The concept of partnering in facility design was originally developed for the purpose of sharing risk. In the forensic industry today, the term partnering commonly refers to the synergy and economy that results when two or more groups merge resources to achieve a common goal. For a public institution wanting to add or replace facilities, partnering is a sensible strategy with shortand long-term financial rewards.

When the San Diego County Medical Examiner (SDME) and County Veterinarian needed new facilities, County Administrators undertook a needs assessment to understand what benefits might be obtained by co-locating both agencies under one roof. The initial benefits were expected to be shared construction and maintenance costs. In addition, the pairing of these agencies simplifies service delivery, reduces operating costs, and enhances the teaching and research partnerships for both the SDME and the Veterinarian in four key areas; laboratory, academic, building site, and overall facility.

This article explores the working partnerships and facts that drove the design of the new San Diego County Forensics Center. The new facility is approximately 84,000 square feet, including a limited basement, first and second floors, and a mechanical penthouse. Of the 84,000 square feet, veterinary necropsy and laboratories consume approximately 14,500 square feet with medical examiner autopsy and laboratories employing approximately 22,750 square feet. Necropsy and autopsy areas are located on the first floor with supporting laboratory spaces utilizing the second floor. Necropsy spaces include a BSL-3 necropsy suite with adjoining cold room and digester, a large animal necropsy suite with a ceiling hoist conveyance system, a small animal necropsy area containing two free-standing necropsy stations, and a necropsy bench area. The autopsy facility has five separate autopsy areas: a space for anthropology, dental, and embalming with two stations, a single-station suite (with separate cold room) for decomposition, a single-station homicide area, a teaching and research autopsy room with two stations, and the main autopsy suite containing 11 separate stations with planned future expansion of two additional stations. Construction of the new facility is scheduled to begin at the end of 2007 with occupancy planned for August of 2009. From needs assessment to completion, the lapsed time will exceed four years. This time frame is typical for public projects, with some taking longer if bonding or other public approvals are required. For the San Diego County project, there is a single source of funds. Smaller communities wanting to undertake a new facility may look to nearby universities or hospitals for partnerships, keeping in mind that some partners have time-sensitive grant funds that require project phasing.


Both the SDME and the Veterinarian are now located within a large county campus of multiple buildings. The Veterinarian also has an allied partnership with the Division of Agriculture, Weights, and Measures. All three entities require laboratory facilities. The initial building program anticipated open sharedlaboratory space but protocols impacted the outcome.

Toxicology & Histology
During the initial programming phase, concepts of laboratory partnering were envisioned to not only share laboratory space but also share lab processes and even case work. In the final design for the facility the County Medical Examiner and County Veterinarian do not share any laboratory spaces. The best case scenario was for the County Medical Examiner and County Veterinarian to share toxicology and histology laboratory space, however, the need for security clearances for Veterinary staff to work in the Medical Examiner labs prevented an open laboratory design with the agencies working side by side. The open lab concept would cause an increase to the County’s operating budget to raise the level of security clearance for each of the Veterinarian’s staff. To minimize the initial construction cost and ongoing operating cost impact of two separate toxicology laboratories, the two agencies developed new protocols that allow the laboratory to be built and staffed by the Medical Examiner but can include both SDME and Veterinary sample processing. Another factor to consider is the volume of samples each lab processes. Veterinary toxicology had a small enough volume of samples to allow the Medical Examiner lab to process the samples for them, allowing a single lab to be built. Despite the efforts to share one lab in histology,two separate labs were needed due to the high volume of samples.

Bio-Safety Level 3 (BSL-3)
A BSL-3 necropsy suite has been designed for the County Veterinarian. These spaces are costly to construct and operate. To prevent the expense of duplicating a high-containment autopsy suite for the Medical Examiner, the two agencies have the ability to develop a protocol for performing human autopsy withinthe suite should the Medical Examiner have the need.

Other Opportunities
Although the high volume of sample processing negated the shared use of histology facilities at San Diego, municipalities with a smaller caseload may have the opportunity to physically share laboratory space and instruments. Most protocols allow for sharing paraffin dispensers and microtomes as long as blades are changed. For toxicology, most protocols prevent Veterinarian andMedical Examiner staff from sharing a main laboratory space but it is often possible to share instrument rooms by having dedicated bench space for each agency. This helps to simplify the system design for piped gases, purified and chilled water, as well as adjacent instrument mechanical rooms. Sharing laboratory support reduces the need for redundant autoclave, glass wash, and reagent prep areas. Co-location also offers the opportunity for collaboration if an animal is found dead with its owner.

Since many potentially fatal viruses and diseases originate in birds and animals, such as West Nile Virus, Avian Flu, and SARS, both the Medical Examiner and Veterinarian take an active role in public health and safety programs. In San Diego County both the Medical Examiner and Veterinarian also have academic affiliations with several adjacent universities. These institutional relationships have an impact on facility requirements that include space for public circulation, tours, media access, classroom, and training facilities. Meeting and classroom facilities can be expensive spaces to construct, especially if they have extensive audio/visual equipment. The co-location of the San Diego Medical Examiner and Veterinarian allows for greater economy in brick and mortar costs for rooms that may not be used on a daily basis. Shared amenities allow for in-house partnering between the two agencies and proprietary amenities allow for out-of-house partnering.

At the San Diego County Forensic Center, the initial impact begins with public circulation that leads to a large classroom facility, accessible from both sides of the building. The classroom accommodates up to 50 students in a lecture format and up to 69 people in a traditional meeting format. This classroom will have the ability to accept video feeds from other parts of the Forensic Center complex to allow for remote viewing of procedures in either the autopsy or necropsy spaces.

For smaller groups, both the Medical Examiner and County Veterinarian have proprietary observation spaces adjacent to their autopsy and necropsy suites. These spaces are equipped with two-way auditory transmission in addition to large viewing windows and video cameras operable by the observer for close up viewing. The Medical Examiner will use their observation area not only for educational partnerships with schools and universities, but also to interact with other public safety personnel. The observation area will allow police and sheriff’s personnel to observe autopsies on homicide cases without actually being present in the autopsy room. This allows for more freedom of movement by doctors and forensic staff working inside the suite. The observation area improves the Medical Examiner’s ability to partner with the police academy to educate police cadets about autopsy procedures. This proprietary observation space will also be used to educate paramedics, public defenders, and attorneys.

A separate autopsy room adjacent to the observation area will be dedicated to teaching and research activities. The provision of a separate autopsy suite for teaching and research allows for instructional and other outreach activities to take place simultaneously with the day-to-day autopsy functions performed at the facility. Monthly investigatory brain dissections and several other educational procedures will take place in conjunction with the University of California-San Diego.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner also has a partnership agreement with the Lifesharing Community Organ and Tissues Donation, a non-profit organization that provides organ recovery, donor family support, and educational services for approximately three million people in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Currently, Lifesharing has a location at the County Medical Examiner facility for organ and tissue recovery. The new Forensic Center facility will have a suite within the first floor autopsy area with a separate entrance and cold room that will be leased back to Lifesharing. In the event that Lifesharing no longer has the need to lease this space, it can be turned into future expanded autopsy space for the county.

The observation area adjacent to the County Veterinarian necropsy areas has windows adjoining both the large animal necropsy room as well as several small animal necropsy stations. The size and configuration of the current veterinary facility prevents the extent of interaction with the County Veterinarian and outside agencies. The veterinary team wants to expand its current educational partnerships with local schools and universities. The new facility will accommodate growth in existing and future partnerships.

Co-locating the Medical Examiner and Veterinarian allows for sharing back-of-house, site, and layout features. A primary site objective for the SDME was secured public access. At their existing site the SDME intake area is not sufficiently secured or screened from public or media access. On the Veterinarian’sside, public access is required for county residents to drop off deceased animals for necropsy. By co-locating the two agencies, the Veterinary access is positioned closer to the main road with a controlled circular drive in and out of the drop-offcooler area. This allows the SDME back-of-house access to be positioned deeper into the site. The SDME intake and loading area is accessed by a monitored, gated entry away from the main road. Vegetative and physical barriers surround the rest of the SDME loading area including an expanded parking lot to accommodate refrigerated trucks in a mass casualty event.

In addition to the direct site partnering benefits, there are indirect benefits the county gains for its entire campus. Currently the County Operations Center is divided into three zones: Public Safety, Industrial, and Administrative. The new Forensic Facility will be constructed within the Public Safety Zone. A new master plan is proposed for the County Operations Campus, and will potentially include a new Sheriff’s Crime Laboratory. The current Crime Laboratory is four miles from the county campus. When the future Sheriff’s lab is built, the working partnerships between the Medical Examiner and Crime Laboratory will be greatly enhanced because they will be within walking distance. Once these agencies are located on the same campus, trace examination and transfer of evidence will be significantly improved. The new Forensics Center will act as the anchor for future campus development and the facility will help to define future building within the Public Safety and other campus zones.

The most obvious benefit of partnering is it brings together two or more entities into one facility to avoid building multiple structures. The greatest tangible impact of partnering is construction and operating cost savings. When both building occupants have similar functions, the savings can be even greater because of the potential for eliminating redundant space that has a lower rate of utilization.

By combining forces with another agency, users may be able to share spaces such as conference rooms, training rooms, rest rooms, and other non-technical spaces. Laboratories and autopsy facilities are among the most costly spaces to construct, therefore the most beneficial spaces to share. As of August 2007, the most recent cost estimates for the SDME-Vet facility were $700/sf. The project was let for bid in September of 2007.

Partnering makes sense not only from an initial and operational cost standpoint, but also from a sustainable standpoint. There is greater economy and value in sharing building systems by reducing the construction cost of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. This also reduces the square footage that an agency must pay for in full. “Mechanical systems tend towards being cheaper per square foot for larger systems,” said Matthew Pettit, a mechanical engineer from Harley Ellis Devereaux that worked on the Forensics Center. “By building one larger building instead of two smaller buildings, my efficiency for delivery of services raises.” By having one building, fewer mechanical systems will be used thus reducing the total cost of mechanical systems.

Pettit also said, “With one larger building, you create fewer control points that need to be maintained.” This reduces the cost of maintenance for mechanical systems. There is also the added benefit of fewer maintenance staff required for facility upkeep. Facility management staff for two buildings might normally include a total of four personnel, but in a shared facility this number could be reduced to three.

As a basis of economy it is said that volume equates to savings. This example holds true for construction as well. The cost of a building becomes less expensive (on a cost per square foot basis) the larger the structure. Building two 30,000 square foot buildings with two sites costs significantly more than a 55,000 square foot building on a single site not only because of a lower basis of construction cost, but because of the reduced square footage from shared spaces.

The San Diego County Forensics Center is just one example of the levels of partnership that are available to agencies wishing to co-locate. Regardless of the emphasis on sharing office, technical, building systems, or land, partnering is a strategy that is not only practical but sustainable. The participants from the San Diego County Medical Examiner and Veterinarian worked collaboratively throughout the process of design. They understood staying focused on their common goals was the greatest benefit to all parties involved. We hope sharing these concepts will help open up avenues of discussion within other local agencies to promote the sharing and smart utilization of money and resources.

Susan Halla is a Project Leader with Crime Lab Design, which provides full A/E services for forensic and medical examiner facilities. She is currently working on various forensic projects across the country. Susan may be contacted at

Travis Krick is a Forensic Laboratory Planner with Crime Lab Design. He is currently working on numerous forensic projects across the country. Travis may be contacted at

Editor’s Note: Read more about the San Diego Forensic Science Center in an article by Glenn Wagner, DO, from the February/March 2006 issue of Forensic Magazine®which can be found at