As the science of DNA continues to evolve, forensic facilities are challenged to proactively plan for the ongoing evolution. With this daunting task never ending, questions upon questions are bound to arise.

For this article, five forensic experts have come together to answer three commonly asked questions involving DNA and forensic facilities. To give a wide perspective on each question, the experts, all a part of the Crime Lab Design team, represent many faces of the forensic industry. The experts include Mike Cooper, forensic engineering; Chris Knox, forensic equipment planning; Travis Krick, forensic facility design; Jon Kokanovich, forensic facility operations; and Susan Halla, forensic science.

Mike Cooper is a Senior Mechanical Engineer with 18 years of experience. Mike has been involved in the planning and design of numerous forensic science facilities, both in the United States and abroad. Equipment Planner, Chris Knox, has extensive experience with laboratory equipment. Chris is currently working on the Kuwait General Department of Criminal Evidence Headquarters. Travis Krick is a Laboratory Planner whose work, nationally and internationally, focuses on facilitating the most effective design for laboratory safety and efficiency. Jon Kokanovich is a Forensic Consultant and retired crime lab director. Jon has over 25 years of experience in forensic laboratory operations. Project Leader, Susan Halla’s experience involves both forensic and medical examiner projects worldwide, where she is actively involved in translating the user’s scientific needs into facility solutions.

QUESTION 1: How do I plan for a 20-year horizon when tomorrow is unclear?

Mike Cooper, Engineering: Although you may not be able to comprehend a 20-year horizon, future DNA laboratory infrastructure planning is founded on two timeless truths: DNA processes evolve from scientific methods to computer-based analyses and the criminal justice system relies on DNA evidence more and more each day.

Engineers respond to these truths and plan for a 20-year horizon by providing systems that support both traditional science (fume hoods, biological safety cabinets, etc.) and advanced instrumentation (heat-generating and environmentally sensitive equipment). For example, robust utility service corridors, serving the laboratory from outside of the laboratory itself, allow for system modifications with minimal interruption to laboratory function. This helps maintain highcaseload capability.

Chris Knox, Equipment: In 20 years, high caseload demands will be maintained using more computer-based analyses methods and equipment. Fortunately, as future case loads increase, computer-based equipment will become smaller and faster. This provides higher caseload processing power per square foot of lab space. From an equipment standpoint, forensic labs will not become larger; they will advance into more efficient and specialized spaces.

Travis Krick, Facilities: When you look into a 20-year horizon, the key to design of DNA spaces is flexibility. This is critical for solving future facility challenges. As you look at your future flexible space, realize the proven evolution of technology; as it advances, it becomes more compact. A mix of fixed and movable casework systems should be used to plan for these changes. Not only will this flexibility provide space for new technology, but it will provide a more efficient method of delivering services, which can be easily expanded for future use.

Jon Kokanovich, Operations: As you look 20 years ahead, reflect back on your past growth and the experiences of other facilities similar to yours. What areas have typically needed additional space or resources in the past, such as DNA? Make sure these spaces are readily expandable in the 20-year horizon. The best planning provides proper mechanical infrastructure either in place for future expansion or designed so it can be expanded easily. Planning closely with a forensic design team that has extensive experience in this area is an invaluable asset. The design team’s experience is not only important in the initial process, but also helpful in justifying your request for the design and space needed.

Susan Halla, Science: Be prepared for change in the 20-year horizon; it is inevitable. From enhanced collection methods to advanced processing and improved analysis, the processing of DNA is constantly evolving. One of the best ways to prepare is to remain flexible; not only with the use of space, but also the approach of processing and analyzing DNA. So far, one of the greatest advancements has been in sequencing, such as the next generation, pyrosequencing.

QUESTION 2: What can I expect for new robotic equipment and what will it replace?

MC: Robotic equipment will not likely replace engineered DNA facility systems, but it will impact the system design approach. Precise lab temperature and humidity will help assure long-term equipment operation and repeatability for reliable results. As the introduction of robotic equipment impacts DNA lab processes and staffing, facility life safety systems must adapt to protect lab personnel properly.

CK: In today’s modern DNA facility, robotics is extremely effective in processing DNA, yet as the science evolves, robotics will advance even more. The next generation of robotics will focus on volume and speed, with possible dedicated testing labs with completely automated, high-volume systems.

TK: New robotic equipment focused on volume and speed may increase in size temporarily, but will become more compact and efficient as it develops further. Keep this in mind when selecting casework. Using built-in casework to hold this type of equipment that will eventually be replaced with a smaller, advanced model is inefficient and costly for the long-term facility expenditure, as well as the allotment of space within a lab. Movable tables are the best option for robotics.

JK: Technology is always changing and is often unpredictable. One of the best ways to stay current on the latest innovations is to be heavily involved in the forensic industry. Attend conferences where the latest trends are showcased, network with others in the industry to learn what worked well for their labs and how the newest technologies have changed their processes, and always participate in continuing education.

SH: There is currently a misconception that robotic systems can reduce staffing needs. However, it is true that there will be a change in the type of staff required to maintain a large contingency of robotics. The staff needed include software engineers, programmers, and technicians. Expect new robotic equipment to speed up the processing time. Three hundred DNA samples may take a staff of 50 to process while in the same time, a robotic system can process 800 samples and have the capability to work around the clock, 365 days a year.

QUESTION 3:What are the latest trends for forensic DNA facilities? What advances can I plan for in my new facility?

MC: The science of DNA analysis and the supporting infrastructure is ever changing, but should be planned for in your new facility. More sophisticated instrumentation requires increased use of source heat and fume capture (snorkels in lieu of larger air hoods). Lab process changes without caseload relief require a utility infrastructure that can be modified without interruption to the lab function. More consistent and precise lab environments (temperature and humidity) are required to help mitigate claims of DNA evidence contamination. On a global scale, increasing energy costs continue to push engineers to design more efficient systems without sacrificing lab safety, flexibility, or performance.

CK: New arrays of specialized equipment and case management software are emerging. This trend is fueled by an increasing forensic market sector and future regulatory compliance standards.

TK: In your new facility, plan to provide specialized services throughout the laboratory and flexible floor space for movement of larger items within the laboratory. For example, if a specific piece of equipment needs helium, then multiple helium locations throughout the lab should be considered. This trend stems from the ongoing evolution of specialized equipment. While there is no need to eliminate all fixed casework, the ability to move pieces of equipment within the lab must be taken into consideration.

JK: To keep up with technology cost effectively, plan for flexibility in the design of DNA spaces. When planning for your new facility, keep in mind that while the latest advances offer much to your organization, they are useless if personnel are not heavily involved from the beginning. It is critical to have buy-in at all levels, from the lab director to the technician.

SH: The latest trends are evident in current forensic projects across the world. The following are examples of what is planned for a facility in Kuwait. All DNA processing will be accomplished in a linear flow of exam, extraction, prep, and amplification. Each line has the flexibility of analyzing nuclear, mitochondrial, and a low-copy DNA for both forensic and non-forensic cases to create a National DNA Database. Process times continue to shorten with the use of robotics and computer software, minimizing the interface time of the operator and reducing user error.

What does the future hold for DNA and forensic facilities? Flexibility in infrastructure and architectural planning is key as the science evolves. Planning for flexible facilities accommodates change in equipment, case load management, staffing, operations, and scientific methodology. To prepare for this evolution, reflect on past experience and follow the latest trends in the forensic industry.

Please feel free to contact the forensic experts with questions and comments.
Mike Cooper:
Chris Knox:
Travis Krick:
Jon Kokanovich:
Susan Halla:

Ken Mohr is a Principal and Sr. Forensic Laboratory Planner with Crime Lab Design, which provides full A/E services for forensic and medical examiner facilities.