Crisis of the Temporary

Who was not astonished when China first announced it intended to build a fully-functional hospital in Wuhan in the space of a week in response to the Corona virus crisis – and then actually delivered it and had it up and running almost immediately construction was completed? Of course, the particular circumstances of that country’s centralised economy made it possible to mobilise its industry to deliver and assemble, in volumetric form, the modular elements of the huge building, but the achievement was, nonetheless, remarkable. It, and other versions of the hospital used elsewhere, have since been dismantled (and presumably repurposed for other uses), the immediate pressure on available hospital beds and ventilators having now been much reduced.

In other parts of the world affected by Covid-19, the response to the crisis of insufficient ICU bed spaces has been no less intense, if somewhat less organised. Many architects, engineers and offsite manufacturers have responded with designs for fast assembly, modular health facilities that can be transported quickly from factory to site (often having to cross national borders), but few have made it into production sufficiently quickly – if at all – to be meet the urgency of the need.

Modular hospital in Wuhan. (credits: www.cnn.com)

The desire to meet sudden challenges such as are now being faced is not new: whether the issue is disaster relief, refugee crises or pandemics, temporary solutions are required but rarely, if ever, available at speed. Many proposed solutions prove to be impractical in both design and manufacture (too heavy to transport, made from materials unsuited to the environmental conditions they are to be placed in, too complicated and slow to assemble, etc. too difficult to maintain internal environmental and hygiene requirements, etc.), bringing to mind the old adage: ‘there is a simple solution to every problem: and it’s wrong.’ Too often, this comes down to a presumption that a successful design response can be arrived at without the need for any analysis of the actual problem to be solved. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t build a permanent hospital without serious, in-depth consideration of the functional needs, so why presume a temporary version should be able to avoid these issues?

The challenges are not simply those of design or construction: they are inherent in the stratified nature of our industries. When a global crisis arises, it is already too late to bring health experts and design professionals together, never mind all of the other specialist skills that need to be around the table to input to the creation of a design, manufacturing and construction brief that can adequately – and quickly – synthesise the inter-related complexities of each aspect of the problem into a deliverable, functioning, holistic solution.

Yes, we do have new and very effective building technologies available to us that are able to produce precision-manufactured elements, but these can be expensive and this brings us to the one other major reason so few temporary crisis response solutions have ever made it into production: the availability of sufficient finance and the speed at which governments and other agencies are able to sanction approval of expenditure on temporary projects. The chain of decision-making is invariably too long and too often risk averse to ensure urgently needed temporary accommodation of whatever sort can be procured in time to save significant numbers of lives, especially those having to exist in dire, unsanitary conditions. This is particularly the case in instances where a multi-national response is required but which is dependent upon national governments being able to act in concert and at speed.

The question is whether existing international agencies such as the United Nations or the World Health Organisation can provide effective catalysts for action, and recent events would suggest that where there is a significant imbalance in the financing of these organisations themselves, their ability to move can be severely impaired when even one of its major funders – whether for political or other reasons – proves recalcitrant.

Similar issues afflict international aid organisations which, although many are charities, are primarily and substantially dependent upon aid monies provided by a variety of national governments, many of which provide their support on an annual basis – and often with restrictive conditions attached – making forward planning extremely difficult. The amounts of money and support can be quite disproportionate too: given the size of it’s population, Norway’s international aid programme is geographically extensive and financially huge when compared to that of the UK where, shockingly, the government increasingly demands the provision of aid funding be allied to reciprocal trade advantages.

In such a climate, and with a compelling need to have an internationally acceptable solution available in advance of an emergency and ready for immediate transportation, whether by road or air, a different, more radical approach is clearly required. Pending any other suggestions for effective future emergency planning, Ergodomus® suggests a single economic sector – the European timber design, manufacturing and construction industries – should take a lead by:

• Holding an international architectural/engineering design competition based on a brief developed in conjunction with health and other relevant professionals*;
• Securing the support of one or more pan-national industry bodies with comprehensive links to relevant university departments and research centres**;
• Involving timber trade organisations;
• Involving timber product and system manufacturers;
• Involving timber product distributors;
• Involving the European timber press and media;
• Involving the public – an essential factor in rebuilding confidence.

An ambitious proposition like this has to start somewhere and it has to begin now, rather that wait for the next international emergency to occur. Building the consensus needed to achieve sufficient traction to move the idea forward needs the input and support of many others throughout the industry: architects, engineers, manufacturers, etc., so please let us know if you would like to offer in-principle support and/or have ideas to contribute to the development of this idea: Ergodomus® cannot act alone but we are happy to use our contact network to help mobilise an industry response – let us not retreat into indifference about the future when we have the training, skills and resources to produce viable responses to universal challenges and to be ready for them when they occur.

* perhaps with the involvement of the Architects Council of Europe (https://www.ace-cae.eu/) or some other influential pan-national professional organisation as the host body. See the Architects’ Council of Europe declaration, ‘Architectural Design Competitions: a Key Policy Tool to Ensure Quality in the Built Environment’
** e.g. Innovawood (www.innovawood.com)

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