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Brains, Design Intellect, and Beauty—a Complete Package

Green.
Welcoming.
Collaborative.
Open.
Educational.
Bright.
Sexy.

These are not words that are ordinarily attributed to forensic facilities, but with the new standard of buildings, these words have become paramount descriptors of the new face of forensic science. Previously such words may only have been attributed to laboratory facilities from privately funded scientific ventures or high-profile university work. However, current economic factors for construction along with smart and fresh design have brought these adjectives into reach for every forensic facility.

Figure 1: The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory. A welcoming exterior acts as an ambassador to the public. © Joe Atchity

Figure 1: The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory. A welcoming exterior acts as an ambassador to the public. © Joe Atchity

The Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory headed by Susan Shankles was completed in September of 2011. Just shy of 60,000 square feet, the facility had a construction cost of $22 million and houses eight forensic specialties: forensics/electronic media, forensic biology/DNA, latent prints, trace chemicals, arson, explosives, controlled substances, firearms, and toxicology. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory in Olathe, Kansas, is headed by Gary Howell and was completed in March of 2012. This facility is 62,500 square feet and also has a construction cost of $22 million. The lab is comprised of seven forensic departments: serology/DNA, trace evidence, controlled substance analysis, firearms and toolmarks, latent prints, crime scene investigation, and digital forensics. Each of these facilities embodies the characteristics of the words above. Each of these facilities too, was completed on time, on budget, and is an exceptional steward of the public money bestowed upon it for construction.

Green
Both of these new facilities, as most new facilities built under the auspices of a governmental agency, are pursuing accreditation through the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program developed by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council). The USGBC bestows four levels of accreditation upon buildings that meet increasingly stringent levels of sustainable building practices; the lowest level being Certification, continuing to Silver, Gold, and at the highest level, Platinum accreditation. Each of these buildings has surpassed the LEED requirements set by its community; the Tucson Police Department Crime Lab is pursuing Gold Certification and the Johnson County Criminalistics Center will be the first forensic facility in the country to achieve Platinum Certification under the current USGBC requirements.

Meeting such stringent environmental requirements necessitates much forethought in design and utilizes many varied sustainable measures to meet the goals set by USGBC. The sustainable design features of the Tucson facility include the collection of rainwater from the roofs in an underground cistern supplying 100% of the irrigation needs of the native desert landscaping of the site, large roof overhangs and automated roller shades to manage the intense southern summer sun, low-flow plumbing fixtures to conserve water use, a sophisticated mechanical system utilizing variable air volumes with hydronic reheat, and parking lot shade structures with photo-voltaic arrays. As a testament to the power of sustainable design, the Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory received a rebate check for over $47,000 from the Tucson Electric Power company at the grand opening of the facility. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory project has implemented ground source heat pumps and an enthalpy wheel as part of an equally-sophisticated mechanical design. Other energy savings measures unique to this project are roof-mounted solar arrays and a vegetated roof structure. As shown by the Tucson financial rebate, sustainable design can mean real savings for taxpayers for the day-to-day facility and operational costs.

Welcoming
Forensic facilities are visited every day by different groups of people, so it is crucial that they present an accommodating welcome for visitors as well as the inhabitants. Outside agencies, visiting educational groups, and governmental dignitaries—all of these groups are well served by providing a presence that welcomes and invites. Groups are particularly tricky to accommodate; many agencies including the Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory organization do not allow tour groups to enter laboratory spaces at any time. Allowing well-placed windows for views into the laboratory can be one key to solving this issue. Intelligently designed layouts of publicly-visible private spaces can also help to provide a welcoming nature to visitors. The Johnson County facility has one front door for all visitors—agencies and groups alike—but has specialized areas for accommodating each of these groups while maintaining overall facility security.

Collaborative
Each of these organizations is moving from conditions where the analysts of various areas were working in exceedingly cramped quarters, to spacious, modern facilities. With this decanting of people to much larger spaces comes the potential loss of camaraderie and collaboration. While each group within the forensic facility requires spaces that are secure and unique to their individual specialty, designing collaborative spaces in new facilities mitigates the risk of losing this collaborative sense; sometimes forced togetherness is important.

In the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department Criminalistics Laboratory, a two-story atrium was placed in the midst of all of the individual laboratory spaces. It has been named “Locard’s Plaza” in honor of the French pioneer of forensic science, Edmond Locard. The Plaza houses library materials for general reference along with comfortable furnishings that can be rearranged for one-on-one or group discussions. Close by are conference rooms available for larger or more private conversations. Additionally, the break room and adjacent outdoor patio provide more zones for inter-group collaboration.

The Tucson Police Department Crime Lab also has a central two-story atrium ringed by laboratory, office, and meeting spaces. Similar comfortable and movable seat groupings can be found here as well. The open atrium of the Tucson facility is crisscrossed by various bridges and walkways encouraging accidental meetings by various groups within the laboratory as they navigate from evidence intake back to lab or from office to break areas.

Open
Figure 2: The Johnson County labs have open laboratory environments that allow clear views of those working and space for future staff expansion. © Joe Atchity Figure 2: The Johnson County labs have open laboratory environments that allow clear views of those working and space for future staff expansion. © Joe Atchity

Particularly when it comes to safety, an open lab can be a safe lab when appropriate for the application being performed. Both the Tucson and Johnson County labs have open laboratory environments that allow clear views of those working in the lab. Spaces are also adequately generous such that future expansion can occur to staffing of the laboratory spaces without sacrificing the safety of inhabitants or evidence.

Space considerations are not only for the actual floor area of a lab but also for its volume. Both facilities have an adequate ceiling height of 10 feet in most laboratory spaces to provide vertical volume that enhances openness and comfort. In the Johnson County facility, the crime scene investigation unit has three vehicle processing bays. The placement of these bays under the mechanical room allowed for much higher-than-normal ceiling heights, by raising the upper floor four feet higher relative to occupied areas which means that the ceiling heights of the vehicle bays are just over 19 feet. This height is tall enough to lift even large-scale passenger vehicles and some commercial vehicles.

Figure 3: In the Tucson Police Department Crime Lab, the entrance to each section has a display area where each unit has set up information about what they do. By Keith Whittle Educational
All new forensic facilities will be asked time and again for tour opportunities. Quite often these tour requests are from other facility managers who are in the early planning stages for their facility. These are groups that know the science and to whom the educational aspect is not a primary goal. However, most laboratories will be required to provide educational tours to other groups: police cadets, visiting political dignitaries, school groups, citizen’s academies, or even the general public, if it is prescribed as necessary by the local jurisdiction to provide openings for community citizens to come to tour. Providing educational instruction to these groups by communicating the important role a forensic facility plays in the community is an aspect not to be forgotten.

Figure 3: In the Tucson Police Department Crime Lab, the entrance to each section has a display area where each unit has set up information about what they do. By Keith Whittle

In the Tucson Police Department Crime Lab, the entrance to each section has a display area where each unit has set up information about what they do and the tools that they use to perform their work. Tucson has also taken the time to interview the individual sections about their work and edited these into short video presentations that can be shown to visitors explaining the intricacies of each individual unit. The Johnson County laboratory has similar department-specific displays and also provides visitors with a touch-screen kiosk in the lobby that highlights the sustainable features of the facility and explains, for example, real time information about how much energy consumption is lowered or what energy cost savings have been realized. Educational spaces in the Johnson County facility also include a large training room located on the public side of the security zone that can be used by citizen groups to increase the overall facility outreach to the community.

Bright
Both the Tucson and Johnson County projects incorporate a two-story atrium element where skylights and clerestory windows bring natural light into the central core of the building, penetrating down into the lower level. The laboratory spaces in both projects ring this central atrium space, allowing both interior and exterior windows in each laboratory to bring in as much natural light as possible. Perimeter exterior windows are provided with solar screens that project out above each window and provide much-needed shading from strong summer sunlight, while allowing the lower-elevation winter sun to penetrate further into the building when more solar gain is warranted. Each facility has a series of electronically-controlled sun shades on the inside of perimeter windows that protects from glare or direct sun conditions in working areas while still allowing ambient light to penetrate for illumination.

An additional sustainable feature of both laboratories is the use of daylight sensors—when a room achieves adequate ambient light levels due to natural daylighting, ceiling fixtures will turn off in those areas to save energy and will automatically turn back on when daylight levels drop below the acceptable threshold. In the Johnson County Lab, additional lighting was desired in the screening rooms. In the past this has been handled by medical exam lighting, but the additional electrical load of these fixtures had a negative impact both on the power consumption and heat gain in the exam spaces. The solution was to use new, high-output LED fixtures that use a gridded array of LED lamps that produces an almost shadow-less and extremely bright, clean light onto exam surfaces.

Sexy
Sexy is an adjective not often assigned to forensic facilities. The nature of a public facility such as a forensic facility is one of utility—both by merit of the task at hand (serving the public) as well as by the scrutiny of public money for the construction of such facilities. However, utilitarian design does not have to be institutional. It can be playful, attractive, and yes, we’ve said it—SEXY. Both of the highlighted projects have that sex appeal, from two very different perspectives.

Figure 4: The Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory was designed to coexist with its native desert environment. Courtesy of WSM Architects Figure 4: The Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory was designed to coexist with its native desert environment. Courtesy of WSM Architects

While the Tucson lab is white and clean, the Johnson County lab is warm and embracing. By merit of its white interior, the Tucson Police Department Crime Lab has much more in common with a museum than an institutional facility. The white walls offset laboratory themed artwork and highlight the colored entryways into each section. Segmented light fixtures that form a circle accent the circular clerestory ceiling element in the atrium. Even the practical tensile structures in the parking lot have excitement and movement while providing needed shade to cars from the harsh desert sun.

In the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department Criminalistics Laboratory, the central stair and bookshelf element of Locard’s Plaza are made of sustainable ipe wood—chosen not only for its beauty but for its practical durability for use in a feature stair. The patio area adjacent to the break room is located away from the public eye—a design feature that is again practical in nature, working with the site’s topographical features and not against them.

At face-value, design for forensic science is practical. It provides a safe work environment for employees as well as a secure environment for evidence and sensitive materials. It is economic and budget-driven. But the new face of forensic science is more than that. It is sustainable. It is smart. It is beautiful. Donald Norman, an engineer, psychologist, and usability design expert has said it best, “Beauty and brains, pleasure and usability go hand-in-hand in good design.”1 We would agree.

References
1. Norman, Donald A. “Emotional Design” Ubiquity Magazine, 2004, January Issue, page 1.

Susan Halla (susanh@crimelabdesign.com) and Keith Whittle (keithw@crimelabdesign.com) are Senior Forensic Planners leading projects from inception to completion for Crime Lab Design providing full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities worldwide.

Keith had the pleasure of working with WSM Architects (www.wsmarch.com) from Tucson, Arizona, on the Tucson Police Department Crime Laboratory project. Susan had the pleasure of working with PGAV Architects (www.pgav.com) from Westwood, Kansas, on the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department Criminalistics Laboratory (and even met her new husband on the project). We would like to thank both firms for their insightful leadership and design acumen on these projects.

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