Have you ever wondered… how China managed to build a hospital in 10 days?

Saad Ali Faizi
5 min readFeb 1, 2021

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Hospital construction in progress in Wuhan, China (Photo Credit: House Space Prefab)

In January, Wuhan, China, manifested itself to the world as the first coronavirus hot spot. With cases and death toll climbing quickly, drastic circumstances called for drastic measures. Therefore, a makeshift medical facility was pledged in Wuhan to tackle the outbreak. The project broke ground on 23rd January 2020. With plants and equipment sent within hours, and management staff and construction workers assembled overnight, construction works started off immediately. Ten days later, the hospital was ready to be handed over to the authorities for operation.

The two-storey Huoshenshan Hospital spans over an area of around 60,000 m2 and accommodates 1000 beds, 30 intensive care units, medical equipment rooms, and quarantine wards. With tens of thousands of construction workers and volunteers working round the clock to build this hospital, the sheer drive and resilience of the people served an important role in helping accomplish this monumental task. However, several other tools and tactics utilized during the hospital’s design and construction were equally valuable that enabled teams to be mobilized timely, resources to be allocated efficiently and construction works to accelerate manifold.

Design plan of the Huoshenshan Hospital (Photo Credit: CITIC ADI)

Modelled following the blueprints of a medical facility set up in Beijing to tackle the SARS epidemic, back in 2003, the Huoshenshan hospital project began with a good head start. This was then supplemented with tactful design works. In terms of design, the aim was to be continuous and concurrent. With engineers, surveyors and designers working two shifts, in a rather ‘relay’ approach, works progressed rapidly. As a result, the ground-levelling scheme was ready in 5 hours, the design plan was finalized in less than a day’s time and construction drawings were delivered within 60 hours. Additionally, a concurrent approach of design and construction was implemented (instead of a consecutive one), leading to the simultaneous execution of design, construction, adjustment, and scheme modification procedures.

Illustration of a typical BIM model (Photo Credits: WSP)

The effective use of technology was another game-changer. BIM (Building Information Modelling was used to allow stakeholders to visualize designs, integrate expertise, and share data in real-time, thereby speeding up the works. BIM also facilitated the rapid construction of a testing lab for COVID screening and diagnosis. The BIM model helped clearly express the design intent of the new lab and assisted technical staff on-site in communicating with designers and the client, averting possible clashes, and reworkings of the electromechanical pipeline. This, in turn, saved construction time.

Prefabricated units being craned in, January 30, 2020 (Photo Credit: China Daily via REUTERS)

When it came to construction, the use of prefabricated units was key in achieving a fast-paced construction. Prefabricated units allowed the construction of the foundation and the building envelope to take place in parallel, with the units being fabricated off-site, in a factory, concurrently with the on-site levelling and foundation works. These Lego-like premanufactured elements were then brought to the site and quickly assembled, shaping up the two-storey hospital. Standard procedures of fabrication and assembly were followed during the entire cycle of the project, along with other on-site construction procedures to ensure that the quality of the project was not compromised in any way.

The prefabricated units were designed specifically to meet the needs of the hospital project. Size was modified and materials were carefully selected. For instance, additional thickness was required for walls to prevent the spreading of the virus. All medical instruments and equipment integrated into the interior of the hospitals were provided by external suppliers.

Most importantly, diligent planning, down to every hour, was necessary to keep up with the challenging project schedule. Deciding on the exact time of delivery of prefabricated units, for example, was critical. The delivery could only commence after the field was levelled. If it had begun earlier, it would have caused congestion, and if later, it would have delayed the schedule. Hence, with the right schedule for labour, equipment, transportation, and materials planned precisely along every step of the way, high project efficiency was made certain.

Projects of this nature and scale can typically take six months to design and up to three more years to build. However, such types of emergency hospitals, in response to a sudden outbreak, are temporary structures. Prefabrication and modular construction make it possible to trim down the duration of such sizeable projects to merely a few days, with the units easily and quickly assembled and later dismantled. The units can subsequently be reused and sold back to factories once they are dismantled, which enables the recycling of steel and other useful construction materials.

The architecture, engineering, and construction industries have, indeed, extended their support to the heroes working on the front line of rapid-response health care, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Through smart designing, prefabrication, and careful planning, experts in the industry have successfully been able to build ad hoc hospitals, labs, quarantine centres and other facilities for affected communities in different parts of the world. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that people in the construction and engineering industry have managed to transform themselves into emergency responders, delivering high-quality projects amid unprecedented circumstances. It will now be interesting to see what lessons will the industry take from these projects and the situation, at large, and how will it adapt itself for the post-COVID world and for any possible crises in the future.

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Saad Ali Faizi

Engineer by day, writer by night, thinker at all times