The Travis County Medical Examiner’s building was designed to allow natural light in autopsy suites, offices and laboratories. (Photo: SmithGroupJJR)

Difficult, gritty and emotionally intense work occurs behind the walls of a medical examiner’s office. For the medical professionals, it is a strictly regulated, highly secure and highly technical environment. For the public arriving at the facility, it is quite simply the worst day of their lives.

In Austin, Texas, the new Travis County Medical Examiner’s office building elevates the expectation of what a medical examiner facility should be. It recognizes the demanding and honorable mission of forensic science, a profession too often conducted in dark, windowless bunker buildings. Instead, it brings a world-class medical center to the community, one that better serves pathologists, scientists, technicians, law enforcement and grieving families.

Uplifting design

More often than not, medical examiner offices are in dark, fortress-like buildings or basements. For Travis County’s new facility, that convention was challenged. A highly secure, highly functional medical facility gives employees a world-class work environment and better serves the community as well.

Most striking is the abundance of natural light that brightens autopsy suites, offices and laboratories, provided by a continuous ribbon of clerestory glazing. A dramatic two-story glass public entry also allows a constant cascade of light, respectfully welcoming in the public. The ample daylighting provides several functional benefits. It offers additional illumination for autopsies and other medical functions, as well as passively reducing lighting loads and overall energy consumption.

The daylighting and other amenity-rich features also create a more inspiring setting for the facility staff performing challenging scientific work. It was a very deliberate decision to make the design provide a more humane work environment. Forensic pathologists are highly-trained physicians, and there is a significant shortage in the talent pool. These buildings must be visual, physical recruitment tools to help attract the top talent from around the country, drawing them in to serve a local community.

An elevated observation corridor allows law enforcement investigators to witness autopsies and converse with physicians, without entering the examination area. This not only keeps the individuals within the autopsy zone to a minimum but also provides a safer environment for others to observe as necessary.

Choreographing the flow

As they support the mission of medicolegal death investigation, forensic facilities must accommodate different user groups into separate and highly secured areas. At the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office Building, families enter through a prominent front door and into a serene space that honors and respects their grief. Alongside the lobby, private rooms provide an appropriate place for mourning. The family area is securely isolated from the rest of the facility, preventing any accidental interaction between the families and the staff conducting medical and investigative work.

The facility is more humane for families of the deceased. A substantial increase in autopsy stations—from two in the prior facility to nine—will significantly speed up the autopsy process. An onsite CT scanner gives pathologists access to an advanced imaging system that better supports the work happening in the autopsy zone than a traditional X-ray.

On the investigative/medical side, a forensic facility demands a discreet and complex flow of functions and must be adaptable to an unpredictable volume. After gaining an understanding of Travis County’s needs, the team conducted flow diagram exercises and benchmarked best practices from other forensic facilities around the world.

Choreographing the flow of the decedent through the facility is one of the most critical planning factors. The Travis County design capitalizes on the sloped site to create a systematic pathway for the decedent to move through the facility on a single gurney, beginning with arrival into the sallyport, to the cooler, X-ray space, autopsy suite and back. Strategic BIM coordination optimized system layouts, ensuring efficiency and accessibility.

By improving building flow and function, the design recognizes how forensic professionals work most effectively when they can collaborate. Pathologists are working as teams; investigation units are working as teams. There are many parallels to a corporate work environment where people need to be able to interact with one another. That communal aspect of forensic science is very important in serving justice and attracting talent, but has all too infrequently been addressed from a design standpoint.

The future of medical examiner facilities

The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Building claims an important stake as an iconic civic presence in Austin. A focus on planning and design for this building type strives to elevate the role of the medical examiner facility befitting its mission in the community. The building forms a strong urban edge that is an elegant addition to the Austin streetscape, elevating the expectation for this type of building.

The Travis County facility builds in flexibility for changing technology and capacity needs. (The county anticipates 40 percent population growth by 2050.) Lab benches and instrumentation are mobile and can be reconfigured as casework needs change. In the morgue, a moveable barrier can adjust receiving versus releasing areas as needed. Capacity can double with a shift in storage strategy. The building is designed to adapt with the changing needs of its forensic scientists, without slowing down their work.

With an eye to the future, the design reflects the facility’s role in becoming an educational resource. With the larger autopsy suite, Travis County can provide essential medical training opportunities, and is planning to establish a fellowship program in forensic science with the University of Texas. It can also serve as a regional training center for law enforcement and crime labs. There is an outreach aspect to create a talent pipeline for this critical profession and develop the skilled staff that will serve the broader community.

The facility supports Travis County’s sustainable initiatives with an environmental design that incorporates progressive energy and water conservation strategies tuned to the central Texas climate. Mechanical systems include a variable-primary chilled water system with water-cooled centrifugal chillers, a variable-primary heating water system with condensing boilers, central air-handling units, and a central laboratory exhaust system. A loop water system recovers energy from laboratory exhaust to precondition outside air when needed.

Because ventilation accounts for a significant portion of energy use in these types of facilities, the mechanical systems were organized to minimize outside air needs. Air handling units serve both office and laboratory zones, providing the labs with fresh air at levels 30 percent of ASHRAE minimums with no additional energy use. Laminar flow diffusers in autopsy spaces reduce airflow, and sensors on fume hoods modulate velocity when users step away.

Low-flow, sensor-operated plumbing fixtures account for a 40-percent reduction in water usage. Other green features include daylight harvesting controls, LED lighting and 100 percent stormwater management. The building is targeting LEED Silver certification.

The holistic environmental design illustrates how the building both honors the forensics profession and enhances the community. Ultimately, it is a building for the people, creating a lasting symbol of science, justice and civic pride.

Adam Denmark, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal at SmithGroupJJR and director of the firm’s national laboratory planning group. He has over 20 years of targeted experience in laboratory design and construction. Mark Kranz, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C is a vice president at SmithGroupJJR and a Design Director for the firm. Mark is a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects with over 100 regional and national design awards.