When Wuhan, China, began to first wrestle with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the need for medical centers, it turned to modular construction. In less than two weeks, it was able to create the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital and the 1,600-bed Leishenshan Hospital. Videos of the construction were shown on YouTube.
As the coronavirus begins to take hold in the U.S., many are wondering whether there will be a similar need here. There's even talk of turning New York City's Javits Center into a temporary medical facility. Some cities are repurposing hotels and other facilities to quarantine people or provide support for the homeless.
With the demand for hospital facilities set to hit critical mass within the next few weeks, especially in large urban areas, many people are looking to modular construction as a potential solution.
Why modular construction is a good fit for hospitals
Stephen B. Jacobs , FAIA of Stephen B. Jacobs Group, PC , the architect behind the tallest modular hotel in New York City, explains that the ideal projects for modular construction are ones that have a lot of repetition. This means that both nursing homes and hospitals (as well as hotels and apartment buildings) are a natural fit.
Modular construction can be assembled quickly and isn't dependent on the weather. This means modules, which are built in a factory, can be assembled at any time. Right now, while there are concerns regarding social distancing, putting modules together may require some different practices.
What may slow the process
One issue, however, is making sure modules arrive where people need them most. This becomes especially important when there is an emergency. As Jacobs notes, "The maximum width, length, and height of modular are determined by transportation considerations rather than what is right for the project."
One of the reasons that China was able to move quickly was that it has access to a lot of inexpensive labor, much of it required to work in round-the-clock shifts. Also, the fact that Wuhan was on lockdown kept the streets free for construction vehicles and the transportation of modules.
Core benefits of modular construction
One of the most important things about modular construction is that it separates the location where the project is constructed and the availability of local labor required to construct the project conventionally. This could also allow factories to build healthcare modules and deploy them as needed.
"Modular construction in many ways simplifies the developer's task in that it puts a significant portion of the project under a single responsibility," said Jacobs.
Economics are also a key determination. Modular construction has the potential of achieving major savings in the construction process. We had already identified modular construction as a top trend in 2020 for cost savings and speed, both of which have now become more critical than ever before.
Moving beyond the immediate need for more hospital beds and exam rooms, it may also be possible that design trends may shift away from wide open spaces toward properties with more individual rooms and sections. This could make modular construction even more appealing for the long term.
What does modular construction look like for the long haul?
"For modular construction to take the next leap into fireproof high-rise construction, we require many more local factories with the ability, reliability, and financial structure to produce fireproof modular that are required for multistory buildings," says Jacobs.