Rethink Prefabrication: How China Built Two Hospitals in Ten Days

By: Nancy Xie

Director, Government Relations, FII China

Author’s note: Canada Wood and FII have been promoting WFC as an ideal solution for China’s drive to advance prefabricated construction technology due to its advantages in construction speed, reduced waste, and green benefits. This story seeks to examine the ultra-fast completion of two hospitals built in Wuhan for the coronavirus outbreak, in an effort to lead to some fresh insights on how WFC promotional endeavors could better cater towards China’s rapid technological advancements in construction.

The recent Chinese New Year of the Rat was besieged by an atmosphere of fear and distress prompted by an epidemic outbreak of the novel coronavirus that was titled by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “Corona Virus Disease COVID-19.”

Since the first case was discovered in early January, to date, almost 60,000 infected cases and still around 10,000 suspected cases have been reported in Hubei, three-quarters of which are in Wuhan.

Wuhan’s usual medical resources are far from capable of taking in, testing, quarantining, and treating this many numbers of patients. At the onset of the virus outbreak, there were only 400 hospital bed spaces available daily for respiratory patients.

On January 22, Hubei announced the construction of hospitals for exclusively treating COVID-19 patients. Within a span of 14 days, Wuhan had two hospitals accommodating almost 3000-bed spaces completed.

Moreover, large public buildings, including sports stadiums, exhibition halls and schools, were refitted into 11 field medical centres, and all existing hospitals were also redesigned and renovated to provide additional bed spaces.

In merely two weeks, a rough estimate of 15,000-bed spaces was made available to patients and supporting medical teams. The speed and scale of the construction are unprecedented in a global context, how did China do it?

Let us first look at the two hospitals built from scratch in 10 days. They are called the “Huoshenshan Hospital” and the “Leishenshan Hospital,” meaning the Fire God Mountain and the Thor God Mountain respectively. Both Gods are described in ancient Chinese mythology as being able to defeat all evils, explicit of China’s determination to conquer the pandemic.

At the behest of the Central Government, Fire God Mountain started construction on January 22, shortly followed by the Thor God Mountain.

What makes it possible to coordinate what seemed to be a disarrayed bunch of people, materials, and resources and put together a hospital that has over 1000 bed spaces, equipped with fresh air system, negative pressure system, emergency wards, sewage treatment, cafeteria, water electric and gas network, and dormitory for 2000 medical workers, in merely ten days?

Below is a brief summary of the ten-day construction schedule for the two hospitals:

Day 1Machinery arrive onsite, land forming 
Day 235,000 sqm of land forming completed
Day 3All BIM design specs completed
Day 4Construction site temporary assembly line ready, prefrab components arrive onsite
Day 5Underground pipes laid, foundation poured
Day 64000 workers, two 12 hours shifts, assemble precast structure components and 400 prefabricated hospital wards
Day 7Install water reservoir
Day 8Electricity network installed, power connected
Day 9Door and window installation and internal decor
Day 10Internet connected, appliances installed, equipment debugging completed. Medical team arrived
Day 11First batch of patients arrives

Here are some interesting yet touching details behind building the hospitals:

The hospitals started construction right before the CNY, and most workers have gone back home to celebrate with their families. The “China Construction Engineering Bureau” who took the lead in constructing the projects sent notices recruiting workers who were based in Hubei, almost 8,000 workers showed up, most of them voluntarily enrolled to show support.

A Beijing Design Institute took 78 minutes to update and complete all architectural and structural designs of the hospitals, and they were in charge of designing the Beijing Xiangtangshan SARS hospital 17 years ago.

The designs were then handed over to the projects’ designated design Institute that spent one hour on assembling 60 onsite designers and several hundred online BIM designers. This massive design team used 24 hours to complete all design specs and coordinated onsite drawing details with the construction team.

Design confirmation was immediately followed by foundation work on land formation, road paving, underground drainage, seepage-proofing, sewage treatment, creating underground medical waste transfer system, and land backfill, all done in one day.

Then almost 300 electricians from the State Power Company arrived onsite to perform circuit line switching, bury 30 plus electric transformers underground, lay 8000 meters of electric cables, completed within 24 hours in order to ensure timely electricity connection of the construction site.

Seven Chinese telecommunications companies used 36 hours to complete 5G hospital network coverage, equipped with cloud resources, core systems, computing and storage systems, as well as teleconsultation systems for remote diagnosis. With a 5G network in place, a camera is then set-up for the 24 hours live streaming of the construction progress.

Logistics coordination was key to timely project delivery. The Hubei highways gave exclusive passage to transport workers and construction materials needed for the projects, 2 KM of trucks lined up overnight going into the construction sites. Countless supplies, as well as personnel, were delivered onsite within one day, they include but not limited to:

  • More than 100 onsite heavy machineries and almost 4000 workers to each site;
  • Concrete and steel material, as well as partition walls needed for the foundation and main structure;
  • Cement, fire retardant coating, galvanized round steel, insulation materials, nodular cast iron, piping, and fire alarm sets to all rooms;
  • almost 6000 sets of toilet bowls and faucets, 3500 sets of prefabricated integrated hospital rooms, nearly 5000 sets of steel connectors, 50 sets of power supply systems, and 2000 sets of valves;
  • Three meals, temporary shelter, site toilets, simplified onsite meeting rooms, e-cashier supermarkets, among other supplies needed for the workers;

These otherwise costly construction materials and needed resources have all been donated by their generous producers in support of Hubei, and that is not all. Upon the completion of the construction phase up to internal décor, the next set of donations arrived on site shortly:

  • Electronic supplies including 2000 set of computer systems and supplementary IT teams, LCD screens, internet security systems, and hospital cloud systems;
  • Medical equipment including CT scans, specialized air conditioning systems for ICU wards and operation rooms, thermal imaging systems and core plates, medical lighting equipment, 2000 electronic thermometers and 700 oximeters, medical use air purifiers, robotic nurses and hospital beds;
  • Electric appliances including air conditioners, refrigerators, water dispensers, and water heaters, and TV screens;
  • Twenty negative pressure ambulances to each hospital.

Even small things like furniture, filing cabinets, and chairs have been contributed courtesy of anxious enterprises eager to help.

Besides the spirit of unity of the Chinese inspired by a time of national crisis, the prefabricated construction technology and the BIM system that the Chinese government has been promoting in recent years significantly accelerated the speed of construction.

Because of BIM and PC advancements, each stage of the project is able to interlock with the next accurately, greatly reducing convergence time in between. The efficiency of this system is not only demonstrated in the construction of the two hospitals, but also the refitting work of the 11 field hospitals in Wuhan.

Field hospitals are emergency temporary hospitals that the Chinese army used to put together in a time of war, they usually need to be completed fast and can fulfill simple duties of first aid treatment and hospitalizing injured soldiers.

In Wuhan’s case, 11 large public buildings were all refitted into field hospitals overnight to provide bed spaces for confirmed cases of patients with milder symptoms, while critical patients are sent to the more professionally equipped newly built hospitals.

From the expeditious construction and refitting of Wuhan’s pandemic hospitals, it is evident that PC systems will be the future and has become a celebrity of the Chinese construction market. As one of the three recognized PC systems by the Chinese government, it maybe opportune for WFC to explore prospects integrating with the BIM system in an effort to string resonance with Chinese designers.

China is called by the World as the “Captain Marvel of Infrastructure”, WFC needs to keep abreast of China’s technical construction advancements in order to win its respect and acceptance.