A cure for construction

Meera Siva | Updated on September 23, 2021

The pandemic has pushed it to adopt efficient ways

Can the current pandemic bring about positive change in the construction which has so far been resistant to it?

Yes, going by a few examples of how hospitals were built during the two waves of Covid. The need to deploy healthcare infrastructure swiftly has been a key driver for the adoption of new technologies. The role of non-profits and corporates to promote and fund these units may have also helped.

One intuitive and efficient solution to the problem of building faster is modular units. These are pre-fabricated complete structures, built in the factory and set-up on site quickly. The typical issues with them were that they were either very temporary (ala tents) and reusable or somewhat permanent but not easy to repurpose. But many new materials and methods have been developed to create durable structures that can be dismantled and reused.

These technologies are however still in their infancy in India.

Chennai-based start-up Modulus Housing’s portable hospital unit called MediCab is prefabricated in the factory and uses telescopic frame that allows folding it to one-fifth of the original size for storage and transport. It can be installed in a day, by four persons. Each unit has four zones — a doctor’s room, an isolation room, a medical room/ward and a twin-bed ICU, maintained at negative pressure. The units can last over a decade and reused multiple times – after the pandemic period, these can become clinics in rural areas.

First deployed in Wayanad in July 2020, it has seen good interest and rapid adoption. In June 2021, the Centre rolled out plans to set up 50 innovative modular hospitals with this technology .

A frontier technology that can well and truly bring about constructive disruption is 3D printing. In fact, the healthcare industry has embraced it, with custom 3D printed dentures . The manufacturing industry has also moved to 3D print various materials – from plastics, composites to metals – and for various verticals – toys to automobile and aircraft. But, as always, construction has been a laggard.

In India, the first 3D printed home was inaugurated in Chennai in April 2021. The full stack of the technology — 3D-printer, materials, software, production and assembly — was developed by a Tvasta Manufacturing Solutions, a start-up. The second Covid wave of called for harnessing the various benefits of 3D printing. Hospitals require doffing units — which help doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to sanitise themselves after their shifts, and safely remove/dispose personal protective equipment (PPE).

And Tvasta, in collaboration with Saint Gobain, developed these units. Creating the 3D model, planning, printing concrete, assembling on site took 17 days. They are now deployed at the Kanchipuram government hospital and Omandurar Medical College and Hospital in Chennai; another one at Tiruvallur is in the works.

Green materials

The move to greener materials has also been slow.

The use of agri bio-panels in modular hospital construction instead of fibre cement board, plaster board and clay burnt brick has gained traction. The panels store carbon instead of emitting, has low toxicity index, are fire proof and provide good thermal insulation and acoustic comfort. Strawcture Eco, a Delhi-based startup that makes such panels from agri waste (and prevents the pollution from stubble burning), saw interest for green hospitals from private, government and NGO clients. Their project, in partnership with SELCO Foundation and IKEA Foundation, to build a 6,000 sq ft Covid Care Centre in Bihar was completed in just 80 days during the lockdown. Another hospital project in Jalandhar took only a month to complete in January 2021. There are three more hospitals in the works. These examples offer great hope for embracing home-grown innovations.

The author is an independent consultant who works with start-ups

Published on September 23, 2021

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