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For general contractors, building a forensics lab is as unique and complex as the work that goes on inside it. Each department in a forensics facility has distinct requirements, so each one becomes its own construction project. Learning the nuances involved in highly specialized, scientific work requires that, ideally, the building owner, designer and general contractor communicate and collaborate on the project from the beginning.

I’ve had the opportunity in my role as senior project manager for JE Dunn Construction to work on several forensic lab projects. In each project, we’ve had some hits and misses, but we’ve learned valuable lessons along the way. Nationally, JE Dunn has worked on $1.4 billion worth of laboratory projects in the past 10 years, including six forensic lab projects. The forensics projects have been as diverse as converting an old bomber hangar at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha to a forensic lab facility, to constructing a 73,650-square-foot, three-story forensic facility with office, lab and atrium space for the Denver Police Department.

Another project includes the 21,000-square-foot Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Forensic Science Crime Lab in Pueblo. The laboratory space includes chemical and toxicology areas, latent analysis functions, evidence collection and storage, DNA testing, and serology functions.

The CBI staff has said the efficiencies and specialized spaces built into the new facility will make a big difference in their customer service.

“We’re going to have separate cafeteria space from the conference room. We can take our requested agencies to private spaces for conversations,” said Jodi Wright, agent in charge of investigations in Pueblo. “We have an upscale evidence intake for the lab designed for agencies to come into building, separate from the public entrance.”

Shawn West, laboratory director in Pueblo, welcomes the idea that his staff won’t have to go up and down stairs with heavy or odd-shaped items, among other things. “The flow of the lab will make a lot more sense,” he said.

We have been able to incorporate learnings in Pueblo that we discovered while building the crime lab in Denver. For example, we learned in Denver that hydrogen gas requires a different type of valve than other gases, so we could apply that finding to the project in Pueblo.

The Denver crime lab is one of the most technologically advanced evidence handling and analysis facilities in the nation. Investigative units that were scattered throughout the city – crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry, trace evidence, firearms and tool marks, latent prints, forensic imaging and photographic analysis, forensic DNA, quality assurance and crime scene volunteer units – are now unified in one location.

The lab is part of the larger Denver Police Department complex, with underground tunnels connected to police headquarters, so it had to function within its own context, but also within the context of the rest of the site.

We knew we had one shot to get it right, so the crime lab is designed to last 50 years, using a flexible plan that can easily react to changes in technology and staffing.  

The facility is as beautiful as it is functional; our construction team helped display and install the dramatic sculptures hanging in the atrium by California artist Cliff Garten. “Bullet” in the central atrium represents the physical marking of a material shot by a gun, and the “Suspect” in the north atrium displays two inverted, lighted DNA strands.

Because of the complexity of the Denver project, we were spent 18 months in the pre-construction phase of the project with SmithGroupJJR, the architectural design team, as well as crime lab directors, department heads and employees. It was such a collaborative process that forensic chemists at the lab could easily read architectural drawings by the end of the project.

“To have not only the architect, but also the construction company, include us right from the beginning really made the difference in the success of this project,” said Mark Olin, deputy director of the Denver Crime Laboratory. “The cooperation was phenomenal. We really feel like we own this building because we had so much say in the process. This is our building.”

Working so closely with the Denver facility’s end users helped JE Dunn come up with creative solutions to some of the unique challenges of crime labs, such as how to allow forensic photographers to get aerial views of evidence and crime-scene reconstructions. The solution: An elevated catwalk across the room that gives the photographers a heightened view of their surroundings.

The lab staff also wanted the ability to fume an entire car at once. So when we converted the city’s former secured prisoner entryway into a three-bay forensics garage, we installed a specially designed fuming tent that allows technicians to fume an entire vehicle. The area has a separate mechanical system to get the tent to 80 percent humidity and 80 degrees Fahrenheit for super glue fuming operations.

The firearms library also was problematic, until we incorporated moveable walls that allow the city’s many guns collected as evidence to be catalogued and displayed in a relatively small space.

After talks with lab employees, we raised the countertops in the fingerprint labs to make the environment more comfortable for technicians bending over to view samples. We also built separate office areas for the lab scientists, so they could do paperwork away from the lab area.

“In these types of facilities, there’s science, laboratory and office space. How all those groups collaborate is important,” said Adam Denmark, laboratory planning and design architect for SmithGroup JJR. “In the process we went through, there was consistent give and take and exchanging of ideas. We brought all of the stakeholders from design and construction together to create the best project possible.”

Not all projects have the luxury of a lengthy and highly collaborative preconstruction process. The 132,000-square-foot, multiple-building east campus project under construction for the Kansas City Police Department, which includes a 67,000-square-foot forensic lab, had a short pre-construction period and significant budget constraints. It required the team to evaluate value-added alternatives right from the start. They looked at every system, every part and every piece of the building to determine how they could do things differently in a more cost-effective manner.

The Kansas City team worked with the Denver JE Dunn team to get the right lab equipment for the facility, and carefully selected the subcontractors to come up with cost-effective solutions and substitutions for the project. Some solutions included using existing shelving and changing wall finishes – moves that saved tens of thousands of dollars. It’s worth noting that JE Dunn subcontractors on the Kansas City project are 19 percent minority-owned, 11 percent women-owned and 14 percent Section 3 (HUD) contractors that employ lower-income employees.

JE Dunn is applying all of these lessons learned in the construction of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s forensic science lab in Arvada, a Denver suburb. The $8 million lab was constructed in a retrofitted 24,000-square-foot industrial building and includes labs to run DNA tests and analysis, as well as analysis on latent fingerprints, gunshot residue, toolmark evidence, drug chemistry and trace evidence.

In Arvada, as in all of our complex forensic lab projects, communication and collaboration are critical throughout the construction process. As the general contractor, you don’t just hop in the backseat and say, “Wake me up when you’re finished.” It requires the timely procurement of key subcontractors, and most importantly, it involves the teamwork, interaction and the empowerment of the facility’s end-users.