When New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, it posed a crushing challenge not only to our front-line medical professionals, but to the spaces they work in. Our overwhelmed healthcare facilities needed instant and widespread augmentation. On March 23, 2020 (a decade ago in corona-time), Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an emergency order that all hospitals in the state up their capacities by 50% to meet the need. But even this steep increase was no match for the surge in COVID-19 patients.
The state raced to build four pop-up hospitals in the middle of the pandemic, some from scratch and others by repurposing existing structures. One was at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, another on Staten Island, a third at the Javits Center, and the fourth in the middle of Central Park. We’ll examine the last two as case studies in adaptation. (The federal government’s wrong-footed deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort deserves its own blog.)
The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is one of the biggest and busiest in North America. The transformation of this 1.8 million s.f. building into a massive treatment facility by the Army Corps of Engineers was just spectacular. In less than three weeks, they erected a 2,000-bed field hospital, later expanded to 2,910 beds.
Long, beige curtains screened off row after row of 8-foot-tall cubicles, a quick and effective way of dividing the vast hall into hospital rooms. Most rooms had chairs, oxygen concentrators, and adjustable cots, with additional equipment and PPE devoted to the intensive-care sections. Large restroom trailers were parked inside, like transplants from a music festival.
The place teemed with active duty and reserve military doctors, deployed to New York from all over the country. According to patients, the place looked, felt, and smelled like a hospital, except for one telltale feature–the high ceilings. “When you lie on your back, you remember you’re in a convention center, staring at sky-high ceilings of steel. At night, the lights are dimmed, but they’re never turned off,” one patient reported in April.
Several factors made the Javits Center’s conversion a success. The building was originally designed to adapt to a wide range of events with occupancies in the 10,000 range. Ironically, the virus helped by clearing the Javits’s calendar. What remained was an empty shell surrounding a collection of enormous fully-conditioned spaces. It was the perfect blank canvas for a pop-up hospital.
By contrast, the 68-bed field hospital in Central Park lacked both the benefits and the constraints of a preexisting structure. Erected in the park’s East Meadow, the cluster of 14 tents resembled the set of M*A*S*H, but against a backdrop of Manhattan highrises. Inside each tent was a structural frame of inflatable tubes for compact shipping and quick deployment. A grid of adjustable cots was similar to that of the Javits but without the privacy screens. Ten ICU beds came equipped with ventilators.
Mount Sinai Hospital and Samaritan’s Purse, an evengelical humanitarian organization, partnered to create this facility. But the latter built and ran the site along the lines of field hospitals they’d opened worldwide to address epidemics like the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Unfortunately, Samaritan’s Purse also has a dark side. The charity is run by Franklin Graham, who has an ugly habit of homophobic and islamophobic hate speach. When The New York Times exposed Samaritan’s Purse’s policies requiring aid recipients to participate in religious activities and requiring staff to sign anti-gay pledges, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other local officials called on Mount Sinai to close the field hospital.
By the end of April, the Central Park facility had treated 315 patients, a drop in the bucket compared with Javits. And the spring timing was lucky; tents would have faced harsher conditions in frigid February or broiling July. But the open ball fields of the East Meadow allowed for adjacencies that best suited the medical staff.
Earlier this month as the patient crisis ebbed, all of these pop-up hospitals began to wind down. On May 4, the Samaritan’s Purse facility stopped admitting new patients. Their closing coincided with the downturn of COVID-19 cases, but clearly, they were ducking their own backlash. Mt. Sinai plans to take several more weeks to treat the last patients and decontaminate the tents.
The Javits Center closed its admissions on May 1. Only a few dozen patients remain, with releases anticipated shortly as they recover. But the Javits field hospital won’t be broken down yet. FEMA’s equipment will remain, since officials expect a second wave of infections. Most of the military personnel who staffed the Javits Center, however, have left New York for redeployment.
These facilities show two extremes of potential site conditions — the conversion of an existing building vs. the creation of a new complex from scratch. But both are laudable examples of a quick and reversible adaptation. An urgent need identified, a swift response mounted, and temporary structures built and occupied in less than a month. This is lighting fast for a city that normally takes months to approve a DOB application. We’re inspired by the quick and thoughtful work of the designers.
As we close in on two months of working from home due to COVID-19, we’re settling into our new normal. We’re no longer arriving at the crowded York Street station from all over Brooklyn each morning, coffee in tow. And we’re certainly not running around the city for site visits. But we’re still very much at work. Like other non-essential businesses, we’re working from home, doing our part to slow the transmission of the virus. Conducting our business remotely poses challenges but also offers multiple opportunities for growth.
Close collaboration in our bustling DUMBO office has long been a hallmark of the work we do here at Delson or Sherman. Our spacious, open-concept office fosters a culture of communication and mutual inspiration that enhances our work. Working together not only keeps us all on track, but maintains the creative flow of our projects—an idea specific to one job transforms into a characteristic touch we apply to other designs. The focused atmosphere we strive to cultivate in the office is fertile ground for new ideas. Many of our best concepts arise at the intersection of two divergent paths, an unexpected connection between two distant destinations.
Maintaining the collaborative spirit of our office from afar requires adaptation. We checked in with a couple members of our team to see how they’re fairing, and we’re sharing their home office setups here with the hopes that it may prove useful to other small businesses navigating this tricky terrain with us.
Earlier this year, as the threat of coronavirus grew more ominous, we engaged our tech team to seek out solutions to make our setup mobile. Everyone in the office regularly maintains and works off of files on our server, so setting up remote access to the server was essential. Now, we each have a remote login to our office computers and conduct our work on the same server. This method ensures continuity, and allows multiple people to access and develop the same file. Of course, this necessitates that everyone has adequate hardware.
“The tools we’re using now—Zoom, Bullclip, G Chat—are great,” said Associate Joel Melton. “We’re learning a lot about our communication style, and even identifying inefficiencies in the ways we used to handle things.” Without the full amenities of the office at his disposal, Melton admits that he sometimes has to get creative to accomplish an otherwise menial task. However, small steps towards building a workstation have yielded significant results.
“I recently bought a new laptop, fully loaded with all of the fixings,” Melton explained. “I took an extra monitor from the office, so I have a big screen and a little screen. It’s actually a pretty nice setup. My house upstate is an ideal haven from the city to retreat to during all of this. I feel so lucky that we had this place to go to.”
The camaraderie of sharing a physical space is irreplaceable, and without it, Melton finds that communication is a little more difficult across the board. “The hard thing is not having immediate access to coworkers. If I have a question for somebody in the office, I usually just give them a holler. If I have a question now, I have to track them down, maybe on G Chat or with a phone call. It’s an inevitable bit of time that’s lost when we’re not together.”
Of course, what we’re able to do for each other takes the backseat to what we’re able to do for our clients. Connecting with clients in our same, signature way in this new situation requires extra attention.
“It’s easier to have a conversation about a design, especially when they aren’t fluent in architecture lingo, when you’re all looking and pointing at the same drawing together,” Melton said. “There’s an ease and a familiarity with having those conversations around a table. And a close relationship is easier to form when you can look into a client’s eyes. Through a screen, it’s not quite as easy to establish trust.”
Additionally, physical gestures of hospitality are difficult to translate.
“The hospitality that we offer in the office—when someone comes in, they’re greeted, they’re offered coffee and water, they’re welcomed—is part of our brand. We’re very careful about how we treat guests in our office. We aren’t able to provide the same special treatment when doing it remotely.” Melton acknowledges that this is a bit of an irreconcilable loss. “However, it helps that it’s not just something unique to our office. It’s also something that our clients and the entire broader world is dealing with. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
For Project Manager Alena Bronder, the adjustment to working from home meant spending more time than usual in her cramped Bushwick apartment.
“I’ve mainly been working at my kitchen table, because it’s the only suitable surface I have,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll switch to my bed or the couch for a phone call. In a way, I have to be extra strategic, working at the only surface that I have. I conduct my entire day around this table now. I do all my work, eat all my meals, and prep all my cooking. It’s my multifunctional workstation.”
Although balancing the competing demands for her table takes effort, Bronder finds it easier than she expected. “Now that we’ve coordinated all of this new software, we’ve realized our work is more portable than we thought. Bullclip, the markup software, is a great tool to review and markup drawings remotely. And the screen-sharing features on Zoom make it simple to quickly illuminate a concept.”
Of all of the changes, though, Bronder most misses the tangible aspect of designing: site visits. “Obviously, construction has mostly ground to a halt. But it is hard to keep tabs on the incremental progress on different sites. It’s a little difficult to communicate with contractors. They send photos of completed work, but we have less control as designers to explain and instruct on the fly.”
Both Bronder and Melton expressed relief over how manageable working from home has been.
“When I think of all the healthcare workers, first responders, and essential services at the front lines of this pandemic who have no choice but to work through severe personal risk, I’m that much more grateful for how our office is operating right now,” Bronder said. “We’re safe and effective.”
“We are able to do this, it’s not a stretch,” Melton said. “We’re continuing to work on all types of projects in all different stages. While the way in which we communicate with clients and contractors are changing, it’s still working. Some of these tools we’ll even continue to use. An entire office learning new tools together is actually a great way to jump-start efficiency, and prepare for when we’re all back together again.”
Although it’s a bit of a chore to find sources of optimism right now, Bronder thinks “staying inspired is crucial. I’m excited for competitions on the horizon. Other than that, I’m relying heavily on any chance to tap into my creative flow: cooking, bass guitar lessons, drawing, tattoos.”
And of course, Zoom Happy Hours.
Design-build firms get a lot of hype online these days, but we keep hearing regrets from homeowners who’ve chosen this method of renovation. The most common problems are stop work orders, heavy change orders, dubious craftsmanship, and endless delays in job completion. Is this just the bad luck of a few homeowners or a systemic problem?
First, let’s clarify the difference between the design-build process and the traditional architect-contractor relationship. Design-build offers one-stop shopping for the client. A single company provides all the services needed to design, price, and build the project. It’s a streamlined process that feels collaborative, cooperative, quick, and efficient.
By contrast, a dedicated architect works solely for the client and competitively bids a project to a few general contractors. If the bids come back higher than expected, the architect must then redesign to lower the price. This back and forth is the reason so many clients opt for design-build.
But we’d argue this is exactly the reason for sticking with tradition. Competition may seem adversarial, but it’s a fight that benefits the client. A builder will always work harder to lower his prices when he’s struggling against other bidders to land a job. By eliminating this struggle, design-build costs the client the single greatest opportunity for savings in a project.
Moreover, design-builders exaggerate the time difference between the methods. A design-builder can’t price a job any faster than a pool of competing bidders would. And while it’s true that design-builders get more practice at detailed cost estimating than architects do, any architect with a few years’ experience in a given market can accurately predict construction costs.
In our office, for example, our budget estimates typically fall within 10% of the competitive bids we receive. Here’s why. If an architect has recently bid out six similar projects to four contractors apiece, that’s a data trove of twenty-four detailed bids to use for estimating future projects. A design-builder would need twenty-four separate projects to amass as much data.
Another traditional relationship that benefits the client is the triangle of checks and balances that links the contractor, the architect, and the client. The dedicated architect is the client’s agent, not the contractor’s. As such, the architect has a fiduciary duty to the client and defends the client against the contractor’s mistakes. Since most clients have little experience with construction, having a seasoned professional on your side can be a crucial advantage, especially if something goes wrong during construction. And construction is rarely a smooth process.
Here’s a common example. A contractor proposed covering the chimneys in waterproofing, rather than follow our spec for cutting stepped flashing into the brick. Even though this kind of “repair” is common practice, it’s short-sighted. If you let bricks breath, they’ll last a lifetime, but if you wrap them in waterproofing, the mortar corrodes. You’ll have a few leak-free years, but water will eventually get in and turn the mortar to sand. As architects serving our client’s interest, we vetoed the idea.
In a design-build relationship, however, our veto would never happen. The contractor would get no resistance from the architect because the two are on the same team. No one defends the client. If anything, it’s the opposite. Against a unified front of professionals speaking their own jargon on their own turf, the client is on her own.
Look, we’re great fans of collaboration. We love the synergy of all parties working towards the same goal: making a project the best it can be. And our design and construction process is rarely adversarial. But when it is, don’t you want your architect to fight for you?
Home Builder Digest has just published its Best Residential Architects in Brooklyn, New York. And we’re happy to report Delson or Sherman Architects made this short list.
Home Builder Digest is a team of builders, project consultants, and writers united by their passion for home construction and architecture. They publish lists of the best building professionals across the U.S. using a rigorous evaluation methodology based on more than a dozen criteria. The goal of their findings is to help homeowners find the best professionals for their projects.
They singled out Delson or Sherman Architects as “one of the most collaborative architectural firms in New York”. This caught us by surprise. Not that we don’t value collaboration–we do! We just assumed all architects do, too. After all, a successful project requires a lot of people with lots of divergent talents to all work towards a shared goal. It’s more like making a movie than the Howard Roark myth of a solo architect suggests.
On the other hand, Home Builder Digest also noted our specialty is “maximizing a space to its full potential”. Can’t argue with that. Thanks!
Curbed has chosen a project by Delson or Sherman Architects for its list of “New York City’s Most Beautiful Homes of 2019.” The project was the gut renovation of a twin house on Prospect Park West. With only ten projects selected, the twin house stands alongside some celebrities. These include I.M. Pei’s Sutton Place townhouse and Calvin Klein’s former penthouse in the Police Building.
Curbed notes the house “hit the market this year, asking just under $6 million”. In other words, almost double the purchase price from 2014. But the added value isn’t unusual for our office. When sold soon after renovation, our projects typically fetch 20% more than the original sale price and cost of construction combined. Renovation, as it turns out, makes a surprisingly good investment strategy.