The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office is moving ahead on designs for a new $52.8 million dollar facility in Minnetonka.

The new building will double the office’s square footage when it moves from downtown Minneapolis, where it sits across the street from U.S. Bank Stadium, to wooded suburban acreage near Interstate 494 and County Road 62 in 2021.

Leo A Daly, an architecture and engineering firm from Omaha, Neb., will lead the design under the $3.9 million contract with Hennepin County approved last week. The approval comes after the medical examiner’s office cut $3 million from its original proposal at the board’s request. The board has since asked them cut an additional $2 million as the project progresses.

The Medical Examiner’s Office has long been cramped. Recently, though, its caseload has jumped from examining 1,835 bodies in 2013 to 2,254 in 2017, a 23 percent increase. Some of that came when the office assumed cases from Scott and Dakota counties in 2012.

But Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker said officials knew the building was unsustainable long before that.

“The reality is our case-load would have kept going up without the two of them, and unfortunately a lot of that is driven by our drug overdose epidemic, particularly opioids,” Baker said.

The current building was also never designed for the transportation and examination of corpses. Up until 1999, it was used to make meals for employees at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

“The obvious draw to the medical examiner when the county got out of this building was that it already had a big cooler,” Baker said. “We’re just using it for different purposes.”

That cooler now holds between 36 and 45 bodies. Other rooms were retrofitted into autopsy or processing areas. But many of those spaces are near or at capacity.

Bodies are transported in and out of the office through a single elevator, a problem when multiple bodies need to be tagged, cataloged or fingerprinted.

In contrast, the new building will have a total area between 67,000 and 69,000 square feet on a single floor. Its cooler will hold at least 100 bodies but could hold 500 as the facility grows. The autopsy room will be able to hold 10 bodies with space for two more in an isolation area — more than double the current facility’s capacity.

There will also be above-ground offices with windows for natural light. Current employees shuffle through tight underground hallways with low ceilings.

“If you have a job that’s already very emotionally difficult and you deal with death and despair on a daily basis, you shouldn’t have a facility that amplifies that,” he said.

Some people have raised concerns that Minnetonka is a less centralized location. But Baker said those challenges pale in comparison to those they experience now.

Family of deceased, funeral staff and people who retrieve organs for donation constantly run into problems reaching the current office, he said. During the Super Bowl it was so bad that it relocated for eight days.

“It should be as easy as possible for [families of the deceased], under the circumstances, to work with us,” Baker said.

The new facility will be paid for by the counties it serves — Hennepin will contribute $26.67 million, Dakota $6.67 million and Scott $1.75 million. The project also received $17.75 million from the state.

Construction is slated to begin in the summer of 2020.