United Buildings – are they a solution in times of Crisis?

(Human) needs unquestionably shape the built environment – meaning that buildings are designed and constructed to meet people’s fundamental needs. What if these needs change suddenly for some completely unexpected reasons – such as a pandemic outbreak endangering the whole world? How will (should?) built form respond to this unexpected, sudden and significant change?

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is ‘once-in-a-100-year-type event’ as Australian Prime Minister Mr Scott Morrison has said, unquestionably has caused significant changes in people’s lives and affected their needs – for example, due to travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of virus, the need for (travel-related) temporary accommodation has decreased and as many people are infected, the need for medical care has otherwise increased.

While the rapid increase in the number of patients requiring medical care places pressure on the healthcare system and resulted in lack of available hospital beds and support services, hotels, on the other hand, have become underutilised – within the same set of (unique) circumstances, it presents a picture of full hospital beds versus empty hotel rooms.

Understandably, as static and rigid structures, existing built forms generally could not easily satisfy the newly introduced requirements. Of course, it is possible to convert an existing structure/building for a new use, but obviously this will not be economical or quick enough to be accepted as a viable and practical solution.

Let’s say we chose this way as a solution and made all necessary arrangements and alterations to change the existing structures so that they meet the ‘new normal’ needs. Can anyone guarantee that there will be no other major change in conditions again? Are we going to keep changing the built forms to satisfy the new requirements?

Maybe then, instead of converting static structures according to the changing conditions, we should seek for reasonable ways to design buildings more flexible so that they can adapt to the changing conditions more quickly and easily respond to a pandemic. Recently, architect Nic van der Nol has called for a “new paradigm”:

It’s clear to us that what’s necessary is the embrace of a new paradigm.

As architects and engineers, this raises the question for us how we can bring inherent flexibility to built form. Of course, there are many design strategies to achieve this. However, here we are going to focus on only one of those ways – increasing flexibility of built forms by the application of the ‘united buildings’ definition of the National Construction Code (NCC). Before explaining the idea, it is important to understand what is meant by this term.

What does ‘united building’ mean in the NCC? 

When two or more buildings adjoining each other are connected and used as a single building, they are described as a ‘united building’ – provided that they jointly comply with all of the requirements of the NCC as though they are a single building. And that connection can be achieved through openings in the walls dividing them or by a tunnel, bridge or covered walkway joining them.

Based on this definition, can we achieve an increase in hospital capacity by creating openings through walls in response to a pandemic?

United Buildings in the National Construction Code
Figure 1: Capacity Increase by application of the ‘United Buildings’ in the National Construction Code

The fact that hotels and hospitals are two building types with many similarities in common will potentially facilitate the realisation/application of the idea.

Both types:

  • require dealing with a diversity and complexity of services (cleaning, catering, laundry, porter/transport, etc.) and therefore, provision of back of house (BOH) /support areas are of critical importance; and
  • require separation of traffic flows for staff, patients/guests/visitors and materials, through which the most efficient flows need to be achieved; and
  • require large (vertical) circulation cores (including stairs and powerful lift systems with a good capacity); and
  • have similar layouts, where we observe:
  • separation of public and private areas – generally lower floors for public use (non-restricted areas) and upper floors for private use;
  • registration/administration/triage areas at the entry for admission/discharge of patients and similarly check in/out of hotel guests;
  • similarity of bed floor layouts (inpatient wards/ guestroom floors) –

sole-occupancy units (patient rooms/ guest rooms) connected to a central spine/corridor; and

  • similarity in room sizes and general layouts.

In this case, for this type of an approach, the starting point (concept) will be the design of two separate and independent buildings so as to have the flexibility to join and function together if/as required. And, in order to ensure the convenience of merging, all project decisions (including material selection) from the very beginning of the design phase should be made by considering the possibility of connection in the future.

The layout below provides an example for this type of an approach. Consider a

U-shape layout that will work well for (each of) a hotel and hospital building, while having access to a common services core:

Ground Floor Plan
Figure 2: Ground Floor Plan

The following are some key design considerations:

  • two separate buildings (hospital and hotel) working independently placed ‘back to back’ – only sharing a (common, fire-rated) wall,
  • entirely separate entries for different user (occupant) groups (patients and hotel guests),
  • a designated staff entry and loading side for both – not mixing with pedestrian traffic,
  • all habitable rooms having natural light and dark spaces (against the common wall) accommodating the non-habitable rooms (support and circulation areas).
  • all support areas and main (vertical) circulation cores placed against the common wall so that they can join to double in capacity if/as needed.
  • gathering all support areas and main circulation cores at a central location:
  • provides the most efficient flows

(same distance to all corners, lift-support area adjacency),

  • prevents unnecessary access to private (bed) sections,
  • helps vertical connection of technical areas (stacking),
  • enables the use of typical solutions (same distance to all corners).

application of same form (mirroring) enables the connection of horizontal circulation paths if needed for all floors, and facilitates reduced construction times.

Upper Bed Floor Plan
Figure 3: Upper (Bed) Floor Plan


Building Sections United Buildings
Figure 4: Building Section

During a pandemic, this type of built form could increase the bed capacity within a short timeframe by functioning as a single building. While necessary medical care to non-critical patients including those required to be in quarantine could be provided at the (formerly) hotel side, patients requiring critical care could be accommodated at the (formerly) hospital side. In cases where the condition of patients with low care needs deteriorates and they require higher levels of care, patients could be transferred to the other side of the (united) building.

Figure 5: United Building in Response to A Pandemic

A new design paradigm invariably then represents the sustainable utilisation of precious space. Through the creation of an archetypal solution, there exists significant opportunity to engender buildings with much greater value in their deeply sustainable lifecycle.

By way of the examples offered above, a critical thinking approach to the design of a ‘united building’ may provide a novel adaptable typology at low marginal cost, allowing rapid and cost effective reassignment from “hotels” to “hospitals”. This is achieved economically through first principles design, without excessively increasing the construction cost of the building, and wholly offering in turn financial benefits to all stakeholders.

Want more?

Designing in accordance with all of the relevant codes and standards can be somewhat complex, and should be designed and certified by licensed practitioners so please contact us if we can be of help. (See PharmOut’s services for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers for more detail.)

If you would like to read more on similar topics, the following blogs may be of interest: