When building a new facility, it’s important to know your limits and get help early rather than late.

The field of architecture and construction can be very foreign even to those groups closely aligned to the industry. Add the complexities of a scientific laboratory structure and the management of such a project increases exponentially. While it is true that you will (and should) be involved in your project from the start, your most important job is imparting your scientific knowledge and understanding of your lab’s process and protocol to the design team. While you already have a full-time job as a lab director or employee, your role with the design team can feel like a second full-time job. Adding on the complexities of overall project management is not a good use of your time or resources nor do you have the specific background or training to adequately manage such a task.

Many forensic laboratories have additional support structure provided by the municipality for which they serve. This may come in the form of a facilities department or even a staff architect or construction manager, if your municipality has an abundance of projects. While your internal staff may have the capacity and understanding to manage the construction of general public projects, laboratory facilities add quite a bit of complexity and unfamiliarity to the process. Crime laboratories in particular add an additional hurdle of understanding the strict security measures set forth by accreditation bodies and legal proceedings.

Professional project management organizations can address all of these matters and work with you to bring your project in on time and on budget. Because they are hired by you, they become the owner’s representative and act with your interests in managing the various players in the construction process such as the architects, engineers, contractor, and sub-contractors. They may also work with you to schedule procurement of owner-furnished equipment and furnishing items and manage the ordering, delivery, and installation of such items.

The County of San Diego recently completed their state-of-the-art $73M Medical Examiner and Forensics Center facility. Dedicated and occupied in December 2009, this facility employed the construction management company of Project Management Advisors ( to manage the construction of this 84,000 square foot facility. While the County of San Diego has a substantial Department of General Services that includes a project management group, they determined a need to hire an outside organization to assist with the management of this project. PMA was hired as a staff extension to this group and came onboard in May of 2007 when the project was in its final stages of design.

Why did the County of San Diego decide to hire an outside agency to assist with the management of this project? According to Mr. Jeff Redlitz, Architect for the County, PMA’s skill set was twofold in meeting the needs of the County. First, PMA had the ability and experience for the scale and volume of this project. While PMA did not have specific experience with Medical Examiner facilities, they did come to the project with extensive complex laboratory experience from the commercial realm. While the County of San Diego does have an extensive public works arm, like most municipalities their experience has been mostly in remodeling or smaller construction projects. Second, the most valuable asset of PMA for the County was their ability to think like the owner. When finding an organization to act for you, it is important to find both a company as well as a core team from that company who share your vision and can adequately represent you in their dealings with the construction team.

San Diego Project Management Crew

For the San Diego Medical Examiner project, PMA undertook quite a number of projects as an extension to the owner. Included in those tasks were quality assurance and control review of bidding documents, review and management of the bidding process, assistance with permitting, and all coordination with third-party vendors including testing and inspection of laboratory equipment such as fume hoods and bio-safety cabinets, coordination with audio/visual vendors and telecom. All of these services were in addition to their main task—full construction administration. A full-time staff of three was required to take on the monumental task of conducting and recording weekly meetings throughout the life of the project including the contractor, sub-contractors, architect, and specialty planning groups, directing all construction correspondence between the contractor and the owner, negotiating all changes to the project, conducting monthly billing reviews, managing and reviewing the punch-list completion, and overseeing the turnover of warranty and maintenance documents in addition to coordinating the training staff on systems.

One last function that PMA performed for the County of San Diego was to take on the monumental task of equipment procurement, installation, and move management. This is a process that is quite often delegated to the management structure of the laboratory and is a daunting task of ambitious coordination. This is also a subject that comes up time and time again in any forensic project and will undoubtedly be something that you will have to navigate when it comes time for your new facility. While it is important to engage equipment planning as a separate process throughout the design stages of your project, it is equally important to follow this through with representation for the purchasing, installation, and training required for the technical instrumentation necessary in a forensic laboratory.

PMA was tasked with managing the procurement, installation, and training process for all of the loose equipment for the forensic laboratory; this included placement of new equipment as well as planning for the successful move of existing equipment. One of the most challenging aspects of equipment coordination came in the installation portion of this project. It is not unusual for the entire process from inception and programming of a project until final construction, installation, and turnover to take ten years. The construction period alone can last from one to three years. In this amount of time, equipment from manufacturers can become obsolete or replaced by new models. Processes performed by the laboratory can also change requiring new equipment and systems which were not planned for at the time of drawing documentation. It is important to have an experienced, nimble team who are able to adequately track these changes and work as an interface between equipment manufacturers and the contractors who are preparing the infrastructure support.

Project management is a critical component to a successful project. While you may have a well-engaged and knowledgeable construction management group as part of your municipality, it is important to engage them early in the conversation and for all parties involved to understand any limitations or inadequacies that may exist in the management of a project with the specific scientific requirements of a forensic facility. Having these conversations early on in your project will allow your team to make decisions for fulfilling this key role and ensuring the success for the long term life of your facility.

Susan Halla is a Project Leader and Senior Forensic Planner with Crime Lab Design which provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities worldwide.