Laboratory Planning
Written by Gary Gulick   

Here are some things to think about before you begin
planning for your new laboratory or facility upgrade

IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING the design of a new laboratory or the upgrade of an existing one, there are some important items and issues that you will want to think about before you even get started.

According to Jerry Dufford, putting together a modern, workable, and safe forensic laboratory is much more of an engineering project than it is a construction project. Dufford should know, because during his 22 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), he helped to coordinate the design and development of more than 20 forensic laboratory and evidence-vault facilities.

“At the very beginning, you really do have to get the engineers on board with your way of thinking,” Dufford said. “Sometimes, that is hard to do because they tend to just think in terms of mechanics. But in this day and age, everyone has to look for ways to cut costs—not just the construction costs, but operating costs after the laboratory is operating.”

Dufford said that his background to begin with was in accounting. As a result, his idea of success was to come up with ways to save money for the department on construction expenses and operating expenses.

“One of the biggest cost items on a laboratory project is the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system,” said Dufford. “Conventional wisdom has always been that you should have 100-percent pass-through air in a laboratory. Or at least, that is the published standard of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). As a result, almost all laboratory spaces have a minimum of ten air changes every hour. Well, when you are talking about ten air changes every hour in a large facility of 40,000 sq. ft. or so, you are talking about a lot of money in HVAC costs.”

Dufford explained that the idea of 100-percent pass-through air means that the ventilation system sucks all of the conditioned air out of the building. “And in places like Florida where it is hot and humid, the HVAC system has to dry the replacement air, cool it, and then exhaust it again. That process can get very expensive.”

One of Dufford’s responsibilities at FDLE was to serve as the safety officer. In that capacity, his solution to the problem of excessive HVAC costs was to centralize the location of the large amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals—and minimize the space they occupied.

“We designed a laboratory in Jacksonville, Florida that has two relatively small storage areas: one for wet chemistry and one for dry chemistry. Those storage areas have 100-percent pass-through air. In between the two storage areas, we put a mini-laboratory with three fume hoods, each of which has 100-percent pass-through that vents to the outside. That way, we don’t need to have 100-percent pass-through in the mini-laboratory itself. The analysts go to a storage area, get whatever chemicals they need, take them to the hood, pour their aliquots, and then take the source chemicals back to the storage areas. That way, the only thing they take back to their work areas are the small aliquots.”

Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory planning evidence forensic

In his 22 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), Gerald (Jerry) Dufford coordinated the planning and construction of more than 20 forensic laboratories and evidence vaults. One of those projects is shown in these photos: the 97,000-sq.-ft. FDLE facility located in Jacksonville, Florida. On that project, he was given a budget of approximately $17 million—and managed to complete the facility $1.2 million under budget. In addition to this laboratory, the FDLE has laboratories in Pensacola, Tallahassee, Orlando, and Tampa. There is also a satellite laboratory in Daytona.


Quick suggestions
for laboratory design

Dufford was quick to point out that there are major changes happening in the laboratory technology and equipment field on a regular basis. It pays to look around—and to ask other people what they have been doing lately. He mentioned the following items as examples of options to consider:

Recirculating Hoods—“You can have recirculating fume hoods in your laboratory space,” said Dufford. “There are a lot of ways you can do that, including carbon filtration or one of the other air-purifying systems. One of the more recent things you might want to consider is photocatalytic oxidation (PCO).” With PCO, airborne contaminants are drawn over a special surface and are destroyed instead of being vented from the system. “I have found that with the limited amount of chemicals being used in forensic laboratories, it is not really necessary to vent everything to the outside if you have a proper system of air purification inside the laboratory.”

Dufford said that on one of their more recent laboratory designs, they were able to reduce the operating cost per square foot by about 16 or 17 percent from what it had been in the old laboratory. He said the primary source of that reduction was by providing more recirculating hoods.

“In my opinion, photocatalytic oxidation is something that should be considered in a new or upgrade lab design. It is also something that can be very useful in evidence vaults.”

Dust Filters—“Analysts use different kinds of powders when they are processing latent fingerprints,” Dufford said. “Most engineers will tell you that you should vent those powders to a special HEPA filtration system. But I have found that most of that powder is fairly large when it comes to the size of the particulate: probably 3 to 5 microns. Dust that size will tend to clog an expensive HEPA filter rather quickly and you could end up having to replace the filters every month or so.

“We avoided that extra expense by putting together a hood that used a regular house filter to trap the dusting powder. And we would change it every month or so at a cost of just a couple of dollars. It’s definitely an idea that is worth considering.”

Exhaust Controls—”There are a lot of ways you can save money if you think ahead during the planning and construction stages,” said Dufford. “If you have a 100-percent pass-through system in the laboratory, you will also have to have variable controls—and they are relatively expensive. But if you plan ahead and install recirculating hoods, you could use the less-expensive constant-volume controls.”

Office Air—”In the areas where we did need 100-percent pass-through air,” Dufford said, “we would take the pre-conditioned air from the office spaces in the building and blow it through the areas that were using 100-percent pass-through air. That way, we didn’t have to take air from the outside, condition it, suck it through that one room, and then exhaust it from the building. That sort of thinking ahead can give you significant savings on operating costs.”

Countertops—Dufford said he found a lot of different ways to reduce overall costs. One example that he brought up had to do with countertops in the laboratory. “The countertops you see in most of the commercial or university laboratories are usually made of slate or polished stone. But we found that using chemically resistant laminants can save a lot of money during initial construction. If you will check around, I think you will find that they hold up pretty well, too.”

Tips on how to conduct
the planning stage

Dufford emphasized the importance of everyone working together during the planning stage of the new laboratory construction or upgrade:

“The first thing to do,” Dufford said, “is to get all of your forensic scientists and analysts together and talk with them. Be sure to include someone from each discipline and find out what it is that they want and need in a laboratory facility. One of the big issues you will encounter is the fact that you are designing a work environment for scientists who have a background that emphasizes safety. That is a major consideration.

“From there, you can start to work up your building specifications: what pieces of equipment will you need; what kind of architectural structure will be necessary; and what kind of costs are going to be associated with the entire project as it moves forward.

“Then you pick your engineer and your contractor. Write down all of the specifications and go over them one by one with the engineer and contractor. They might disagree with you on some items, but talk it out and come to a meeting of the minds. You need to make sure that they understand that you have to pay attention to the cost factor—because you are the one who is going to be responsible to the taxpayer.

“After that, you just watch every single phase of construction and do everything you can to keep the cost managed according to the plan.”

Some final thoughts
for the key planning person

Dufford said the person who is in charge of coordinating the planning should approach the project with a totally open mind. Why? Because all of them—the scientists, analysts, engineers, and contractors—all of them can bring new ideas with them to the planning sessions. “It is a team effort,” said Dufford. “The person doing the planning will always be looking for ways to cut costs—but cutting costs is not always the right way to do things. Let the other people openly state their positions. You might learn something.”

And if this is the first time you have been asked to direct or coordinate the construction or upgrade of a forensic laboratory, you might ask for help:

“If you don’t have someone on your staff who is experienced in planning and construction,” Dufford said, “then you should hire someone to do it. In the long run, they can save you a lot of money. Consultants who specialize in this sort of thing are located all over the country. Of course, there are good ones and there are those who aren’t so good—so make sure you ask around and try to find one of the good ones.”

Sounds like good advice.

"Laboratory Planning", written by Gary Gulick
September-October 2008 (Volume 6, Number 5)
Evidence Technology Magazine
Buy Back Issue

< Prev   Next >

Recovering Latent Fingerprints from Cadavers

IN A HOMICIDE CASE, the recovery of latent impressions from a body is just one more step that should be taken in the process of completing a thorough search. This article is directed at crime-scene technicians and the supervisors who support and direct evidence-recovery operations both in the field and in the controlled settings of the medical examiner’s office or the morgue under the coroner’s direction.