5 Insights as Architects Lead Hospital Conversion for COVID-19 Response

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*This article originally appeared on Redshift at Autodesk. Read the full article.*

In February 2020, Molly Scanlon—a licensed architect and environmental health scientist—started noticing curious videos of modular hospitals in Wuhan, China, for patients who had contracted a mysterious new virus.

The hospitals were austere and institutional, bordering on factory-like, with wide, segmented bays. Prefabricated components were trucked on-site and slotted into steel frames. Patient-care rooms had negative-pressure ventilation systems to minimize contagion spread. And hospital staff were covered head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE). But the speed of the endeavor was perhaps most impressive: From clear-cutting the site to staffing up, the first such hospital was built in 10 days, opening its doors on February 5, 2020.

“When I first saw these images on social media, my architectural colleagues said, ‘Isn’t this interesting how rapidly the hospitals are being built?,’” Scanlon says. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is a pandemic response. This is a quarantine facility.’ That was a clue this was going to turn into a wide epidemic, if not a pandemic. These were signals that something is coming.”

Now that COVID-19 is here, architects and builders in the United States are responding with what they have at hand, which largely means the ad-hoc adaptive reuse of existing buildings for hospital conversion—from constructing a makeshift field hospital inside New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center to reopening Los Angeles’ shuttered St. Vincent Medical Center. To aid this effort, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) assembled a task force that Scanlon chairs, along with a checklist and guide to converting existing buildings into COVID-19 hospitals. It’s a language of architecture that bypasses formal qualities for raw function, delivered with improvisational shoehorning.

Using expertise from architects, engineers, scientists, health-care professionals, and hospital facility operators, the checklist offers guidance specific to COVID-19. The document is meant for a wide range of audiences; it’s an easily explicable resource that will be ready for organizations (such as schools) that are pressed into service and that don’t have the assets or technical sophistication of the government.

“I think this will influence all levels of the built environment, and all architects will be impacted by this,” Scanlon says. Here, she shares her thoughts on how designers can use their skills to change the world in an emergency without parallel.

1. It’s Okay If No One Needs Architects to Draw

There might not be much room for the painterly delineation of space when rushing to adapt buildings for COVID-19 hospital conversion, but architects have many other useful skills. As multidimensional thinkers who manage complex projects, architects, even those without health-care experience, “could be very helpful as facility managers,” Scanlon says.

Architects’ value here comes from their holistic understanding of how buildings work, ensuring that individual systems, programs, and procedures (many functioning in spaces never intended for them) can work together. While HVAC or MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) engineers may know how to press an existing building’s systems into health-care use, they might not understand how these changes could impact other operations, such as circulation—exceptionally critical to prevent spreading a deadly virus. Similarly, epidemiologists will have guidelines for triage choke points but may not know which materials are durable enough to withstand heavy use. An architect would likely know or could find a way to accommodate these requirements.

2. There’s No Clear Hierarchy of Spaces for Adaptive Reuse—Yet

At this early stage, it’s unclear which types of buildings typically requisitioned for emergency response make the best pandemic quarantine hospitals. Buildings fall into two broad categories: open-bay buildings (sports arenas, convention centers) and closed-bay buildings (hotels, college dorms), which are seemingly better for COVID-19 patients requiring isolation.

Scanlon says a key factor in determining if a space is appropriate for reuse is its potential application—whether it would be used for covering the surge capacity for COVID-19 patients or the surge capacity for non–COVID-19 patients displaced from hospitals by the pandemic.

“I think we’re going to know which type of use is best when it’s over,” Scanlon says. Images disseminated by the media often show beds in a row in open-bay spaces, “like cots after a flood,” Scanlon says. “We’re not responding to a flood. We’re responding to a pandemic that requires isolation of patients.”

Continue reading the full article at Redshift by Autodesk.

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