Sometimes the best ideas come out of trying times.
That’s what Ben Bruns, executive vice president of The Boldt Co.’s Northern Operations Group, learned on March 13 when he found himself in his company’s production center in Appleton, watching a test being run on a modular structure for use in a clinic project in Illinois. President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak and Gov. Tony Evers was moving quickly to close schools and place restrictions on group sizes. There was already a lot of talk about a shortage of hospital beds.
A thought dawned on Bruns. Why not put the sort of modular construction Boldt had recently been working with to use in the effort to quickly build out hospital space?
“I walked back in my office, and the news kept getting worse,” he said. “I called our chief operating officer, Dave Kievet, and said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea.’”
Thus was born what Boldt is calling its “STAAT Mod critical care units.” These pre-fabricated modular units — developed in concert with the Twin Cities architectural firm HGA; Tweet-Garot Mechanical, of De Pere; and Faith Technologies, of Menasha — come in 16-bed or 24-bed versions and offer accommodations consistent with those found in standard hospitals.
“We dove headlong into this idea of creating a space where staff can stay safe and where patients can recover and heal and be put on a ventilator if need be,” he said. “It’ll be place where patients can get back upright as quickly as possible, and it will be separated from the basic business operations at hospitals.”
Bruns said pre-fabrication should hold the cost of the units to about half of that of regular hospital construction. Perhaps best of all, they can now be built and installed in a few weeks – a delivery time that could fall to a matter of days once production becomes further streamlined.
“We know this is going to be a totally new world for us,” he said. “Supply chain and things like that are closing left and right, and supply chain will be a huge concern for companies like ours. But with this, you can still get readily available parts and pieces to do it.”
Bruns recently talked to The Daily Reporter about the STAAT Mod project, the advantages of modular construction and the industry’s general response to the coronavirus pandemic.
(This article has been edited for clarity and length.)
The Daily Reporter: Are you seeing much demand for your STAAT Mod units?
Bruns: We are in the final negotiation stages with a state on the Eastern seaboard for the first 32 beds. We are also having conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge in a lot of places around the country of providing these solutions. We’ve learned they like the product. And then, the last piece, we’ve had hospital systems that have expressed interest. And we can provide financing for these. We know that cash is really tight now for everybody. But Boldt Holdings, which is our development group, has the ability to arrange financing.
TDR: Was Boldt already doing a lot of pre-fabrication and modular construction before all this happened?
Bruns: Absolutely. The reason we were able to move so quickly was that we had already that modular clinic project for one of the large health care systems in Illinois. And I think we absolutely believe the future is going to be about more modular deployment of construction.
TDR: What are the advantages of modular construction?
Bruns: Well, construction is an inherently inefficient industry. When we try to gain efficiency in the field, a lot of the time, you can only get about 90 percent of what you are trying to do. A lot of this is about making promises and then keeping those promises. When one trade says it will do something by a certain time, then it’s about holding to that deadline so another trade can come in and do its thing. In manufacturing, though, they have all these LEAN techniques. So, we in a sense, our trying to become fabricators with modular construction, do things the Toyota way, and adopt that whole model of continuous improvement.
TDR: How quickly do you think you’ll be able to build these STAAT Mod units once things really get up and running?
Bruns: We think we’ll be able to produce an entire hospital in three days’ time, after we’ve done this a couple of times.
TDR: Everybody is always looking for “good things that will come out of this situation.” Do you think a move toward modular construction in the industry will be one of those things?
Bruns: Yes. In some ways, this is has been a positive disruption, even though it is challenging time for us and everyone else. We were already headed in this direction anyway, because when you start rolling production down your factory line, and you see how much more efficient you are, all the questions start to go away.