Forensic laboratories across the country are under funded, operate in inadequate facilities, lack the latest analytical equipment, yet have an ever-increasing demand for services. Many lab directors and users feel gaining financial support for a new facility is a never ending battle; a battle they will never win.

As a lab director, you need to learn how to develop specific planning strategies and methodologies for building support and obtaining financial resources for your facility's needs. Meetings and workshops are a good way to start building a case for a new forensic laboratory. Networking in this way can:

  • Facilitate learning from those in similar situations
  • Brainstorm ways to improve work processes
  • Assess the effectiveness of your existing laboratories
  • Get a broader perspective of current issues and trends in forensic facilities
  • Lay the foundation to build your case

These networking opportunities can help you build a case that fits your particular facility’s needs. Prior to developing strategies for solutions, it is essential that you take the necessary time to fully understand your agency’s political systems and the effects of new legislation on the lab. This will help you determine your position and build a stronger case for a new laboratory. At the meetings and workshops you attend, share specifics about your existing laboratory, operations, staffing, and funding. This will open up opportunities to relate similar situations of your peers. At workshop such as “Building a Case for a New Forensic Laboratory” offered by Crime Lab Design, the following tools are used to customize a case for your new laboratory:

  • Needs assessment questionnaire
  • Situational matrix
  • Process mapping flow diagram
  • Budget spreadsheet
  • Milestone schedule
  • Equipment matrix
  • Chemical inventory
  • Reference bibliography
  • Case studies

It is important to look at forensic laboratory trends, like the effects of new scientific breakthroughs on forensic facilities. The rapid advancement in computer forensics and highly sophisticated instrument requirements can greatly impact the mechanical, electrical, and fire protection services provided within a facility. New legislation can determine how work is managed by chemist and biologist as opposed to sworn personnel. Examining case studies on partnering and teaming with academic institutions or across jurisdictions can help you grasp the possible opportunities and see the many different faces in the forensic industry.

Currently, sustainable design in forensic laboratory planning is one of the most talked about trends. Some feel that sustainable design is not a good partner for laboratory design, particularly forensic design, because of the requirements in a laboratory environment. Even with mixed perspectives, more and more forensic facilities are adopting “green” design mandates, particularly those applicable to LEED.

It is important to begin strategizing how to best incorporate sustainable strategies into your facility early in the planning process. Despite the initial challenges, laboratory planning and sustainable design strategies cohabitate quite naturally together. Although upfront costs of green design may dip further into your budget, the long-term payback in facility cost savings has a greater impact on future operating costs. The money saved in operating a sustainable laboratory can be successfully employed elsewhere, like new equipment, additional staff, or much needed training.

Keep in mind that the impacts of sustainable design can also be measured in employee satisfaction, recruitment, and retention. For example, the use of natural light to supplement working conditions can improve visual acuity and color recognition as well as provide contentment and a feeling of well-being to the building’s occupants.

How do you know when it is time to start building a case for a new laboratory? Start by assessing your lab’s current and future needs by the following key aspects:

  • Forensic Services (i.e. Forensic Biology): forensic services drive the need for space
  • Existing Space Utilization: areas to improve space utilization issues
  • Functional Relationships: inefficient space adjacency
  • Infrastructure (air conditioning, plumbing): review of common issues found in aging labs
  • Environmental Health and Safety: hidden dangers that may effect laboratory occupants
  • Quality of Life: elements that enhance your environment in new or renovated labs

A number of forensic laboratory operations involve some physical or health hazard. Materials are used or analyzed that are toxic, infectious, flammable, or explosive. Understanding each hazard in different laboratory spaces is the first step in the design and selection of a Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. This is also critical in determining the required contaminant devices (chemical fume hoods, biological safety cabinets, snorkels, glove boxes, for example).

Forensic laboratories have a wider range of laboratory spaces than most other types of science facilities. Designing HVAC systems that support a facility this complex is a challenge, but key because the HVAC is critical in maintaining a safe and healthy indoor environment. A number of factors must be considered when selecting and designing the air supply and exhaust systems, building and safety controls, and central heating and cooling equipment so that the total system functions correctly.

Because there are a number of decisions that go into the design of the laboratory HVAC systems, the design engineer needs input from the scientific staff, building operations personnel, lab directors, and staff responsible for financial control. All of these people bring a different perspective on the needs and requirements of the HVAC system. For example, the ventilation system required for a drug chemistry lab is significantly different than what is required for a ballistics area. Each space is unique; there are no cookie-cutter solutions that can be generically applied throughout a forensic laboratory.

The methodology of programming, planning, and designing laboratories, whether new, renovation, retrofit, or expansion is fundamental for the forensic industry. Reaching consensus with owners, users, and staff on issues of scope, budget, future growth, and schedule allows you to proceed confidently into each step of the process and eventually construction. The following list of tasks is an example of what to expect during an intense onsite programming exercise at your existing location:

  • Collect and review existing data
  • Kick-off meetings
  • Conduct a goals, objectives, facts, needs, and concept session
  • Review trends
  • Tour existing facility
  • Interview users, administration, and additional focus groups
  • Establish space and equipment design criteria
  • Section diagram, critical adjacencies, and stacking diagrams
  • Calculate square footages
  • Develop organizational concepts and building plan concepts
  • Develop cost models

Workshops and seminars where you network with peers and work with experts will help you with the daunting task of developing specific planning strategies and methodologies for building support and obtaining financial resources. Check the agendas of upcoming meetings, such as ASCLD, for opportunities.

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