New York is converting its main convention center into a 1,000-bed hospital

Consequential adaptive reuse.
Consequential adaptive reuse.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Under normal circumstances, New York’s Jacob K. Javits Center would be abloom with exotic flowers right now. Its vast exhibition halls would be bustling with enterprising florists and horticulturists for the World Flower Expo that was originally scheduled this week. But the international trade show and other events slated for the city’s largest convention hall have been called off, as city officials grapple with the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

Today, the 1.8 million sq. ft (170,000 sq. m) conference facility along Manhattan’s far westside corridor looks like a military ops center, holding supplies and protective equipment for medical personnel. And within a week, the cavernous space will be transformed to a 1,000-bed medical station for non-Covid 19 cases, staffed by over 300 federal workers, as governor Andrew Cuomo explained in a March 23 press briefing.

“I want to thank Alan Steele, who runs this convention center,” said Cuomo flanked by officers from the US Homeland Security, the US Navy, and the Army Corps of Engineers. “He has put on many shows before, and his team is very adaptable, but this is the first time they have ever built a hospital inside the Javits Center.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Jacob K. Javits Center.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Jacob K. Javits Center.
Image: Reuters/MIke Segar

The New York Medical Station at the Javits Center, as it’s being referred to, will be an overflow hospital for treating patients with non-coronavirus ailments. Four separate 250-bed facilities will be erected on the Center’s vast exhibition halls to relieve overcrowded hospitals in New York City, which are currently dealing with over 15,000 positive cases—for over 7% of its population, a figure that’s rising fast—as the New York Times reports.

A FEMA spokesperson tells Quartz that the overflow hospital will have serve “people with special health needs, including those with chronic health conditions, limited mobility, or common mental health issues.” Unlike the two rapid-build hospitals in Wuhan, its engineers don’t have to worry too much about installing special ventilation and sanitation systems to contain the airborne virus. Cuomo says the facility could be operational as early as next week—or within seven to 10 days of his announcement.

Layouts of patient areas to be constructed are seen at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan
The conversion plan.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar

FEMA describes the architecture of the temporary hospital as “flexible and scalable,” presumably with the ability to shift focus as the pandemic develops. The New York Medical Station at the Javits Center is the only federally controlled facility in New York City region, which has quickly emerged as the epicenter of Covid-19 in the US.

Architect Guy Geier, a managing partner of FXCollaborative who completed Jacob Javits’s last expansion in 2014, says that the recent upgrades will prove useful as it transitions to a medical facility. Working with the Chicago-based engineering firm Epstein, FXCollaborative installed a better lighting system, new mechanical systems to reduce ambient noise and improve air quality, better insulation, and a 6.7-acre green roof that helped slash the facility’s energy consumption by over 25%. “We believe that the upgrades that we made to the building, along with new energy-efficient systems, will benefit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they execute this temporary conversion,” Geier explains.

In 2017, the convention center began another round of renovations to further expand its exhibition capacity. Under Cuomo’s stewardship, the $1.5-billion plan will increase Jacob Javits’s total floor area to 3.3 million sq ft (307,000 sq m).

The additional facilities at Javits Center, which could increase to 2,000 beds as Cuomo suggested, will help divert traffic from New York’s overburdened hospital system, but the governor says he’s looking for other viable facilities within the city. The Wing, a chain of co-working clubs geared for women, has offered free access to 70,000 sq. ft of space. Their facilities include  showers, operational kitchens, hospital grade lactation pumps, and two childcare areas.

Thomas Quigley, director of healthcare at the global architecture firm HOK, explains says that erecting a separate hospital for non-Covid cases will help stem the spread of the virus. “What you want to do is decant or direct the less acute and non-Covid-19 patients away from the current hospital,” he explains. “The temporary hospital allows for clinical care in a medically supervised environment, where they are less likely to become infected and can receive the appropriate care.”

He says that the Javits Center’s location, access to transportation, and wide, open floor plans make it an excellent spot for such a facility. “It has space, and lots of it,” Quigley explains. “The space is configured with large, open, structural bays with high ceilings. I suspect…they could erect entire military tent hospitals inside of the building.”

Quigley also says that the Javits Center’s massive loading docks are a big plus. “Conventions and shows, by their nature, require you to move large amounts of freight in and out in short periods of time. For a hospital, you can move very large equipment, in significant volume, through those docks in short order to get just such a facility set up,” he says.

Correction: A previous version of this story noted that the number of confirmed cases in New York City was over 25,000. That’s the figure for the entire state. At the time of publication, the city’s figure was over 15,000. It has been updated to reflect that, but please note, too, that the number is continuing to change.