One March evening, my colleague, James Hepburn, was catching up with his friend Matt, an orthopaedic surgeon, by video.
Naturally, the conversation turned to the emerging coronavirus situation. Matt began outlining where the shortage of beds in London were and how large-scale facilities would be needed to cope.
It sparked an idea in James. By the following day he had begun brainstorming, sketching and making calculations with colleagues. It became apparent the sheer volume of beds that could be needed, so he downloaded the floor plans for the ExCeL in London.
It wasn’t long before BDP was responding to a call for assistance, on March 22, by the director of estates at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead which had been one of the first trusts to take Covid-19 patients.
Unbeknown to James, he’d had a meeting at the ExCeL with the army the day before. BDP was on site the next day to start work with a team of specialist healthcare architects, engineers and designers. This marked the start of BDP’s involvement in what would become an incredible national effort to create temporary hospitals up and down the country.
By the end of March, we had been commissioned on six projects to create temporary hospitals across the UK, including our role in providing design and engineering expertise to convert the UWE Bristol Exhibition and Conference Centre into an NHS Nightingale Hospital.
We published an NHS Nightingale instruction manual, setting out the fit-out strategies and processes we used at ExCel Centre and it has provided invaluable guidance for the construction of other locations in the UK and globally. Indeed, people from as far afield as Australia and Canada have contacted us.
It’s no exaggeration to say that delivering hospital facilities in exhibition centres and stadiums is entirely unprecedented.
We have been drawing on our previous experience of designing large healthcare facilities like Southmead Hospital in Bristol and Grange University Hospital in Wales, but it’s the scale, timeframe and purpose of these facilities that distinguish them from any previous healthcare projects.
It’s been high pressured and fast-paced, but has built the most amazing professional and personal relationships in getting the job done.
It has been an enormous collaborative effort, with my team here in Bristol working with clinicians, consultants and contractors on site to deliver an initial 300 beds, with the potential for more if needed.
We have been working closely with clinicians to ensure that every bed can be fitted with all the equipment required to treat Covid-19 patients and be cared for by dedicated staff in full PPE equipment. Usually, there are numerous consultations and stakeholder engagement events on a major project like this, which of course takes time.
But in this case, there was a brief and everyone bought into it straight away and that’s quite a unique experience. I hope that these experiences will pave the way for better cross-industry collaboration in future.
Of course, with everyone working at home, this has also presented its own challenges. When the Government introduced social distancing measures prior to lockdown, BDP, like businesses everywhere, had to adapt quickly.
Our experiences in Shanghai and Singapore, where BDP’s studios shut at the beginning of the year, had given us the chance to consider options, troubleshoot early issues and test systems. So, within 48 hours all 1,350 people globally within the company were working from home, including our 75 staff in Bristol.
However, in architecture, it’s not as simple as just picking up your laptop and decamping. With such sophisticated software required to carry out our design and modelling work, we have to operate our in-studio computers remotely, using Splashtop software.
So, in actual fact, our studio, right in the heart of an eerily quiet Bristol, just off Park Street, is currently a hive of activity – without a soul in sight!
Our experiences over the last few weeks will undoubtedly change the way we work in the future. Often meetings involve more time travelling to them than the meetings themselves – so we hope the collective understanding of the value of video conferencing will help minimise travel. The software has been around for a while, but the culture is definitely changing.
Of course, under most circumstances an architect tends to look forward to seeing the fruits of their efforts enjoyed by people for generations to come, whether you’re designing a school, a workplace, homes or a new community centre.
In healthcare, a key area of specialism for us, we are always looking to ensure we create facilities that are flexible, efficient and stand the test of time.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the UWE Bristol hospital project, like those we have designed in London, Birmingham, Harrogate, Cardiff and Manchester, has undoubtedly been a sobering experience: of course, in this instance, our wish is, these hospitals never have to be used.
Nick Fairham is architect director at BDP’s Bristol studio.
Main photo: Spirit PR