Designing for Crisis

How might pandemic affect further consideration of space and flexibility, especially when it comes to large public buildings?

The current global situation revealed what we have not wanted to admit for a long time: that we were very unprepared to face the unexpected and drastic change a pandemic brings to our lives. We are short of medical spaces, equipment, and staff to tackle such an unanticipated disease. However, as a society, we are very good at problem-solving, empathy, and engagement as shown many times through history that in any crisis, we come together to survive. To prove that, yet again many solutions sprung up, like mushrooms after the rain, including building new hospitals within weeks and repurposing already existing public venues. An example is the 1000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital, built-in Wuhan just under 10 days. The construction of such a large hospital raises many questions with which architects and engineers have been struggling for decades. Firstly, regarding the construction methods used to build such massive development in such a short time and due to that about its safety. Secondly, regarding such a short construction time and how it compares to the time used by present developments to be completed. Thirdly, regarding the future of such developments after the pandemic. Will they remain empty like various sports facilities after an Olympic Games which are waiting for another opportunity to be used? Or will they be demolished like the PyeongChang Stadium in Korea, after being used only 4 times? 

Huoshenshan Hospital, Wuhan
Image: Getty Images

Following that line of thought, we should consider if building new facilities for such an unexpected situation is a good solution or if we should rather think about how already existing venues could be adapted to facilitate such extreme situations. 

Flexibility and space in architecture have always been a very valued and challenging theme. Its first and most visible manifestation was seen in Schroeder House, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1924. The second floor of the house had a possibility of conversion from a playroom to a sleeping area just through the use of movable walls. In later years, we could see a lot of manifestations of flexibility and space in residential, mixed-use, and office buildings through an open plan, a changeable element, and even the inclusion of future residents during design to fully fit their needs.

However, what if these needs change? How do residential, office and public buildings adapt to facilitate new functions in an event like pandemic? But more importantly, how will the current situation impact the flexibility and space considerations of future public developments?

In contrast to China, many European countries decided to locate their new medical facilities in converted venues or temporary structures. For example, the ExCel Convention Centre, located in East London, has been adapted in just 9 days to hold 500 patients and ultimately will be capable of holding 4000 patients. This quick conversion required collaboration between many bodies and a quick decision-making process which resulted in a very fast procurement. Accordingly to James Hepburn of BDP architects, ‘The strategy was all about using as much of the existing infrastructure as possible,’ like exhibition partitions, and was followed by developing a manual which can be further used by other conversions.  

ExCel centre conversion into NHS Nightingale hospital
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AP

The location of the new Nightingale Hospital in London was settled after reviewing other large event spaces and warehouses. But what makes it stand-out among sports halls, stadiums, galleries, and warehouses? One can observe that other medical units are following the example of the first Nightingale Hospital and are also being located in spaces of a similar original function. 

In Scotland, Glasgow’s exhibition centre was chosen for conversion. In England, Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, Manchester Central Convention Complex, Bristol’s Exhibition and Conference Centre on UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus and many more. It seems that only Wales are repurposing, on top of exhibition/convention centres, various sports facilities like Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Let’s look a bit closer at what these venues have in common. 

Their main positive aspect is that their size allows them to host a big number of people. Additionally, these venues have hosted a variety of events in the past and have a supply of materials used to build temporary internal structures and qualified staff to set them up. This makes exhibition/convention halls more viable rather than stadiums or sports halls. Due to this, they are probably the most flexible and easily adaptable for conversions venues out of the range of quickly accessible locations. What is more, they already have existing mechanical and ventilation systems able to serve a big number of people. Therefore, it is relatively easy to adapt these for a different purpose, instead of setting up new systems in for example stadiums.

The question about flexibility and space, in the case of places like those mentioned above, becomes very relevant. As they are already being designed as very adaptable areas, what would change after the pandemic? There is a high possibility that new regulations will follow, requiring that such spaces take into consideration the number of beds that can possibly be fitted into their spacious rooms. This relates to the manual developed by BDP which states how much space each bay should have and advises about their visibility for medical staff. The manual seems to be a great start for architects to consider in the design and can become an even more powerful design tool after further development. It might be that such a manual will become one of the few required standards constituting ‘an emergency plan’ of each exhibition/convention venue, stating how such spaces can be repurposed into temporary hospitals. Such standards will definitely impact not only the layout of whole exhibition centres and their mechanical and ventilation systems but also all smaller aspects like what materials are used to build temporary exhibition stands used during the pandemic as dividers between patients. 

NHS Nightingale Instruction Manual, BDP

We can be sure that the pandemic has given architects a new challenge: not only how to design under pressure and from existing parts, but also how to spend time more efficiently. Future challenges will pose many questions about conversions and safety of designs. For now, we can only observe the situation, see how it develops and remember how such unexpected and quick change impacted our lives. As only by acknowledging and learning from the situation can we make sure that it will never surprise us again and will be considered in design process.