The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office Building in Austin, Texas. All images: Matt Winquist/SmithGroupJJR
FUTURE-FORWARD DESIGN FOR THE FORENSIC SCIENCES.
Elevating the human experience in medical examiner facilities
Adam Denmark, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, and
Mark Kranz, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C
Difficult, gritty and emotionally intense work occurs behind the walls of a medical examiner’s office.
For the medical professionals, it is a strictly
regulated, highly secure and highly technical environment. For the public arriving at
the facility, it is quite simply the worst day
of their lives.
In Austin, Texas, the new Travis County
Medical Examiner’s Office Building elevates the expectation of what a medical
examiner facility should be. It recognizes
the demanding and honorable mission
of forensic science, a profession too often
conducted in dark, windowless bunker
buildings. Instead, it brings a world-class
medical center to the community, one
that better serves pathologists, scientists,
technicians, law enforcement and grieving
More often than not, medical examiner
offices are in dark, fortress-like buildings
or basements. For Travis County’s new
facility, that convention was challenged. A
highly secure, highly functional medical
facility gives employees a world-class work
environment and better serves the community as well.
Most striking is the abundance of natural light that brightens autopsy suites,
offices and laboratories, provided by a
continuous ribbon of clerestory glazing.
A dramatic two-story glass public entry
also allows a constant cascade of light,
respectfully welcoming in the public.
The ample daylighting provides several
functional benefits. It offers additional
illumination for autopsies and other
medical functions, as well as passively
reducing lighting loads and overall energy consumption.
The daylighting and other amenity-rich
features also create a more inspiring
setting for the facility staff performing
challenging scientific work. It was a very
deliberate decision to make the design
provide a more humane work environment. Forensic pathologists are highly
trained physicians, and there is a significant shortage in the talent pool. These
buildings must be visual, physical recruitment tools to help attract the top talent
from around the country, drawing them
in to serve a local community.
An elevated observation corridor allows
law enforcement investigators to witness
autopsies and converse with physicians,
without entering the examination area.
This not only keeps the individuals within
the autopsy zone to a minimum but also
provides a safer environment for others to
observe as necessary.
CHOREOGRAPHING THE FLOW
As they support the mission of medicolegal death investigation, forensics
facilities must accommodate different user
groups into separate and highly secured
areas. At the Travis County Medical
Examiner’s Office Building, families enter
through a prominent front door and into a
serene space that honors and respects their
grief. Alongside the lobby, private rooms
provide an appropriate place for mourning. The family area is securely isolated
from the rest of the facility, preventing any
accidental interaction between the families and the staff conducting medical and
The new facility is more humane for
families of the deceased. A substantial
increase in autopsy stations—from two in
the prior facility to nine—will significantly
speed up the autopsy process. An on-site
CT scanner gives pathologists access to an
advanced imaging system that better supports the work happening in the autopsy
zone than a traditional X-ray.
On the investigative/medical side, a
forensic facility demands a discreet and
complex flow of functions and must be
adaptable to an unpredictable volume.
After gaining an understanding of Travis
County’s needs, the team conducted flow
diagram exercises and benchmarked best
practices from other forensics facilities
around the world.