Through surveys and interviews, crime lab directors have talked about various challenges they face in regard to their facilities and operations. Responses reveal several common issues related to lab renovations/additions or new facilities that are at the top of their minds. Let’s take a closer look at some of these notable and interesting challenges.

  • How to retrofit a building into a forensic lab that was not originally constructed as a laboratory.
  • Understanding the pitfalls and challenges of pursuing a forensic laboratory renovation.
  • Understanding the actual costs for renovating a forensic laboratory.
  • Applying up-to-date standards for facility design criteria, including size, layout, and engineering.
  • How to make a flexible lab design that satisfies current and future disciplines.

To Renovate or Not to Renovate
Any building can be renovated into a crime lab, if you throw enough money at it. The problem is that you have very little money and must spend it wisely. Begin with a simple evaluation of the existing building for possible retrofit into a state-of-the-art forensic facility. You should observe the following four areas, giving each item within these areas a score of either “0” for bad, “1” for good, or “2” for great.

Exterior envelope – Examine the doors and windows, foundation and walls, and then check out the roof. Look for straight horizontal and vertical lines. If these lines are no longer straight, then the building has settling problems, leading to leaks, entry of vermin, and costly maintenance throughout the life of the building. On the roof, you should not see holes or punctures in the membrane, flashing should appear intact, and there should be few visible signs of patching. Also check inside the building for water damage or stains in ceiling tiles, walls, and floors.

Interior quality of life – As you enter the building, ask yourself “How does it feel?” Look for a place that feels open not confined, has natural light or the possibility for it, welcomes you, and shows great potential of meeting your needs. A facility that is inviting stimulates positive morale and directly effects work habits and productivity. Flexibility – Pace off column spacing in both long and short directions. If the bay in the long direction of the building is a multiple of anything between 10'-0" to 12'-0", you should be in good shape. If the bay in the short direction of the building also follows a multiple between 10'-0" to 12'-0", terrific! If they are identical, then that might outweigh every other problem with the building. Equal bay spacing along both sides allows you to rotate individual rooms 90 degrees, adding to a higher degree of flexibility.

Infrastructure – Finally, inspect the building’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems. No, you don’t need a professional at this point. Rather than trying to determine the condition of these systems, look for the following: room to adequately maintain or replace the air handling unit; many electrical panels feeding electrical distribution throughout the facility; running water with decent pressure; and sprinklered fire suppression system. These indicate that the building follows some life safety codes.

Now, total your score. If it is 7 or less, run away as fast as you can. If it is 11 to 18, further investigation is needed. Don’t let it go if your building evaluation score is 22 or more. Retrofit may be a viable option.

Future Growth
We are seeing more laboratories adding and/or expanding their forensic biology (DNA) capabilities over any other unit. Most growth is being planned for Nuclear DNA, since the FBI is establishing regional Mitochondrial DNA labs around the country. When planning for new or an expansion of forensic biology capabilities, it is most important to map the flow of material and understand the necessary steps needed to ensure proper containment and avoid cross contamination. Forensic laboratories across the country are currently practicing these simple material flow approaches: Daisy Chain, Linear, or Separation of Activities through Time and Distance

In the Daisy Chain, personnel and material move from space to space or from dirty to clean, starting at the beginning of the DNA process. In some cases, you could even exit the DNA process at or near the same place you entered.

The Linear approach moves the material through the DNA process, not the personnel. This is accomplished with a series of pass-throughs.

Separation of Activities through Time and Distance simply separates the pre-amp activates away from the post-amp activates using separate bio-vestibules for each.

Issues that Wake You Up in the Middle of the Night
The following concerns are the most often mentioned:

  • Not enough staff to do all that is required or asked; burnout and safety of some of the staff.
  • Ensuring proper health, safety, and security conditions.
  • New lab built with little to no input from the people actually working there—cumbersome functionality; inefficient/wasteful or unusable; ambiguous and vague planning of how the new lab is going to function and when the process will actually begin.

Adding staff is not as easy as it seems, even when you get past budget cutbacks or the hold on new hires. Posting an opening for a new CSI or an examiner may result in a flood of resumes. Due to the media’s glamorous portrayal of forensic science in recent times, you may receive several resumes from PhDs for one CSI position.

Improving safety and reducing burnout without hiring staff can be a challenge. Most forensic facilities are cramped, lacking equipment and physical space. However, there are ways to improve the use of existing space. For example, stack equipment vertically and bring services to the bench from overhead to free up bench space. When it becomes necessary to expand, remember to begin planning from where you should be with existing staff, equipment, and functions. Then you can grow the facility effectively.

Ensuring proper health, safety, and security conditions within the lab should not keep you up at night. Begin with checking ergonomics at the bench. Do your criminalists have a proper chair? Next, check for ventilated enclosures and hygiene. Is a snorkel, fume hood, or biological safety cabinet available? Is a hand sink available? Security measures can include storing evidence in a lockable drawer or cabinet when away from the bench.

Involving the users in the planning and design process of building a new laboratory or renovating an existing facility is critical to its success. Designate a user representative who can stand in when the lab director is not available. This individual has the responsibility to communicate the needs of the staff to the design team. Planning the facility with lab modules is another way to ensure flexibility for the life of the building. This method inherently improves the effectiveness of the lab space and process flow.

The design process must begin with you. As soon as you realize that a new or renovated facility is needed, make a preliminary assessment of your existing surroundings. Document and analyze your needs, and develop some planning concepts. The outcome should establish a projected target year (2025), the number of staff needed at the time of occupancy, the size of the facility, and the projected cost.