Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2020.

All Hands on Deck

Faced with a surge in citizens sickened by coronavirus, China builds two massive modular hospitals in two weeks


It’s a feat of engineering that the United States hasn’t seen, and possibly never will: two brand-new hospitals, each measuring over 250,000 square feet, both built in the span of two weeks.

In December and January, thousands of residents were falling ill from the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV in Wuhan, China, a city of about 11 million. On January 23, Wuhan officials requested a new hospital be built to deal with the surge in patients. The following day, construction began on Huoshenshan Hospital, a 269,000-square-foot temporary facility that includes 1,000 patient beds, an operating room, a laboratory, an intensive care room, and a negative pressure ward used to prevent cross-contaminations. It was completed in 10 days.

“Progress was measured in hours,” China State Construction Engineering, the construction company that led the project, said in a statement, according to the Engineering News-Record.

Rather than building one continuous structure from the ground up, prefabricated modular units were brought in and joined together on site, which “significantly reduced the workload of field operations,” ENR reported. More than 1,000 project managers, 5,000 workers, and 1,000 pieces of construction equipment were involved in the project, the magazine said.

A second project by the same company to build a 323,000-square-foot temporary hospital with 1,600 beds in Wuhan was launched two days after work began on Huoshenshan, and was also completed in 10 days,

Experts say both projects—which were modeled after similar actions China took in the wake of the early 2000s SARS outbreak—display the country’s unique ability to divert huge amounts of resources to one goal, adding that it’s doubtful such feats could be accomplished in the US due to a stricter regulatory environment.

“Unlike in the US, there is essentially zero red tape in China to get any of these major projects off the ground and built,” said Robert Solomon, director of the Building and Life Safety Division at NFPA. “China’s ability to mobilize its construction industry and redirect resources is unlike anything we’re used to in the US. Whether it’s buildings, tunnels, railways, roads, or bridges, they spare no expense or resources to make things happen. They do these things quickly, efficiently, and, for the most part, safely.”

The hospital projects also serve as perhaps the best example of the potential of modular construction to revolutionize the construction industry.

Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Building Institute, an industry trade group based in the US, said the projects highlight the ability of modular construction to drastically shorten construction project timelines. But like Solomon, he indicated that China’s experiences and abilities are unique. “Not many developers have unlimited capital to divert to any one project, nor do they have the entire government pushing to expedite the project,” Hardiman wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “That said, it does show what is possible in times of crisis or disasters when time is of the essence and all parties work together.”

It’s unclear what fire and life safety protection features the new hospitals have, or how the facilities were inspected and permitted, if at all. An email sent from NFPA Journal to a contact at China State Construction Engineering asking about fire and life safety at the new facilities went unanswered before the magazine’s deadline. In studying interior photographs of the projects, though, Solomon said he was able to identify smoke detectors but no sprinklers. “I’m guessing they may not be required,” he added.

NFPA Journal recently covered the emerging trend of modular construction [“Outside the Box,” March/April 2019]. At the time, the article stated, modular construction was a $112 billion industry worldwide. By 2023, it’s expected to grow to a $160 billion industry. Read the story at


New email evidence: Firms knew Grenfell exterior walls would fail in fire

London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton has resigned amid accusations over how she handled the response to the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed over 70 people.

Emails presented in the ongoing public inquiry into the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in January show that the firms involved in the production and sale of exterior wall components that had been added to the 24-story apartment building before the blaze knew their products would fail in the event of a fire.

According to an article from BBC News, an internal email sent by a technical manager at the cladding design company Harley in March 2015 said the company’s aluminum composite material panels “will be gone rather quickly in a fire!” In another email, a fire safety consultant at a company called Exova said that another type of panel being considered for Grenfell would fail if there were external flames, BBC reported. The firms have largely defended their emails, saying it was the responsibility of architects and designers to conduct fire tests and make sure the configurations of the cladding and other exterior wall components were safe.

Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of Applied Research at NFPA, said that while she found the emails troubling, they weren’t all that surprising to her. “In my experience, the construction industry focuses on compliance and not safety, and unfortunately those two things are not the same, especially when the codes and standards have not caught up to new building practices,” said Messerschmidt, who has studied combustible exterior wall assemblies like the one that sheathed Grenfell. In the wake of the blaze, many media reports focused on deficiencies in United Kingdom codes and standards that allowed for unsafe exterior wall components and configurations to be added to buildings.

NFPA has developed a number of resources to help address the worldwide threat of combustible exterior wall components. Learn more at

Alzaid tapped as new NFPA rep for Middle East, North Africa regions

Anas Alzaid, an electrical engineering consultant from Saudi Arabia, has been named NFPA’s new local representative for the Middle East and North Africa regions.

Over his 30-year career, Alzaid has worked in the oil and gas industry, managed safety and security in the government health care sector, and been a member of the Saudi standards accreditation committee, among other roles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and a master’s in business administration from King Saudi University.

Alzaid’s hire builds on NFPA’s decades-long presence in the Middle East. In 2017, NFPA established the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Advisory Committee to promote fire and life safety and code enforcement throughout the regions. Alzaid will work closely with the MENA Advisory Committee in his new role.

“NFPA is committed to improving fire and life safety throughout the world,” said NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley. “Expanding the NFPA presence and purpose in MENA countries is an important part of this effort.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images