How Do You Build 600 Thousand Square Feet of Hospital in Seven Days?

©. Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

It takes a lot of preparation, prefabrication and people. The Chinese have all of this.

It's hard to find much information about Huoshenshan Hospital, the modular marvel that was assembled in Wuhan in seven days, but it is a pretty amazing project. A lot of headlines say it was built in seven days, but that's not quite accurate; these modules take a lot longer to build and were likely in storage somewhere.

It was evidently modeled after Beijing's Xiaotangshan Hospital, built in 2003 for the SARS outbreak, but they have assembled the blocks differently; "but according to CNN's source, who asked not to be named due to the project's sensitivity, the design itself could not be copied like for like." It has one thousand beds in its 600,000 square feet.

Huoshenshan Hospital modular room

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

I have often written that shipping containers make terrible buildings, but that the important innovation was the standardization of the corner castings and the dimensions so that it could be transported quickly and cheaply; so in this case shipping container-sized modules make sense. Others agree. Structural engineer Thorsten Helbig tells Quartz:

Because units are assembled under the controlled environment of a factory, designers and builders can troubleshoot any problems and make sure all the modular blocks work together before they’re even brought in. Traditional building, on the other hand, is reliant on weather conditions and the choreography of various contractors who work on different aspects of a project. Today, hotel chains from Citizen M and Marriott to KPMG’s newly opened corporate retreat in Florida incorporate pre-fab parts in their build-out plan.
assembling structure

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

But that is not what they did here; they are putting it all together on site rather than shipping completed rooms, much like my beloved Kenner girder and panel building set from my childhood. This is something altogether different, a weird hybrid of prefabricated components that they build into modules on site.

Huoshenshan Hospital overview

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

In the photo above you can see the farthest to the rear, just frames and roofs, then as you move to the foreground, there are wall panels, and then in the immediate foreground, windows are installed. It seems odd, prefabricating the frames and then doing the rest on site like this.

What seems to make this kind of project feasible is the availability of labor; seven thousand tradespeople worked around the clock to assemble this project. This is often more important than the building technology; after I was extolling the wonders of Broad Sustainable Buildings to Dennis Poon, Vice President of Thornton Thomasetti, he noted that the reason they could build a hotel in seven days was less the technology and more the vast number of people they threw at the project, all working around the clock.

Oscar Holland and Alexandra Lin of CNN explain how it will work as a hospital.

This layout could reflect that wings of differing levels of contagiousness, for instance, are being isolated from one another to prevent cross-infection. They would also, ideally, be divided from central areas by disinfection facilities, [emergency medicine physician Dr. Solomon] Kuah said – especially if doctors are working across different groups of patients.
Huoshenshan Hospital installing ductwork

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

Ventilation is obviously going to be a big deal with a virus floating around, so all the rooms are under negative pressure. This means that air flows into rooms, rather than out into the corridor, much like most apartment buildings which have pressurized corridors in order for smells to stay in apartments. You can see here that they are even installing the ducts outside of the entire building, to avoid any chance of virus leaking out, although this could also be because there isn't much ceiling height to put them inside.

Huoshenshan Hospital airlock

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

There is even an airlock in each hospital room so that stuff can be passed through, and double-sided cabinets so supplies can be delivered without entering the room.

wall panel carried by two men

© Huoshenshan Hospital/ Getty Images

This is not exactly sustainable design. All those double columns are impossible to seal properly and these wall panels look like solid polyurethane foam with a thin layer of sheet metal on either side. I hope this place never has a fire. But then it doesn't look like it's built to last.

The most remarkable thing about this hospital is not that it was assembled in seven days, but that they had all the components ready to go, given that the government didn't even acknowledge that there was a problem until early January. I wonder if the American and Canadian governments are as well prepared.