Consulting engineers respond to pandemic
May 5, 2020
Both response and adaptation to COVID-19 have been rapid.
For a significant example of how COVID-19 has impacted Canada’s consulting engineering community, look no further than Burlington, Ont., where Joseph Brant Hospital recently added a temporary on-site pandemic response unit to offer acute care for people suffering from the virus, with 93 beds.
The $2-million-plus modular project was operational by Apr. 10, less than a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic—and only two weeks after an initial conference call and technical call.
“We have worked on temporary systems before, but typically in the context of a renovation to an existing building,” says John Ferguson, design principal for The HIDI Group, a Toronto-based consulting engineering firm that was part of the project’s design-build team, led by BLT Construction Services as general contractor. “This is the first structure of this kind for us.”
It wasn’t the last. Soon thereafter, the same team used the same approach for another temporary unit at Trillium Health Partners’ nearby Mississauga Hospital.
“They have the same footprint and construction,” Ferguson explains, “and very similar interiors and mechanical and electrical systems. The timelines dictated, to a great extent, our scope and schedule. We could not have erected an insulated structure in time, for example, so the systems are based on three-season use and specific subsystems are temporary. The water supply for the hand-wash sinks is sourced from an adjacent fire hydrant, with the co-operation and approval of the fire department and code-mandated safety features, such as a backflow preventer. Our commissioning team descended on the project to execute functional test plans that had been developed just days before. Nothing focuses a group better than a challenging task!”
For both sites, BLT sourced tension fabric buildings from Sprung Structures in Aldersyde, Alta.
Meanwhile, Edmonton-headquartered consulting engineering firm Stantec announced it was working with Sprung Structures, along with CANA Construction, to design Alberta’s first temporary COVID-19 treatment centre, accommodating up to 70 patient spaces across 80,000 sf of additional space at Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Centre (chosen because the Calgary zone had 63% of the province’s confirmed cases of COVID-19).
The project team turned over the facility to Alberta Health Services (AHS), which began equipment installation and prepared for intake, so it is now ready to accept patients in advance of a predicted infection peak in mid-May.
“We all want to do our part in supporting the response and recovery,” says Todd Hartley, senior principal with Stantec, which is responsible for the project’s electrical, structural and mechanical engineering. “Our teams feel privileged to support Albertans when they need us the most.”
The firm has also advocated for designing hospitals with such modularity in mind from the start.
“In Canada, there have been significant strides toward building preparedness into designs since the SARS outbreak,” says Tim Eastwood, a principal at Stantec’s Toronto office specializing in the health-care sector. “A key element of preparedness is the ability for hospitals to retrofit or reallocate parts of their facilities.”
Eastwood cites such measures as designating separate emergency entrances for contagious patients, using lobbies and external spaces for pre-screening, controlling separation between patients, visitors and staff and converting existing patient rooms into isolation zones.
“Ontario’s ministry of health recommends the use of airborne isolation rooms (AIRs), which contain vestibules and filtered air to eliminate transfer contamination through the hospital, with negative pressure validated daily, but acknowledges a single room with the door closed can be used if necessary,” he says. “Even in regular patient rooms, underlying engineering systems should be designed to maintain negative pressure to the adjacent corridor. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) advises a patient with COVID-19 symptoms should be cared for in a single room with a private toilet and sink for their designated use and recommends infection prevention and control signage be placed at the entrance.”
Business continuity challenges
Even while such new projects have emerged and, for that matter, construction in general has continued in jurisdictions that have deemed it an essential service, Canada’s consulting engineering firms also had to reconcile themselves with an unprecedented economic slowdown.
Aecon Group, for example, withdrew its financial outlook for 2020 to evaluate the impact of the temporary slowing or suspension of work on several of its projects, due to directives issued by clients and governments in light of the pandemic, as well as the deferral of certain project procurement processes in its bidding pipeline.
For the work that does continue, firms like Aecon have implemented more stringent site pre-screening processes, hygienic and disinfection practices, physical distancing, additional personal protective equipment (PPE), team separation, staggered work hours and, like many other industries, technology-enabled work-from-home (WFH) initiatives.
SNC-Lavalin, too, announced its 2020 financial outlook was no longer valid, given the unprecedented circumstances, but also reported most of its engineering services personnel had been able to continue servicing clients from non-office-based locations and to transition work among different jurisdictions as required. In another sign of the times, the firm planned a ‘virtual’ annual shareholders’ meeting on May 7 to review its first-quarter results.
Bans on gatherings have of course also affected industry-related conferences, trade shows and other events. PM Springfest and the Canadian Mechanical & Plumbing Exposition (CMPX) were cancelled for the year; they will return in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) postponed its Building Lasting Change (BLC) Conference, with new dates yet to be announced. And the Canadian Steel Conference, originally planned by the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC) to be held this September in Winnipeg, was postponed to 2021.
Even farther out, ACEC-Canada has decided to cancel its National Leadership Conference, which would have been held in Ottawa in late October.
“Many of our member firms are facing challenging times as they navigate uncertainty,” says Martine Proulx, the association’s vice-president (VP). “The industry will continue to experience the impact well into 2021. During this time, we anticipate the focus of our members will be on their firms, their employees and their clients.”
Other events are going virtual instead. Examples include the newly established Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance’s (FGIA’s) Summer Conference and the ASHRAE Annual Conference and concurrent committee meetings, all still planned for late June, but online instead of in-person.
Addressing challenges with opportunities
With all of this in mind, Canadian Consulting Engineer ran an unscientific poll on its website, asking firms about the biggest challenges they were facing. Out of the four options provided, nearly all respondents selected either ‘ensuring business continuity’ or ‘supporting employees’ health, safety and livelihood,’ with a fairly even split between the two.
Yohaan Thommy, a Mississauga-based consulting partner at MNP, agrees both are important and argues they can go hand-in-hand.
“Through business continuity planning and resiliency, many companies can get back to work safely,” he says, “and some will even see an increase in business. There are huge opportunities to diversify their revenue streams, from supporting supply chains to helping clients who are not classified ‘essential’ make changes to get there, such as manufacturers who are now producing ventilators. Customers may be asking for help and you want to do what you can for them.”
The construction industry, he says, needs consulting engineers’ help more than before, particularly in terms of implementing safety protocols.
“Together, we can get sites working faster,” says Thommy. “As we know, there are things that can be done to greatly reduce the risk of workers catching the disease.”
On the home office side, meanwhile, he suggests seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to upgrading information technology (IT) systems and adopt more cloud-based solutions, particularly for accounting activities.
“COVID-19 can survive on paper and packaging, so cheques post a risk,” he says. “Wiping them down during quarantine takes too much work at the busiest time of year for accounting departments. Clients should be paying electronically instead, via online portals. For smaller firms, especially, cash flow is king. There are free templates for managing it.”
Nonetheless, the economic slowdown does pose an enormous threat to cash flow. Of the government programs currently in play, Thommy highlights Work-Sharing (WS), which was designed—before the pandemic—to help businesses avoid layoffs during temporary reductions in activity beyond employers’ control.
“It minimizes the reduction in pay,” he says. “People can stay on payroll for between two and 4.5 days a week, with the remaining time covered by employment insurance (EI). This can be a competitive advantage for you when other firms are laying people off. Out of all the programs, it provides the greatest ‘umbrella’ of protection and the best available payout.”
Other, more recently introduced federal government measures, Thommy says, can involve a longer wait, are shorter-term, do not provide as much protection and reduce flexibility.
“With WS, you can get funds in 10 days and they last longer,” he says.
Above all, however, he encourages firms to give back to their country.
“In this moment of crisis, as business leaders, what are you doing to help?” he asks. “It’s time to pay it forward. Donate to food banks, encourage more self-isolation throughout your business, don’t apply for funding you don’t need. We all need to do more.”