Employees at Aspen Street Architects in Angels Camp are working at a frenetic pace to design and engineer a 150,000 square foot hospital for the city of Joplin, Mo., to replace St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which was destroyed by one of the deadliest tornadoes ever seen in the United States.
The mile-wide EF5 tornado produced winds of more than 225 mph, killed more than 150 people and destroyed 7,000 homes earlier this year. The roughly 750,000 square foot hospital, a Mercy health affiliate, was devastated by the tornado, and could no longer be safely used. Dave Hitchcock, founder of Aspen Street Architects, said that the people working for Mercy moved incredibly fast to provide emergency care to patients in need. “After the disaster, which literally brings tears to my eyes, within a week they were up in running in tents, like a MASH unit,” Hitchcock said. “They were operating on site.”
Eight weeks after the disaster, Mercy began building a temporary replacement facility made of aluminum sandwich panels, because “tents don’t cut it,” Hitchcock said. That structure will get the hospital by until the completion of the facility that Aspen Street Architects is designing and engineering, which is slated for completion in April of next year, less than a year from when the tornado struck. That’s a record pace. Getting an interim hospital that is completely code compliant up and running within a year is a nearly impossible time table, according to a release from ASA. “They are building as fast as we can design,” Hitchcock said. “It’s fabulous. As far as I know, it’s never been done before.”
Aspen Street Architects and Hitchcock first came to Calaveras County in 1977 with his wife Pat. “She had a teaching job up here,” he said. “I had the choice of opening up an office in the Bar and trying to slug it out with everyone else, or she could support me up here,” he said with a smile. He opened an office in 1978 and the business became Aspen Street in 1982. Since opening its doors, the business has occupied eight different locations throughout the county, most in the Arnold area. “Each time, we simply outgrew the space,” Hitchcock said. In 2005, the company moved into the old Calaveras Lumber building in Angels Camp and has been there since. At its peak, ASA had 44 employees – that number is now down to 15, due to the economy. Most of the employees reside within the county. “The folks who are here are here because they are all hard working,” Hitchcock said, adding that it’s not easy to be licensed and put in the long hours expected at ASA. “I’m telling you these guys are working their butts off.” “At some point, I want to build back up,” Hitchcock said, adding that he may hire more skilled employees to help shoulder the heavy workload of designing the hospital in Missouri.
The company has designed numerous buildings in Calaveras, one of the most iconic being the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp. “Our only real focuses are healthcare and education,” Hitchcock said. “Schools are pretty commonplace. Healthcare is a really difficult little devil. It’s pretty technical.” That devil has been mastered by those at Aspen Street. Whether it be designing each room to have a different barometric pressure, combating germs, planning for numerous gas lines, opening and closing doors, vents and ducts throughout the building remotely, and much more, it wasn’t always this way.
“When we moved up here, I was the only architect in Calaveras County,” Hitchcock said. “We were lucky enough to have the hospital ask us to do some work. We pretty well got our noses sandblasted the first couple of times. But once you know the system, then you have a head start on everybody else. You need every edge you can get.”
As evidenced by the significant downsizing in employees, ASA has certainly been impacted by the economic downturn. “Schools have essentially stopped growth, because the state has turned off funding,” Hitchcock said. “That was half our work. For hospitals, usually takes several years for the hospital to acknowledge that they need to do something badly enough to actually put money toward it. It’s not like when (education-related work) dries up, (healthcare) immediately picks up the slack. We’re lucky that were busy as all get out at the moment.” Hitchcock said that while the majority of the work ASA does is outside the county, the majority of the dollars are spent within the county.
“All those dollars come in from out of the county,” he said. “They were not recirculated here. Once they are spent here, they get to recirculate. We haven’t done less than a million for the last 15 years – sometimes, several times more than.” In terms of weathering the economic storm, Hitchcock said that he no longer owns the company and decisions are made as a group. “In 2000, I sold the company essentially to my employees,” Hitchcock said. “As far as my discouragement, I can’t say I’m always twinkle toes about this. We’ve never been out of work, and the way things are going right now, especially with this project, I think that we have one heck of a bright future. I actually retired at the beginning of the year, and then this project came along and I had to come back.”
Aspen Street Architects was contacted in the second week of June by Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Paul K. Carlton Jr. regarding the possibilities of building an interim hospital in Missouri made from modular.
“Many people and organizations use modular construction for non-acute health care,” Hitchcock said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. When you build to acute standards, it meets a very different standard.”
Many firms design modular healthcare buildings, but very few build to acute care standards.
“As far as acute care, I would say we probably have more experience than anybody in the nation,” Hitchcock said.
Representatives from Mercy traveled out to California for a tour of Sierra Kings District Hospital in Reedley, which had used Aspen Street’s component design in an expansion project. That visit led to the selection of Aspen Street to design the interim hospital in Missouri.
“They liked it,” Hitchcock said. “They understood that it’s not a trailer. It’s concrete and steel. It exceeds the International Building Code requirements for a hospital. They said ‘Let’s go.’” Hitchcock has been exceptionally impressed with Mercy’s level of professionalism. “I’ve never worked with a client so clearly intent to get something done,” he said. They are professional and made decisions when they were necessary and stuck by them.” The hospital, projected to serve the Joplin community for three-to-five years until a much larger hospital is built, is being constructed of 260 pre-fabricated 60-foot-long building units that are being manufactured in Southern California by Walden Structures. Hitchcock said that Walden Structures is doing a fabulous job producing units that very few, if any, other company could manufacture. “The number of parts and pieces that goes in here is literally in the millions,” Hitchcock said. “They are building and shipping units while we are designing other portions of the hospital.” Each unit weighs about 40,000 pounds and has to be shipped well over 1,000 miles to the site of the new hospital. “They will be shipping 20 to 24 units per week,” Hitchcock said. “There are a limited number of trucks that can haul these, just because of the size. They’ll form a convey line delivering these units until February.”
Using modular construction is what is allowing this project to move so quickly. “It is faster than stick construction,” Hitchcock said. “It is at the same cost or less than stick, and the quality is higher than stick.”
The speed of the project has also been greatly enhanced through the consistent support of the city of Joplin and the state of Missouri, Hitchcock said. What would be a three month process in most states is getting same-day approval on this project. St. John’s 150,000-square-foot, 2-story interim hospital will be one of five component hospitals ever to be constructed in the U.S., and the first ever to meet the strict requirements of the current International Building Code for hospitals,” a release stated. “The finished replacement hospital will include 55 med surgery rooms, 6 pediatric rooms, 18 intensive-care patient rooms, 20 emergency department exam rooms, 4 operating rooms, 2 cath labs, a complete radiology department, regional lab, pharmacy and more,” the release continued.
“The project is supposed to be done in April,” Hitchcock said. “Happily, we have some other rather large projects behind it, so we’ll be busy for the foreseeable future. Again, this whole concept of modular is the one that’s bringing us the next projects. I think that one this is out, and people see it, we’re going to be pretty busy.”
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