A bullet recovery tank in the St. Paul, Minnesota, forensic lab is used to match a bullet to a suspect’s gun.
Courtesy SmithGroup

Michael Mount is quick to point out there are no cadavers in the laboratories he designs. Mount is a principal with SmithGroup, and has been specializing in forensic labs for more than 25 years. The labs are strictly for examining forensic evidence, not practicing forensic medicine, but Mount said his career is still enjoying what he called “the CSI effect.”

“There’s been an increasing demand from the courts for forensically examined evidence—and this increases demand for crime labs and for new facilities,” he said. “In a population that’s been constant and might remain constant, crime trends might be going down, but caseload is going up. Juries are disappointed if you can’t show them scientific evidence.”

The extraction laboratory of the Biology and DNA Section in the St. Paul Lab.
The St. Paul Lab.
A Forensic Lab at Arizona State University.

Mount began his specialty practice with a single lab project under his belt. In 1983, he was hired to design a crime lab in Anchorage, Alaska. When he and a friend moved to California, taking over a foundering practice within a larger firm, he said, “Why don’t we declare ourselves experts in the design of law-enforcement facilities?” He had a reasonable doubt they’d fail, but the business was profitable after the first year. “As architects, we thrive on crime and natural disasters,” said Mount, who has now designed more than 50 forensic labs in North America and abroad.

Currently, he’s working on the Forensic Sciences Complex in Toronto, a 530,000-square-foot facility that will be the largest crime lab in the Western Hemisphere. Though the sizes of Mount’s projects range from small county labs to large state or national facilities, he’s developed a model that works for the discipline no matter the space involved. A traditional design features workstations in rows for the length and width of a building. Mount said that to him, it made no sense that forensic scientists performing multiple experiments would have a single-module workstation.

He began integrating U-shaped modules into his designs. Though he assumes the lab workstation design will remain constant throughout the coming years—along with accreditation standards like independent lab environments for each forensic department and floor plans that allow the evidence chain of custody to flow smoothly—lab equipment is a scientific variable. “I spend a lot of time bugging the FBI to find out what’s coming up in the future,” he said. “The best we can do is keep in touch with world leaders in forensic science.”

According to Mount, facilities in Canada and England are willing to spend more money per capita than their U.S. counterparts, but the United States is moving toward a higher standard of forensic science in general, which will mean newer, higher-tech crime labs. On February 18, 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a scathing report on the nation’s forensic science system, calling for major reforms and new research into adopting a nationwide standard of education and scientific methodology. Mount said the report urged Congress to establish a National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS). Among other powers, NIFS would have the authority to establish standards for the design of new facilities.

“Many forensic scientists I have spoken with see this as a totally negative study that condemns their profession,” said Mount. “However, most of the administrators of forensic laboratories, including myself, see this as a very positive report, because it can open the eyes of our government and force them to do something about the problem.”

Despite deficiencies in funding, Mount said public interest in the labs has always been strong; he designs almost every facility with a circulating corridor and viewing windows for tour groups. Mount makes a compelling case that, maybe soon, the reality of U.S. crime labs might just equal CSI fiction.