Lab Design
Written by Martin Mendoza & Roger Kahn, PhD   

“A DNA forensics lab inside a cookie factory’s train bay?”

Designer Martin Mendoza says this is the response he receives from people when he first tells them about the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory in Houston, Texas. Completed in November 2012, the new state-of-the-art facility is a testament of success for rehabilitation and renovation of an existing, almost forgotten, space.The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory, located in the nation’s fourth largest county, provides DNA testing for 65 law enforcement agencies, excluding the City of Houston. The laboratory receives approximately 350 DNA cases per month and employs 46 analytical and support staff in the genetics laboratory alone. While an increase in staffing levels allowed the laboratory to maintain no backlog of cases, the larger number of staff could no longer work comfortably or efficiently in the limited space available in the old laboratory. In the summer of 2011, Harris County selected architecture and engineering firm Johnston, LLC, to be the lead designer of the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory. The new laboratory occupies 15,100 sq. ft. of the Texas Medical Center’s John P. McGovern Campus.

DNA forensics laboratory, Martin Mendoza, Roger Kahn, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory

A double helix sculpture looms over the lobby of the Harris County Institute of Forensic science Forensic Genetics Laboratory. The repurposed space was originally a Nabisco factory train bay. Now, it houses a state-of-the-art laboratory dedicated to cutting-edge DNA testing... with "Nabisco Yellow" brick walls.

Originally, the John P. McGovern Campus was constructed as a bakery for the Nabisco Company in 1949. It was described at its grand opening as “the most modern bakery in the United States.” The new Forensic Genetics Laboratory occupies what was once the bakery’s train bay, where full-size train cars filled with flour and sugar were slowly rolled in, docked, and unloaded to supply the enormous confection-baking factory. Because of the train bay’s long and narrow rectilinear shape, and being an unconditioned space, it was not first choice for many potential new tenants. The train bay had unfinished walls and different floor elevations, multiple interior brick columns were damaged and incomplete, and brick walls were damaged and stained as a result from many years of use during the Nabisco era.

DNA forensics laboratory, Martin Mendoza, Roger Kahn, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory

The challenge was how to introduce a new, modern, state-of-the-art forensic lab while respecting and conserving the existing architecture. This laboratory is the result of meticulous planning and a cooperative team effort. Dr. Luis Sanchez and Dr. Roger Kahn worked with Martin Mendoza from the architecture and engineering firm Johnston, LLC through the multiple phases of design. Team members of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department and specialty lab firm Crime Laboratory Design also had a major role in the design of the lab. In addition, in order to determine the needs and wants for each individual space of the lab, a large number of the Forensic Genetics Lab staff were invited to participate in the design and development of this facility. The contractor, Vaughn Construction, assured that the quality of the construction process met the high standards that were demanded for this forensic laboratory.

The design of the new space respects and meets the challenges of the simple, straightforward layout of the train bay and the materials used in its original construction. There is an abundance of natural light streaming in through clerestory windows along the roof above the space. Referred to as “car shed monitors”; these windows originally provided bright, natural light for unloading the rail cars. Now, with the addition of numerous light fixtures, the entire space is lit softly and evenly with specialized lamps with color output that closely matches sunlight. No matter how much or how little sunlight passes through the clerestories, the entire space remains illuminated in a constant, natural way.

The original “Nabisco Yellow” clay brick walls were preserved and are prevalent throughout the space. Areas where clay brick was found to be damaged or absent were repaired with salvaged “Nabisco Yellow” bricks to preserve the facility’s origins. The paint color scheme throughout the lab is “Cool Whites”. The multiple shades of white create a neutral clean work space that is comfortable for the staff. The white color scheme also allows for the reflectivity of the natural daylight.

A full glass demising wall separates administrative activities and laboratory activities down the center of the space. The demising wall lets natural daylight into the lab areas, and it also promotes transparency between lab work and administrative work. Staff inside the labs has direct views of administrative areas, making the lab feel more open and less like working inside a box. The glass also allows for visitors touring the facility a view into the lab areas without needing to enter the lab.

The need for conference spaces of various sizes and a large staff break room were very important program elements. Because of the existing train bay, allowable square feet, and the large design program, there was just not enough space to accommodate multiple conference rooms and a break room. The designer provided an answer to the problem. Referred to as “Flex/Conference”, the designer provided two small conference rooms directly across from the break room. Both conference rooms and break room have operable glass partitions that can be quickly re-configured from small conference rooms into a very large meeting area or anything in between. Due to the abundance of natural daylight, conference rooms cannot be made completely dark to allow for a projector and projection screens. For this reason, wall monitors are provided for each conference room and the break room. The multiple monitors provide better clarification when looking at detail and multiple views when large groups are present.

In the administrative activities areas, the train bay’s original ceiling remains sloped and exposed, a key component that connects the old with the new. An under-layer of sprayed acoustical insulation was added to the exposed ceiling structure to help control sound and reduce external vibration. New mechanical, electrical, and plumbing components are exposed and visible as part of the building’s design. Minimal uses of walls were placed strategically to create multiple work areas and open spaces where staff can interact. In these areas, walls also do not go from floor to ceiling as in conventional design. The walls are intentionally kept from reaching the ceiling. They vary in height to allow natural daylight to reach the lab areas, follow the open design concept, and do not interrupt the existing sloped ceilings. In the large open areas, work stations are provided for each employee. The workstation walls are five feet high to provide openness of the space and a sense of privacy when seated and performing a task. Enclosed manager offices were provided to allow private conversation with employees.

The laboratory areas have an acoustical ceiling that varies in height to take advantage of the volume within the space and the natural daylight. The acoustical ceilings also play a big role in minimizing the volume of air the laboratory requires for HVAC air changes. The labs are designed to maintain a negative air pressure with all air regularly exhausted out of the building.

The laboratory areas also have minimal walls to allow flexibility within the space. Through the use of flexible design without permanent fixtures or furniture, the labs can be easily reconfigured to accommodate new equipment and processes without expensive renovation. An example of this flexibility is the full-utility perimeter wall and full-utility floor trench that runs throughout the laboratory space. Unused outlets for power and data remain conveniently sealed until needed for future use. All of the critical equipment is on an uninterruptible power source (UPS) that, in turn, is backed up by an emergency generator. Both the UPS and the emergency generator are sized to accommodate anticipated future needs. All evidence tables are movable and allow the space to be re-configured in multiple ways to best fit the task at hand. The tables can also be raised and lowered to the user’s comfort height and allow for evidence to be fully photographed from above. The utility wall and floor trench allow equipment to be plugged in at multiple locations and keep cables out of the way of walking areas. The new evidence examination area is four times larger than the old lab. The increase in size and flexibility allows for more evidence examinations to be performed at one time.

The flooring in both administrative and laboratory areas is a recycled rubber material that is soft on the feet for walking and standing for long periods of time. It requires no waxing and it is impervious to repeated bleaching that is done to prevent contamination.
Lab security is a very important design element throughout the lab. The facility is fully secured and no unauthorized or unescorted individuals can enter the facility. There are multiple door-card access locations that allow access to authorized personnel. The sequence of evidence delivery and its security is also present in the design. During working hours, evidence personnel receive evidence and store it in a secured evidence vault. After hours and on weekends, a secure, refrigerated drop box is provided for incoming evidence. Evidence stored in the secure vault area is transferred to analysts for testing through an automated pass-through locker system.

The designer envisioned a piece of art that would encapsulate both the rich history and the cutting-edge science and research being performed in the new space. The final result is an abstract piece of art suspended from the lobby’s ceiling that welcomes visitors into the space and pays homage to the DNA helix and railway that once occupied the space. This piece of art is the first thing visitors see when entering the new facility. Specialty LED lights wash the sculpture art piece and allow the end user to change the light color at any given time.

It is not often that science and art come together to work in harmony and create a new space that is both functional and artistic. This is true for the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Forensic Genetics Laboratory. This state-of-the-art facility is a testament to the high value Harris County places on forensic science that is independent, scientifically sound, and scrupulously impartial. The new laboratory provides the ability and flexibility to increase productivity and expand the range of cutting edge DNA testing. The construction of the new state-of-the-art laboratory has created an environment for forensic DNA science to serve the community for many years to come: Where science serves justice rapidly, reliably and effectively.

About the Authors

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is an Architectural Designer and Project Manager at Johnston LLC in Houston, Texas.

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , is the Crime Laboratory Director of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, Texas.

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