Fume Hoods Forensic Labs

The trend today uses 30-inch fume hoods for two scientists in forensic labs, replacing the older method of 6-foot fume hoods for each scientist. Photo: Michael Mount, SmithGroup.

In all aspects of our world, change is inevitable; the key to progress is understanding when change must occur. Likewise, forensic science is constantly evolving. Each facility must be designed with a vision and understanding of the future to accommodate trends that will affect facility planning and design. This article will discuss three prominent trends centered around the ever-changing forensic design: trends in the lab, trends in the courtroom, and new technologies and emerging trends.

Laboratory trends
Some of the scientific trends that are currently shaping forensic lab design are:

  • Chemical procedures. The reliance on wet chemistry procedures in forensic laboratories has steadily decreased in the past decades. Fifteen years ago it was not uncommon to include a 6-ft fume hood in each drug chemist’s laboratory workstation. In time, however, the need for fume hoods with this capacity has gradually diminished. Now, in some forensic laboratories, a 30-in. fume hood is being shared by two chemists. Frank Dolejsi, state crime lab director of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minn., confirms that this arrangement works well and represents a trend that is expected to continue.
  • Computer-driven instrumentation. Over this same period of time, forensic laboratories have steadily increased their reliance on computer-driven instrumentation in the drug chemistry, toxicology and trace evidence sections. Newer instrumentation models have been improved to provide more accurate results, utilize less space, and provide results in less time than the older models. In addition, newer instruments have been developed to augment the laboratory’s arsenal of instruments, which have typically included the GC/MS, HPLC and FTIR. Now instruments such as the LC/MS, IC/LC/MS, ICP/MS, and others are becoming commonplace in crime laboratories.
  • Evolving instrument-to-user ratios. With increased reliance on instrumentation comes increased need. In the mid-1990s, one instrument would typically be shared by two to four forensic scientists. Modern labs such as the Ontario Forensic Services & Coroner’s Complex in Toronto, currently in the design stage, will include space for potentially 90 instruments in the toxicology section, serving a staff of 30 scientists.
  • Robotics. Many sections are increasingly relying on robotic instruments to increase their throughput of forensic analyses. This technology has allowed for more consistent samples and testing by removing elements of human error from repetitive tasks. These trends offer several advantages to the forensic sciences and scientists. According to Frederick W. Fochtman, director of the forensic science and law masters program at Duquesne Univ. in Pittsburgh, results of laboratory analyses can be obtained in a more timely way; the accuracy of results will increase; and the procedures can be performed in a relatively safer environment with less exposure to chemicals.
  • Forensics involving computers. The trend in the use of computers in forensic science includes not only forensic investigations, but also the examinations of computer components themselves as evidence. This has introduced a relatively new section of computer forensics to the crime lab. When the New York State Police Forensic Laboratory in Albany built their crime lab in 1994, their computer forensics section consisted of two analysts, a bench for the examination of computer hardware and software, and a small room for hardware references.
Main DNA Lab for the Denver Police Crime Lab

The main DNA lab for the Denver Police Crime Lab includes extensive space for DNA sequencing and robotics. Rendering: SmithGroup.

Today their computer forensics section has more than doubled in size. The analysis staff has increased, and they are still in need of more space and staff to efficiently manage their caseload and reduce their backlog. In addition to examination benches, space for computer hardware references is an area of this section that will likely continue to expand rapidly. An ideal computer hardware reference collection should consist of one of every computer hardware item ever produced.

  • Forensics involving electronics. Like computer forensics, the examination of electronics evidence does not require a wet chemistry or biological sciences environment like most of the other sections within the crime lab. Instead, these two sections can be designed as electronics repair spaces with specialized electronics casework. Consequently, it is not uncommon for computer forensics and electronics to be combined as a single laboratory section. Forensic electronics involves the examination of a variety of electronic items, including video surveillance tapes and components, audio recording devices, electronics transmitting and receiving devices, and cellular phones. Acoustically treated spaces and radio frequency shielded spaces are critical design elements for the electronics section.
  • Biosafety considerations. Regardless of the laboratory section, all evidence placed under examination carries an element of unknown risk. As with most scientific disciplines, exposure to potentially lethal material has long been an accepted hazard of the job. Those sentiments are slowly changing with modern labs designed to provide increased protection for individual scientists, decreased possibility of contamination between laboratory sections, and in some cases, elevated biosafety levels (BSL-2 enhanced or a trend towards BSL-3). Because of the types of material handled within these labs, extra consideration must be given to determine the proper facility arrangement and equipment for optimal safety and reliable results.

Courtroom trends
Today’s forensic labs are also being shaped by changes in the practice of law. Pertinent issues include:

  • Reliance on DNA. As a key component of the legal process, forensic science is directly affected by the direction of the legal system. DNA evidence is now being used on an increasing number of property crime investigations. The cost of testing has fallen, providing a major impetus for agencies to more widely use the technique formerly reserved for more violent offenses. According to the U.S. government’s DNA Initiative website (, “…researchers have found that many property offenders do not ‘specialize,’ that is, they do not limit their activities to crimes against property and may commit other offenses, including violent crimes and drug deals.” As a result of this movement, DNA sections are expecting accelerated growth in the years ahead.
  • Increased caseload. As DNA use has increased exponentially, so has the forensic laboratory caseload. Ten to 15 years ago studies could be conducted, yielding fairly accurate results, to project future forensic laboratory staff and space needs based on population demographics, crime trends and historical laboratory caseload data. Current similar studies now indicate an increase in laboratory caseload, sometimes dramatic, in areas where population is remaining constant and crime trends might even be declining. The phenomenon that appears to be causing this has become known as the “CSI effect.”
  • Reliance on scientifically examined evidence and the “CSI effect.” Cases like the O.J. Simpson case and the numerous television programs related to forensic science—CSI Las Vegas and others—have put forensic science under the public microscope. Consequently, jurors, defense attorneys, prosecutors and the court system in general are demanding more and more scientifically examined evidence. These events have given many jurors an unrealistic expectation as to the amount and precision of scientifically examined evidence. They expect that the results of forensic evidence examinations will always definitively point to culpability or innocence. In addition, defense challenges against confessions and eyewitness testimony are becoming increasingly successful. If there is a lack of examined evidence, there is an increased possibility for juries to feel that the prosecution’s case is not as strong and rule in favor of the defendant.
  • Greater scrutiny of forensic labs. With increased demand for scientifically examined evidence, there is increased scrutiny of forensic scientists and their laboratories. According to internationally renowned forensic scientist and former director of the Connecticut State Crime Laboratory, Henry Lee, the crime-solve rate in 1959 was 80%; in 2009 that number has fallen to less than 50%. “It used to be that the criminalist was assumed to be correct; now they are being challenged by legal teams.” The legal community is becoming much more knowledgeable with regard to the business of forensic science. Crime labs lacking certification by industry accepted standards (ASCLD-LAB or ISO) are left even more exposed to respond to legal challenges of evidence handling, testing methods, facility condition and others. A recent Supreme Court decision (Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591) requiring criminalists to testify regarding their investigation findings further focuses the spotlight on examiners.
Office of the Medical Examiner in the New Mexico Tri-Lab

The entire autopsy area for the Office of the Medical Examiner in the New Mexico Tri-Lab has been designed as a BSL-3 zone with additional isolation areas for increased protection. Rendering: SmithGroup.

The big picture
The inevitable changes that will be experienced by forensic science include trends related to administrative policies, laboratory procedures, diagnostic equipment, emerging technologies, and the continued development of new forensic disciplines. Trends in forensic science will continue to be influenced by the criminal courts system, mandates by the National Academy of Science and the “CSI effect.”

Scientifically examined forensic evidence is one of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system. The demands on forensic science have been increasing steadily over the past decades, and are expected to continue to do so. As governmental regulations evolve, so will the facilities that house forensic science. Consequently, designers will be required to keep their finger on the pulse of the latest technologies, equipment and methods of analysis used by forensic scientists. Many of the trends seen today were unfathomable a decade ago, and tomorrow’s trends are progressing faster than expected. Both designers and scientists must work together when designing these facilities for future use, with the intent to provide the most optimal workspaces for forensic science in years to come.

Michael Mount, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, of the Phoenix office of SmithGroup (, is an internationally recognized expert with 26 years of experience in the planning and design of forensic facilities. In addition to being published in forensic publications, he has presented design workshops for numerous professional forensic organizations. Adam Denmark, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, serves as a forensic planning and design architect at SmithGroup. His recent work includes facilities for medical examiners, forensics, wet laboratories, mass casualty, and BSL-3 units.