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Functional Forensic Facility

Medical examiner’s new office brings positive public awareness to forensic science

Travis Aug18 1
Photo: Matt Winquist

The Travis County Medical Examiner has a new office in Austin, Texas. Opened on Jan. 22, 2018, the $28 million facility was designed by SmithGroupJJR, Phoenix. The 52,000-square-foot building is more than three times the size of the prior facility. The modern, two-story building features the latest technological advancement in the industry, while striving to bring positive public awareness to forensic science.

Located northeast of downtown, the facility provides for advanced investigation, and has a morgue, autopsy and laboratory space. A total of nine autopsy stations, an increase from three at the prior location, allow the forensic team to effectively manage the caseload for Travis County and the 43 surrounding central Texas counties it covers.

“The project is designed to balance the often conflicting dynamics of security and safety for staff, while creating a welcoming and respectful experience for families, and a recruitment tool for the client amidst the very competitive field of forensic pathology,” says Mark Kranz, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, vice president and design director at SmithGroupJJR.

Photo: Matt Winquist

Iconic Civic Presence

The building’s design improves function and workflow, as well as creates a civic building with an iconic presence and a strong, urban edge on the street. Families and visitors are welcomed with a striking front door, while staff has its own secure front door, shaded terrace and garden outside of an investigations suite. Inside, there’s an abundance of natural light and openness, with views to the surrounding landscape.

Kranz explains that the stigma of a morgue tends to overshadow the high-caliber forensic science conducted in a medical examiner’s facility. “Creating an inviting community asset that honors the mission of the work being conducted inside is an important way to change perceptions and educate the general public,” he says.

“Nine times out of 10, medical examiner offices are unfortunately in dark and windowless, fortress-like buildings,” Kranz adds. “For Travis County’s new facility, we wanted employees to have an ideal, highly secure, world-class work environment while the building enhances Austin’s street life and embraces high-performance, green design.”

Photo: Matt Winquist

Functional Design

To create the ideal office, the designers had to come up with a flexible building that could adjust to changing needs for space and technology. Travis County is expected to have a 40 percent population growth over the next 30 years, which will result in a need for higher capacity.

Adam Denmark, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, director of laboratory planning at SmithGroupJJR, says, “The building is designed to adapt with the changing needs of its forensic scientists, doing so without slowing down their work.”

To accomplish this, lab benches and instrumentation are mobile, allowing for reconfigurations, as casework needs change. The morgue’s storage capacity can double by changing the storage strategy, and a combined receiving and releasing body cooler space with a moveable barrier allows adjustment with capacity needs.

For the building design, Kranz notes the metal volume, housing suites for doctors and administration, as well as the toxicology lab that floats above the main medicolegal autopsy and investigation spaces mimics the business model of the modern day medical examiner’s office. And, “The building envelope, fenestration and shading strategies are calibrated to the site’s specific solar orientation and optimized to maximize daylight harvesting into the offices, labs and autopsy suite.”

The project features 12,000 square feet of 4-mm Reynobond aluminum composite material (ACM) by Arconic Architectural Products LLC, Eastman, Ga., in an exposed fastener rainscreen system. Kranz notes the various panel colors were selected to define architectural parti. Contrasting wood-grained Italian Walnut and Mahogany Brown emphasizes the main entries, while Classic Bronze around the window pop-out articulate the offices of the forensic pathologists.

Additionally, the second-floor balcony is covered in a custom-fabricated shade trellis made of 4,000 square feet of 2-inch by 4-inch extruded aluminum tube and wide flange steel painted in a high-performance coating.

Forensic pathologists have views of the surrounding landscape from their office suite, and a continuous ribbon of clerestory glazing from Kawneer Co. Inc., Norcross, Ga., harvests daylight for the technically advanced spaces on the ground level, the morgue and autopsy.

Progressive energy and water conservation strategies were incorporated into the building’s holistic design to support the county’s sustainability initiatives. The project, which is expected to achieve LEED Silver certification, also features highly efficient mechanical and electrical systems to minimize energy usage such as LED lighting and daylight harvesting controls. There are handling units that serve both office and laboratory zones allowing outside air to ventilate the laboratories, and laminar flow diffusers in autopsy spaces to increase effectiveness and reduce airflow.

Photo: Matt Winquist

A Recruitment Tool

Chief Medical Examiner for Travis County, J. Keith Pinckard, M.D., Ph.D., notes that the new, state-of-the-art facility allows them to use the most advanced technologies and efficient processes to provide high-quality medicolegal death investigation.

According to Kranz, the recruitment of pathologists across the U.S. is a significant challenge for any medical examiner’s office, so this facility takes its role as a recruitment tool seriously by embracing its visibility within the community as an icon for justice and civic pride.

“The new Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office merges a unique set of progressive, sustainable and urban design strategies to create a modern center for forensic science,” Kranz says. “With a complex mix of state-of-the-art autopsy, morgue and laboratory spaces, the project is designed to put Travis County at the forefront nationally in the recruitment of forensic scientists and staff. The design of the facility integrates a highly calibrated set of engineering and architectural solutions that are uniquely tuned to the Austin climate.”

And, “When a building’s design accomplishes these goals, it naturally becomes a representative of community pride,” he adds. “In this case, we’re confident the new building will bring positive public awareness to forensic science. We feel the new Travis County Medical Examiner’s office will elevate the expectation of what a forensic facility can and should be.”