Let’s look at an example for a typical firearms section with six examiners. Through interviews, benchmarking, and industry standards we have determined that each examiner requires 120 NSF (net square feet) for an examiner's workstation, 120 NSF for an office, and another 720 NSF of support space for reference weapons, ammunition, and temporary evidence storage within the section. The programmed NSF is equivalent to 960 NSF or 4 modules of 240NSF for each examiner. The firearms section, therefore, is made up of 5,760 NSF or a total of 24 modules of 240 NSF for six examiners.

An industry standard in firearms is the combination of office space with the examiner's workstation area. This is possible because there are no chemical hazards present at the examiner's workstation. If we apply this practice in a planning concept, an open laboratory environment of 1,440 NSF (six modules) for office and examination activities is created, giving the examiners a larger flexible space, rather than their individual space, in which to work.

The open laboratory concept is an efficient floor plan. With fewer walls and doors, fewer dedicated corridors are needed for circulation through the space. Older forensic facilities were designed for each occupant and each instrument to have its own room. This design strategy lacks the internal flexibility of the space; the rooms are "landlocked" and unable to change when additional personnel are added, there is a change in scientific methods, or new equipment is purchased. We have seen a 20% to 22% improvement in today's open laboratory environment come from the net square footage to gross square footage ratio. The net to gross ratios for most new forensic facilities falls between 62% and 66% efficiency for the entire building with 50% to 58% efficient on a heavy lab floor and 65% to 72% on a heavy office floor. Concepts that can alter the building's efficiency include the use of dedicated corridors for transporting evidence, incorporating a public tour route with the laboratories, and the open laboratory environment.

Critical to the success of the open laboratory environment is providing the necessary levels of protection to the evidence, staff, and facility where it is needed. With the advent of technology and good laboratory planning and design, we are able to achieve the necessary protection without putting everything and everyone behind six inches of concrete and below grade. The best approach to providing protection beginning from the outside of a facility looking in. Imagine the facility as if it were an onion; peeling back layer upon layer until you arrive at the laboratory core of the facility.

  • The first layer of the onion is the site and building perimeter, which can be monitored with well-camouflaged technology and beautifying landscape elements to improve standoff conditions.
  • Utility services feeding the facility should be evaluated for the desired level of redundancy.
  • Controlled approaches to the facility for vehicles, visitors, and staff as well as access into the facility should consider x-ray, metal detectors, CCTV and visual surveillance.
  • Once in the facility, visitors should be screened at a security desk, evidence is logged into the lab's "chain of custody," and staff can utilize proximity cards or biometric devices.
  • Provide long and short term evidence storage, a room to review cases without the evidence leaving the facility, and evidence tracking systems.
  • Within the laboratory and at the bench utilize individual evidence storage units, secure exam rooms with limited access, and bulk section storage in a monitored environment. Depending on the sensitivity of the evidence, vibration and motion sensors, CCTV, and redundant access control can be employed.

Quality of Life and Safety
It's proven that the better the quality of life, the better the productivity of the occupants of the facility. Forensic scientists have been some of the most resourceful people when it comes to lab space. They can take a recently vacated jail cell and convert it into evidence holding or even a laboratory support space without removing a single cubic foot of concrete or cell door. However, it is not desirable to set up scientific equipment in such spaces; not only is bad for morale, it doesn't add credibility to the scientific process of evidence examination.

The open laboratory environment does improve morale within the staff and reinforces the credibility of the forensic system. The larger volume of space is better equipped to reject heat from laboratory instrumentation than small rooms, which translates into better ventilation for users. Locating the laboratory along an exterior wall allows natural day lighting into the open lab and travel through to the corridors or the offices beyond. Daylighting also provides a means of visual relief for the laboratory occupants, improves visual acuity, and reduces eye strain; not to mention being able to tell if it’s going to rain or see the morning sun. All of these improvements benefit the level of safety in the lab by allowing the users to watch over each other, reduce laboratory accidents, and provide checks and balances of evidentiary security.

Without communication we have nothing. In a forensic lab, close communication between scientists, criminalists, examiners, and detectives is required on a daily basis. These conversations typically involve discussions about evidence and the findings associated with it. The evolution of the open laboratory environment, besides providing the space to review, examine and analyze evidence, also provides opportunities for individuals to work together to solve crimes. By working on adjacent benches in an open lab, rather than in individual labs and offices, criminalists can easily meet, converse, and discuss aspects of a case. More communications in the lab can enhance collaboration; increase the performance of successful scientific investigations, help staff stay current with scientific methodologies and the ever changing needs of forensic instrumentation. Visual and verbal communications improve team work and lab safety, thereby reducing the number of laboratory incurred injuries and the potential for the mishandling of evidence.

There are many benefits to utilizing an open laboratory environment for forensic science. These include improved communications among scientists, which can produce the ability to more easily collaborate and lead to more successful scientific investigation outcomes. In addition, the flexible space of an open laboratory make managing change, whether for different scientific protocols and procedures or for the changing landscape of forensic instrumentation, much easier on the forensic staff , and quality of life can be achieved in a safe environment.