General contractors and their subs have stepped up in recent weeks to quickly build or retrofit medical buildings in areas reeling from the coronavirus outbreak. The facilities are seen as a crucial step in the fight against COVID-19 because they will help alleviate pressure on traditional hospitals.
Although staying on schedule is important for every construction project, timelines for COVID-19 facilities are exacting, and compressed into days instead of months. For instance, last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $50 million contract for a three-week buildout of a 1,000-bed temporary hospital at Stony Brook University in New York and AECOM announced it will construct a more than 1,000-bed medical facility on Long Island, New York, also on a three-week schedule.
In California’s Coachella Valley in recent weeks, Turner Construction and its subcontractors transformed two 1940s-era auditoriums into specialized medical facilities complete with pressurized rooms, enhanced electrical systems and backup power. The two buildings — part of the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio, California — were renovated and outfitted within weeks, according to Rosendin Electric project manager Steve Rodermund.
The job began in mid-March when U.S. State Department officials contracted Turner to upgrade the 33,000-square-foot Fullenwider Auditorium into a 100-bed testing and treatment center for low-risk patients and the 18,000-square-foot Taj Mahal building into a 25-bed facility for treating critically ill coronavirus patients.
As National Guard members brought in cots and set up emergency medical stations, Rosendin employees worked to bring the buildings’ 75-year-old electrical systems to 21st century standards. To quickly man the site, the company reassigned about six workers from its special projects division to the Indio project as well as a safety manager and superintendent. Work ran in two eight-hour shifts a day, sometimes as late as midnight.
One of the first orders of business for Rosendin employees was to help contractors from Pan-Pacific Mechanical determine the power needs for the specialized HVAC system designed to help limit the spread of the virus throughout the Taj Mahal.
The Rosendin team also upgraded the fire alarm system and devised a backup power scheme to run lights and medical equipment in the event of an outage. Rosendin electricians installed automatic transfer switches for the site's two massive generators, one the size of a tractor trailer that provides 3,000 amps.
Roadblocks and opportunities
Retrofitting the fairgrounds buildings, which are normally used for concerts and other events, to support an emergency medical system took quick planning and execution, Rodermund said, and wasn’t without challenges.
“Imagine someone hands you a VCR machine and an old tube television and says ‘Can you set this up so I can watch a DVD?'” he said. “That’s what it was like.”
The team also upgraded dozens of Fullenwider's overhead metal halide lighting to LEDs that will come back on more quickly in the event of a power loss.
Every outlet in both buildings was traced back to its original panel and recorded on Bluebeam files, he said, adding the resulting map of the electrical system will provide peace of mind for those working there.
“If a nurse is in there and a breaker trips, he or she can look down and see exactly which panel it goes back to,” he said. “We were trying to do everything to help the facilities operate smoothly so that the medical staff can focus on caring for the patients.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, anti-infection measures on the Indio site and all Rosendin sites are front and center, said Marty Rouse, vice president of safety. When the pandemic first hit the U.S., Rosendin worked with several construction companies, including Kansas City, Missouri-based PAR Electrical Contractors and Hoffman Construction Co. in Portland, Oregon, to devise a set of safety protocols for jobsites.
The program, shaped by information from the National Electrical Contractors Association, includes guidelines for respirator usage, social distancing measures and what to expect from general contractors. Rouse said having GCs take responsibility for fighting the epidemic on jobsites is crucial.
"We're all in this together, so for a subcontractor to do all these things when no one else on site is doing them, I don't think it would be very effective," he said.
In order to meet the client’s exacting schedule, Rodermund said an all-hands-on-deck approach was required.
“Everyone left their egos in their cars,” he said. “There were no bad ideas or stupid questions, everyone was asked to throw their solutions out there and everybody bought into that from the get-go.”
The company will use the lessons learned on this job to leverage other coronavirus-related public projects, Rodermund said.
"We're putting together packages right now with our GCs showing the Army Corps the resources we have in order to let them know we are ready to go," he said.