December 6-8, 2021
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Featured Article:

Building During a Pandemic

Mary Ann Lukowicz, Project Executive - Healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many industries and businesses to adapt and pivot in order to navigate the new normal. Construction is no different during these times, especially those specializing in the building of healthcare facilities. As an essential business, those providing construction services to the healthcare industry found themselves on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. So how does one build, stay safe and adapt during a health pandemic? The answer: careful planning, collaboration, intense safety measures and dedication. 

Many cities across the country used convention centers as makeshift facilities to alleviate the strain on local hospitals dealing with COVID-19 patients. Chicago’s McCormick Place served as a satellite patient ward to support nearby full-service hospitals. The alternate care facility (ACF) was built to accommodate patients that were formerly recovering at home, but require more monitoring, plus patients released from advanced respiratory care hospitals to recover and convalesce.

In just under 26 days, Walsh Construction, USACE, Stantec and ESD converted approximately 1.5M SF of convention space into a 2,750-bed facility focused on patient care, infection control, fire protection and life safety, all while navigating a pandemic. Construction began on March 29 and by April 3, Walsh Construction handed over 500 beds/pods, 14 nurse stations and support space to the City of Chicago. By April 10, another 1,750 beds/pods, 41 nurse stations and support space was delivered. These first two areas were considered sub-acute (meaning they do not require oxygen) and were designed using three-sided hard cubicles with a curtain front and outfitted with a bed, chair, lamp and footlocker. Over the next two weeks, 750 additional acute care beds/pods, 16 nurse stations and support space were constructed for patients.

Due to the fast pace and limited time schedule of the project, material required to complete the work was scarcely available. The subcontractors understood the project only had one go-around to get things correct. With this in mind, subcontractors installed the material correctly the first time, thus eliminating rework and creating schedule conflicts. When materials were scarce, the project team got creative and relied on a network of resources. In one case, there was an issue with finding a manufacturer to deliver the required amount of medical isolation pods on time. The Illinois National Guard stepped in and delivered 250 medical isolation pods to Chicago’s Midway Airport for delivery to the ACF. The delivery was made possible by close coordination between Walsh Construction, the National Guard and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) to continue the fight to support healthcare and emergency workers in Chicagoland and across the state. The overnight homeland defense mission was operated by the Peoria, Illinois-based 182nd Airlift Wing Illinois National Guard unit. The supplies were delivered from Eugene, Oregon aboard two C-130H military transport planes.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing was one of the best tools in protecting workers from the spread of the COVID-19 infection. As much as possible, subcontractors were directed to work in separate areas, spreading out work and avoiding contact with any other employees. In areas where distance was unavoidable, extreme caution, sanitation of areas and hand washing were required. 

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is always important within the construction industry, but that usually pertains to hard hats, gloves and protective eyewear.  In addition to the standard PPE items, additional PPE was required to help battle the virus. While building the alternate care facility, Walsh Construction issued neck sleeves (face coverings) to all staff members that were to be worn at all times. Walsh also furnished and installed visible signage at each entrance to the hall and all high traffic areas to remind every person that this was a fully functional jobsite location, along with COVID-19 procedures. At the beginning of the job, Walsh instituted a wristband policy. The company instituted temperature checks for everyone that entered the facility, who then received a wristband that showed they were allowed to enter the building. In addition to the wristbands, a log was kept with names of everyone who entered the site in case of an emergency. Safety precautions were of the utmost importance to keep everyone healthy and make sure the site was not infected with the virus. Walsh Construction was able to complete the project with zero safety incidents, which it credits to the precautions put in place as well as everyone’s dedication to working safely. During these stressful times, it was important to remind everyone of the task at hand and make sure safety is top of mind.

The ACF was designed to relieve pressure on the hospital system by freeing up beds for more patients with severe COVID-19 cases in anticipation of the surge in positive diagnoses. One of the largest challenges was outfitting a space with healthcare equipment that is not designed or equipped to be used in that fashion. The team designed an independent HVAC, electrical, mechanical and medical gas system in less than 48-hours. Additionally, 750 additional acute care beds/pods, 16 nurse stations and support space were constructed for patients requiring oxygen on a continuous basis. These isolation pods were designed utilizing tent structures with individually-contained HEPA filtration units and modular patient headwalls. Hall B's own air was used as the supply air, but a system had to be created to pull the return air out of the tented isolation pods to create negative pressure in the tents so that any contamination in the rooms could be filtered and drawn out of the building instead of being exhausted back into it.

Hall A was the largest space where work was performed, spanning over 840,000 SF. 41 nurse stations, constructed of millwork and outfitted with plumbing connections and multiple electrical duplexes, including one for a medical Pyxis unit, were built. Specialized low voltage nurse call units were shipped from Belgium and were installed at each bed. Line of sight was kept at each Nurse Station to ensure all nurses can see a nurse call alarm, regardless of the size of space.

Hall B was the most complex scope of work throughout the entire project. Varying specialty subcontractors and craft labor constructed fully operational isolation patient rooms that included HEPA negative exhaust and patient headwalls with operational medical gases. The convention hall was equipped with scaffolding for distribution of the exhaust ductwork for the isolation rooms and served as support for the medical gas piping and electrical distribution to the isolation rooms. Medical Gas piping was tested and certified for use on Monday, April 20. Hall B became a “ante room”, whereas all of the isolation rooms were tested and balanced for negative pressures as well as the “Hall B ante room” on April 21 and April 22, respectively.

In 26 days, Chicago’s largest convention center was converted into a fully functional alternate care facility, all while navigating a pandemic. Collaboration with many different entities, government agencies and subcontractors were crucial to the success of this massive undertaking. The dedication shown by industry professionals during this stressful time was beyond impressive.  Each day industry workers showed up to complete a job knowing they are possibly putting their health at risk.  Everyone understood the importance of completing the ACF as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to assist the healthcare industry and Chicago population.

Having the right balance of careful planning, collaboration, safety measures and the dedication of all working on the project is what allowed the project to achieve a perfect safety record with no first-aids, injuries or sickness during a pandemic. Being able to adapt quickly was due to a collective vision and healthcare knowledge across all levels of the project team. The McCormick Place Alternate Care Facility project was the definition of a successful design/build project with a team that found solutions under any and all circumstances.


For questions please contact:

Mary Ann Lukowicz
Project Executive - Healthcare
The Walsh Group

929 West Adams Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607
o 312-492-0715
c  847-417-5865

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