Day 6

How China built two hospitals in two weeks to combat the coronavirus

In less than two weeks, construction workers in Wuhan, China, built two new hospitals from the ground up. Architecture critic Anne Quito explains how they did it.

It was 'a ballet of bulldozers and excavators,' says architecture critic Anne Quito

This aerial photo taken on Feb. 2, 2020, shows Huoshenshan Hospital, which means "Fire God Mountain", after it was handed over to China's army in Wuhan, China. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Two new hospitals have been purpose-built in Wuhan, China to treat the novel coronavirus in a remarkable feat of well-choreographed engineering.

"A ballet of bulldozers and excavators," said architecture critic Anne Quito.

Huoshenshan Hospital and Leishenshan Hospital only began construction at the end of January. Built from scratch using pre-fabricated rooms, each facility features 1,000 or more beds. 

Both hospitals were built in less than two weeks. They are intended to alleviate stress on the region's healthcare system. More than 31,000 cases have been confirmed in China, and over 600 have died.

Quito, who writes for Quartz, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury how Chinese officials were able to complete the buildings in a matter of days and what the facility will look like.

Here is part of that conversation.

It's one thing to think about building a warehouse in two weeks, but a hospital is another thing entirely. How long does it usually take to build a hospital?

A hospital, by U.S. standards, usually takes five to seven years — and that's a conservative estimate and not quite at this scale.

As you know, there are many, many steps to making a building; and much less a highly technical building like a hospital with so much technology. 

One architect described a hospital as kind of like a machine.

WATCH: Timelapse video Huoshenshan Hospital's construction from CGTN

Now that the buildings are complete and they're accepting patients, if you or I walked into one of these facilities in Wuhan, what would we notice? How would it compare to a modern hospital? 

We would notice that the complex would be made from prefab blocks or squares. It's two levels, and the architecture — or the design — would just be for treating one singular disease. 

So airflow would be very carefully figured out — [the] air ducts, that's the prominent feature because that's what they're trying to solve for. It's an airborne disease, so it's really just like long, long, wide corridors with quarantines and people in suits. 

So it looks serviceable; it doesn't look ramshackle at all. There [are] TVs, there's air conditioning. There are two patients per room. There's a box where nurses leave food and there's an ultraviolet light that sanitizes food ... so there's no direct contact. 

As you mentioned, a hospital isn't just a box — isn't just a cabin — but a really technical building.

An aerial view shows the construction site of a new hospital dedicated to treating patients with coronavirus, in Wuhan, China on Jan. 24, 2020. (China News Service via Reuters)

So it really is one program to contain and to treat patients of coronavirus. But would you be concerned if you were there, either as a patient or a visitor, that these systems that have been so hastily put in place might be flawed?

I sought out a structural engineer who had worked in China extensively, and I wanted to know if it was really, you know, safe. And he assured me engineering and construction there are top notch. 

Safety is actually their concern. He said that things shifted in the last five to seven years. There's a lot more thinking about safety, of not just the structure but even of the workers. 

There are 7,000 workers working on site 24/7, and what's fascinating, too, is to watch people in China and elsewhere cheer these workers. They're sort of lionized as heroes.

But you're getting this information mostly from state media in China. They're the ones who livestream the production process. And the official tone around this is very nationalistic. It's celebratory. It's showing that China can deal with this kind of an emergency. Should we be skeptical that these facilities are as up-to-grade as the official line suggests?

Of course, there must always be room for skepticism. The New York Times actually describes this approach by the Chinese government as "curated transparency." They're showing us the building of two hospitals, but maybe leaving out some other things. 

There's a recent report, I believe by Al Jazeera, that in fact there's a network of other hospitals being built around Wuhan and it's being quietly built, maybe not to alarm people of how fast the disease is spreading. 

So they've offered us basically two shows and we're watching.

Rooms at Huoshenshan Hospital have two beds for patients with the novel coronavirus. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The hospitals are modelled after one that was created in Beijing that was built in just a week during the SARS epidemic. That facility served its purpose. Is it still in use?

It's been quietly abandoned, apparently.

And is that because it was built for one purpose only and it couldn't be repurposed?

Yes. The structural engineer I spoke to believes that it was that. I mean, we have this great capacity to build prefab boxes and they're very useful for building skyscrapers quickly and in this case, for building a medical facility quickly. 

But in that equation, we haven't really been thinking about sustainability and the afterlife of these materials. 

So I think there's a lesson and there's an opportunity, if not here, then in future hospitals. Right now, they're made with steel and cement and concrete. There are much more sustainable materials out there that we could be considering.

Health care workers deliver food and supplies to patients through a santized compartment to avoid unnecessary interaction. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

These might be temporary, but you reported on a skyscraper built in Hunan and that was built in 19 days. Do you think that China is uniquely positioned to continue building this kind of speed architecture?

They are, for many reasons. Labour is cheap. There are very few labour unions. Construction workers actually went on a massive strike last year, but still the labour conditions remain not quite up to par. 

Also, materials: a lot of materials [that] were used for construction come from China, and it's rather readily available. So they're uniquely positioned. 

And they have this sort of mindset; this sort of zeal. And the architect I was speaking to also speaks to China's openness to doing things in a new way. 

There's really sort of an innovation mindset in China that people are saying helped push the field forward.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Anne Quito, download our podcast or click Listen above.