The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a lesson in preparedness for many industries, including architecture. Although the field was not designated “essential” during the national state of emergency, the architects at Forge Craft Architecture + Design recognized the need for a design-based solution to the threat of overcrowded hospitals. Rather than waiting quietly for the green light to continue their current projects, founding partners Rommel Sulit and Scott Ginder remotely immersed their practice in an intense charrette of urgent response design.
Having just completed a modular student housing project in San Marcos, the firm recognized the applicability of the process given the sensitive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Modular design calls for intense quality control, straightforward construction, and quick deployment. With these concepts in mind, the architects developed CARE+CRAFT, a repeatable, prefabricated clinical unit that can be transported via ground freight.
Although the number of units deployed to an area will depend on the level of need, up to six can fit on one flatbed truck. These banks can be repeated and positioned to suit whichever relatively flat site is available, be it a field, parking lot, or stadium floor. The units are clad with a bio-resistant wall panel by Altro, and the idea is that entire “medical cities” could spring up under a series of tent structures. The open-air tents reduce the containment of germs, provide shelter from the elements, and make use of an existing resource. “The challenge was balancing how far to go,” Sulit says. “How much of the essential aspects of the concept do you insert and then how much do you allow for already existing infrastructure to meet you somewhere halfway? We could have designed these to be completely impervious to climate and that kind of thing, but the whole premise of urgent response is that it has to make it out there quickly.”
This time-sensitive thinking applies to the structural system as well. Although each CARE+CRAFT unit calls for a 6-in frame, the structural material is not specified; the design accommodates whichever system is most readily available. This flexibility allows the CARE+CRAFT module to be mass produced from many locations, thus stimulating the construction industry at a national level during a government-imposed lockdown.
In its current state, the design has the potential to produce nearly 300 units across six fabrication plants during a 14-day span — the typical COVID-19 incubation period. Each unit is equipped with a bathroom, gurney, heart monitor, ventilator, sanitation sink, and CDC-compliant HVAC system that exhausts air to the outside to see non-ICU patients through these periods of isolation, while design features also tend to their biophilic needs. The units feature a view window and skylight to visually connect patients to the outside world, while screens with Wi-Fi capabilities allow them to connect virtually to their loved ones. Says Ginder: “We wanted to use our skills as architects not to just warehouse sick people, but to help them to get better, and care for them in ways that contribute to their well-being.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, several architecture practices have directed efforts at providing design solutions for issues raised by the pandemic. HKS in Dallas presented a plan for transforming hotels closed due to the government shut-down into hospitals, and Perkins and Will studios in New York and Demark collaborated to create a low-tech system for converting public vehicles and school buses into COVID-19 mobile testing centers. Although coronavirus curves are beginning to flatten in many places, hotspots are continuing to emerge, and the need for solutions like these are expected to persist for years to come.
With an eye toward such preparedness, the architects at Forge Craft point out that their CARE+CRAFT units could be built and stockpiled for future pandemics or natural disasters. “It’s a product that we’re hoping has some legs for the international agencies whose responsibility it is to take care of people who have been affected by pandemics around the world,” says Ginder, “such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, anyone who’s on the frontlines in this country, and others that can make use of it.”
Sophie Aliece Hollis is an architecture and journalism student at UT Austin and TA’s editorial intern.