Wanted: A new paradigm for forensic sciences that promotes collaboration and co-location of services and facilities.


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The project team for the CFL aimed to elevate the level of forensic science while raising the roof on a new building. Image: HOK   

When District of Columbia city leaders examined the system in place for handling forensic evidence and analysis, they realized public interest and safety wasn’t served to the fullest. At the time, the Metropolitan Police Department sent thousands of trace evidence specimens to the FBI’s laboratory in Virginia. This not only meant the District had little control over the time it took to have samples analyzed, the transport between locations raised issues of potential compromise of evidence. The relay-style process also meant that cases took longer to resolve.

After much discussion about the best approach to address these issues, the idea emerged to build a facility within the city that would consolidate all forensic-based activities. The final program called for locating the Metropolitan Police Department Forensic Investigation Units, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and the Department of Health Public Health Laboratory under one roof and one agency—the newly formed Department of Forensic Sciences.

However, resolving their own problems wasn’t enough for this team. They wanted their project to also become a national model for “functional relationships and interagency collaboration in the forensic sciences.” The unflattering 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward from the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on the quality of forensic science work. Taking pride in their professions, the project team aimed to elevate the level of forensic science while raising the roof on a new building.

These ambitious goals and their successful realization in the form of the District of Columbia Consolidated Forensic Laboratory (CFL) drew the attention of the Laboratory of the Year judges who awarded the facility Special Mention for Collaborative Science in R&D Magazine’s annual Laboratory of the Year Award competition.

Co-location, co-location, co-location
The $145-million CFL opened in October 2012. Housed within the eight-story building (six floors above ground and two below) are a variety of laboratories and services. Forensic science capabilities include crime scene investigation, firearms examination, latent fingerprints, photography, DNA, trace analysis, controlled substances, questioned documents, and computer forensics. Public health services offered are communicable disease control, food testing, a BSL-3 laboratory, and newborn genetic screening. Medical examination facilities cover autopsy, histology, and toxicology.

In order to meet the needs of each laboratory, the stakeholders focused on specific concepts to drive innovation and integration. Some key elements identified included programming, planning, the research environment, sustainability, and project management.

The design team addressed the most pressing programming need—fitting multiple agencies thoughtfully into one building—by developing common protocols and functional relationships to create a single intake and accessioning area for all material and processes.

In the planning stage, the development of a forensic science concept served as a universally adaptable model to maintain strict chain-of-custody and deliver high-performance technical space. The model successfully integrated the various groups’ program elements into a common system, which fostered collaboration.

Some new ideas emerged in the programming of the research environment. The medical examiner’s autopsy suites are located on an upper floor, taking them out of the traditional location in a basement. In addition, the suites have natural light coming into the area. A ballistics facility is incorporated into the heart of the facility, enabling this forensic team to collaborate more fully with other teams. Enhanced BSL-3 laboratories are located on the perimeter of an upper floor, allowing daylight in. Vehicle examination rooms operate as laminar flow cleanrooms, maintaining integrity of the evidence.

The project achieved LEED-Platinum certification, while also meeting the stringent requirements of a first-responder facility. The detailed building envelope, innovations in energy management for laboratories, water conservation, and promotion of occupant wellness contributed to the sustainability achievements. In addition, the project is being used as a sustainable design tool for the District of Columbia Department of General Services to create training programs and guidelines for future projects across the entire city.

Building information modeling (BIM) was the underlying tool that drove project management to successfully achieve a highly collaborative dynamic during construction, as well as creating open communication among the various team members and agencies.

"Through an iterative and collaborative design process, the team was able to provide the general contractor with great documentation to build from. In the construction process the committed collaboration of the entire team was instrumental to the final project. In the end everyone’s expectations have been exceeded," says Tim O'Connell, AIA, HOK.

The buy-in from each of the different agencies, along with the city leadership, was critical to the project’s success. The Lab of the Year judges recognized the challenges posed by the co-location of disparate laboratories and functions. Additionally, the panel noted that, due to budget restrictions and security requirements, forensic science buildings typically result in floorplans with numerous small, closed rooms and little or no interaction between departments.