Project Héroe:

Modular Defense Against Future Pandemics

David Swartz, FAIA, IIDA, a senior partner at HLW, was not on board with the phrase “the new normal.” In his view, it implies that the unnatural practice of social distancing, necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic, is permanent. That’s not the kind of future he wants to see, so he launched Project Héroe: a multidisciplinary effort to identify an architectural and logistical solution to help prevent future pandemics.

The strategy underlying Project Héroe is proactive rather than reactive. It contrasts significantly with the response to COVID-19, which David and the team believe has positioned us as victims, “reacting to a pandemic that’s already here.” An analysis of the situation prompted him to ask: “What if we were able to stop the virus at its source, to give ourselves control of our future, and to save our way of life?” To address these questions, he decided to bring in some experts from the building and healthcare industries to create a prototype with their assistance.

Development of the program was slow-going at first. “Honestly, my office was apprehensive when I started this project,” David remembers. But as COVID-19 intensified and he talked to more and more people in his professional network, he gained support for his vision. Eventually, he was able to organize the program as a collaboration between HLW and the University of Southern California School of Architecture as well as the USC Keck School of Medicine.

The Team

The next step was to create the multidisciplinary team of experts, who included HLW staff, medical advisors, recent graduates, students, industry consultants, and Syska Hennessy for MEP and fire-safety engineering.

Syska’s involvement stemmed from its association with USC: Syska co-president Gary Brennen is the president of the USC Architectural Guild, and David is on USC’s board of governors. The two have known each other for a long time.

Six USC architecture students, selected from 70 applicants, also played an important role in the first phase of the project. David was able to raise close to $60,000, which funded their full-time involvement over the summer at a time when internship opportunities were few and far between.

Phase I: The Prototype

Within the span of five weeks, the team developed a 121-page report that outlined the Project Héroe prototype: an architectural and engineering solution for any ground-zero site where a new disease emerges, combined with a distribution system to quickly deliver and assemble it wherever and whenever it is needed in as quick as one week.

Here’s how it works: Modules with dimensions that mimic shipping containers form the basis of the solution, allowing for easy transport and construction across the world. The modules connect to form prefabricated healthcare facilities that treat patients, track spread through contact tracing, and provide on-site housing to all staff.

David describes the result as a sort of city that encompasses a minimum area of two million square feet and six building types: hospital blocks, triage stations, patient wings, wellness centers, housing blocks, and decontamination/storage centers. Although compact, each building is outfitted with advanced technology and equipment along with comfortable amenities to attract the best scientists and healthcare professionals to the site.

Modules will be stored in 17 global locations, where they can be quickly transported via ship, rail, or truck. Facilities in Detroit and Chongquing (China) will serve not only as warehouses, but also as training centers. “We did our homework to create this smart distribution system,” says David, who acknowledges: “This has never been done before. It’s a little insane.”

The Syska participants loved the concept. David recalls that when he discussed Project Héroe with Gary, Gary reacted with enthusiasm: “He had a really good attitude about Syska’s participation and was excited about solving the problems we put in front of him.”

The other Syska consultants shared Gary’s perspective. According to Tom Ford, associate partner, “The entire process was intriguing.” His colleague Robin Mosley, associate partner, adds: “It was a great opportunity for the right reasons, and something we could really help with, given our expertise in the healthcare arena and in critical facilities.” Syska’s hospitality background also came in handy, given the project’s focus on attractive accommodations for staff.

MEP and Fire Protection

One of the biggest hurdles for Project Héroe was the need to make the modules performative and self-sustainable, as well as easily connected with both centralized and decentralized systems. “We were aiming for a plug-and-play Lego type of solution,” says Tom. To achieve this objective, Syska developed a design that minimizes horizontal distribution of electrical conduits, plumbing piping, and ductwork. The piping and conduits attach through a locking mechanism, allowing quick connect/disconnect technology for rapid construction.

The team also designed decentralized HVAC units for each module, enabling repair and maintenance of individual modules. By compartmentalizing each unit separately within a building, staff can control the levels of negative pressure required for hospital environments, while also reducing airborne contamination.

For the electrical systems, Syska chose dedicated diesel generators on the lowest level of the central plant stack within each building. The generators are equipped with external lugs that can link to an electric utility if one is available.

Project Héroe’s plumbing systems incorporate domestic cold water through a centrally located storage tank and redundant booster pumps. Syska located vacuum drainage components within the central plant of the prototype facility to support sanitation, ease of set-up, and efficiency.

In designing the fire protection components, the team adapted a system used in trains. This canister-based system, which provides gaseous suppression through an independent distribution point, is situated in the ceiling of each module.

Gary emphasizes the team’s attention to indoor health and wellness in addition to ease of assembly and environmental efficiency. “Staff will be working in difficult conditions,” he points out. “Access to clean air and ample daylighting makes a positive difference in their experience.”

According to David, Syska’s contributions have been critical to Project Héroe’s success. Specifically, he praises Syska’s “swift engagement and practical solutions.”

Other Uses

David envisions other uses for the modules beyond defense against pandemics, such as temporary hospitals for areas affected by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or human conflict. The housing modules could become transitional accommodation for the homeless or for refugees. Pop-up clinics are another option. As David suggests, “the potential of Project Héroe for rapid deployment and its ability to accommodate many different types of programs make it extremely versatile.”

Phase II

Phase II of Project Héroe, soon to be underway, involves the crucial step of proof-of-concept (POC). “This is where we’ll create a sort of mock-up to demonstrate that the modules can connect and that everything works,” David explains. “A POC will encourage serious investment and government involvement.”

Bringing Project Héroe to fruition has not been an easy process. “It’s really tedious and difficult,” says David. “It’s like rolling a 4,000-pound boulder up a steep hill.” But he’s nevertheless eager to launch Phase II. “We have an unparalleled opportunity to save future lives and truly change the world with architecture, engineering, and the building industry at the helm,” he observes. “Could anything be more exciting than that?”

“We have an unparalleled opportunity to save future lives and truly change the world with architecture, engineering, and the building industry at the helm."

Photography © HLW and the Project Héroe team

USC School of Architecture vs. COVID-19

“Students produce a chronological cloud of images and information for a semester’s worth of work, which enables them to assess their progress in a forensic way,”

The University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, like alumnus David Swartz, supported active, rather than passive, responses to the pandemic. According to Alvin Huang, AIA, NOMA, associate professor and director of graduate & post-professional architecture at the school, the first step was to radically alter the curriculum to promote remote digital collaboration. For example, the students are gaining skills in 3D animation and motion graphics. Alvin notes that such skills are not a “temporary band-aid for the current situation, but rather tools that students can take forward in their professional lives.”

To enhance collaboration, the school created a Slack channel for the graduate program and adopted a platform called Miro, which is an infinitely scaled whiteboard. Each studio has its own whiteboard onto which students pin up drawings or images that everyone else can view. “Students produce a chronological cloud of images and information for a semester’s worth of work, which enables them to assess their progress in a forensic way,” says Alvin. “I encourage them to look back to see how a project evolved, where they might have taken a wrong turn, or where they pursued an idea that died and came back to life later.” The boards are shared on the Slack channel so students from different studios can “wander the halls” and see what their peers are doing.

Operation PPE

Under Alvin’s guidance, faculty, students, and alumni had the opportunity to use their skills as part of USC Architecture’s Operation PPE, an initiative inspired by Cornell professor and architect Jenny Sabin. Sabin launched Operation PPE to create 3D-printed protective face masks and visors for healthcare workers at a time when there was little PPE to go around.

Recognizing that many architecture students and faculty own 3D printers, Alvin decided to undertake a similar initiative at USC. In late March, he proposed the concept to his colleagues and students, who responded enthusiastically. Soon they were downloading open-source files, 3D printing them, and improving them. “We organized everything through a Slack channel,” Alvin recalls. “We established drop-off locations for masks that would be picked up by runners, who would then take them to hospitals. Some participants took responsibility for purchasing and for the supply chain, using a virtual inventory system on Google Docs. If I ran out of filament, I’d wake up the next morning and there would be filament sitting on my front step.”

Soon, the movement grew to encompass more than 50 AEC firms, 15 academic institutions ranging from elementary schools to universities, and more than 350 volunteers from the Southern California region.

Citizen Architects

Now that PPE is more readily available, the level of activity has abated, but the emphasis on the “citizen architect” persists. The AIA identifies several characteristics of citizen architects, one of which is the use of insights, talents, training, and experience to contribute meaningfully to the improvement of the community and the human condition. It’s clear that the faculty, alumni, and students involved in Operation PPE and Project Héroe exemplify this characteristic.

“Moving forward, we are continuing to focus on the intersections between architecture, design, equity, justice, health, housing, resilience, and sustainability,” says Alvin. He compares today’s macro environment to the micro scenario of a client’s house that burned down. Instead of simply rebuilding the house, Alvin persuaded the client to completely overhaul the design. “It’s a bleak analogy,” Alvin admits, but it’s apt. We’re fighting the pandemic, systemic racism, fires, and environmental crises. There’s clearly a burning down of the house in these kinds of social, political, and cultural situations. In responding to these situations, we don’t have to rebuild the house the way it was before. We can make vast improvements.”

USC School of Architecture Photo Credit: CC BY 4.0, Photo by Douglas Noble