WSP USA Delivers Three COVID-19 Treatment Centers for USACE

Engineers worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rapidly design and create overflow medical facilities created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed medical resources across the U.S., prompting shutdowns and travel restrictions, many health care operators and the U.S. Army Corps quickly created overflow facilities to repurpose existing patient floors, retrofit gymnasiums and airline hangars, and more.

Recently, a team of WSP USA engineers participated in three such projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), working with general contractor Conti and architect KCCT. All three projects – located in Trenton and Paramus, New Jersey and St. Croix – required fast turn arounds, creative problem solving, and strong teamwork to get ready to serve patients as quickly as possible.

All were delivered in less than two weeks.

“The team really came together to deliver everything as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Jonathan Policke, project manager for WSP on all three projects. “We were all on the same page, working towards a really meaningful and important goal.”



The conversion of the Paramus gymnasium into a COVID-19 treatment facility was fully operational in two weeks, providing overflow capacity to the local community.

COVID-19 Alternate Care, Bergen New Bridge Hospital and Gymnasium

In Paramus, the team had two weeks from conception to delivery to convert a hospital gymnasium into a space for treating COVID-19 patients.

The limited time frame meant the team needed to use a totally new approach to design – or perhaps an old approach.

“We were sketching everything in notebooks and scrap paper on site,” Policke said. “It was actually pretty refreshing.”

The team worked quickly to complete site assessments, perform load counts and begin determining solutions for air handling units, emergency power and the sprinkler system.

“Our first step was to assess the existing conditions and determine what we could use to our advantage,” Policke said.

Site and time constraints forced the team to think creatively and use an iterative design process, working closely with project partners and the USACE. An early idea to place air handling units inside the space was scrapped because it would impede access by the medical staff to patients. Another plan was scrapped when the manufacturer was unable to guarantee delivery within the accelerated timeframe.

“We went back to the drawing napkin a couple times,” Policke said. “Ultimately we designed a system based around two readily-available air handling units located outside the gym and ducted in to the space, providing the necessary supply and outdoor air changes to the space.”

For emergency power, the team had the choice to either design a large portable generator to sit in the nearby parking lot or work with building facility personnel to identify a viable, existing emergency power source.

“We received prior approval from facility operations to utilize the existing generator if deemed appropriate, so we immediately walked with personnel who were very familiar with the site,” said Mike Galvin, associate with WSP and the project’s lead electrical engineer. “We designed a plan to use the existing generator – which had spare capacity – as opposed to a portable generator, that would have required additional space and regular monitoring of the fuel tank and fuel delivery scheduling.”

With the use of the existing generator and normal power sources, the team also had to identify normal and emergency switches in existing switchboards to serve a new automatic transfer switch (ATS) as well as a location for the ATS within an adjacent building. The electrical distribution system (with the inclusion of a step-up transformer for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) loads that could not be provided at 208V, 3phase) was designed quickly based on load information that was provided at the time.

“Being a hospital, we designed the system conservatively and it’s a good thing we did,” Galvin said. “After the design was completed, electric beds were introduced to the project. A quick, late-in-the-game calculation showed that, with a hefty diversity, the electric beds could be accommodated without increasing system capacities.”

Initially there was a program for additional plumbing fixtures to support the patient and nurse space. However, the project ultimately opted to use utilize self-contained point-of-use plumbing fixtures due to time constraints. The adjacent hospital sprinkler system was also assessed and ultimately tapped and expanded into this isolated space.

The conversion was complete and fully operational in two weeks as planned, providing overflow capacity to the local community, which was particularly meaningful to Policke.

“I grew up near Paramus, so to work on a project that would have a positive benefit for the community – especially during these times – was really special,” Policke said.

“We worked very closely with the hospital officials, the architect, general contractor, subcontractors and each other to turn this project around in record time,” Galvin added. “All parties were very cooperative despite tremendous pressure to get answers immediately at all times of the day, evening and weekends. I was proud to have been part of this opportunity in my own community and happy to have been asked to be part of the team.”



WSP sketched designs of the Bergen facility’s sprinkler and plumbing systems to identify and correct spacing deficiencies and obstruction in the existing sprinkler system layout that could impede the fire protection system.

COVID-19 Alternate Care, Saint Francis Hospital

In Trenton the team’s challenge was slightly different.

“In this case, we were adapting decommissioned patient centers and reactivating 37 beds for treating non-acute, infectious COVID-19 patients,” said Michael Zaborskis, associate with WSP and lead plumbing engineer on the project. “So equipment was there, but it was about 50 years old.”

The team quickly determined that bringing the space to modern standards would have required a complete tear down and redo – which wasn’t possible within the project’s speedy timeframe of two weeks. Ultimately, the decision was made to refurbish and replace the existing equipment to get it ready for patients.

“We had to work really closely with the Army Corps to determine what equipment that may have been broken or non-functioning could be repaired and returned to working order,” Policke said.

One area of focus was the facility’s existing sprinkler and plumbing systems. The team identified and corrected spacing deficiencies and obstruction in the building’s existing sprinkler system layout that could have impeded the effectiveness of the fire protection system.

“We were also able to determine and provide the team a means and method for re-activating this Wing’s potable cold and hot water systems, that had been dormant for an unknown period of time,” Zaborskis said.

Additionally, there were numerous patient rooms where fixtures were demolished, damaged and had obtrusive signs of exterior corrosion and biofilm. Many fixtures required prompt replacement.

“We identified critical deficiencies in the facility’s central water system and provided the direction and the method to have the contractor get this space flowing clean, disinfected and healthy water to all fixtures within this project’s work scope,” Zaborskis said.



At the Bergen New Bridge Hospital, a system was designed around two readily-available air handling units located outside the gym and ducted in to the space.

St. Croix – Alternate Care Facilities

For the Alternate Care Facilities on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, the WSP team provided construction oversight to help the contractor resolve field issues. The project entailed converting a dormitory on the National Guard campus into a patient center, working with the USACE.

“All three projects had a very quick schedule and late notice, but this one was the tightest,” Policke said. “We were called on a Monday asking if we could be down in St. Croix the following day. Since it was so fast-paced, our first chance to study the project was in-between flight layovers.”

The team found that the island did not have a lot of existing infrastructure for contracting equipment. Anything that could not be found locally was boated or flown in from Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland.

“The air-handling unit was custom built in Pennsylvania; the HVAC ductwork and major electrical components were sourced from New Jersey,” Policke said.

The plan to help the contracting team plan the logistics a “very unique experience,” and Policke said that in order to get everything down to the site in time, a C-130 flight was chartered, while smaller items were brought by the contractors in their checked luggage.

The electrical emergency generator back up system required the most attention. The same site had been hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and much was still in disrepair, including the existing generator – a fact that wasn’t realized until construction was under way.

“Determining the right path for correcting the issues with the generator was very challenging,” explained Jim Chen, WSP vice president and the on-site electrical lead. “Bringing the existing generator to working condition required a lot of on-site testing by the manufacturer, which needed to be completed before we could determine which components needed to be replaced.”

The compressed timeline and remote nature of the site presented challenges to getting the replacement parts delivered on time. While testing was taking place, the team started exploring a parallel path: Could a new generator be ordered, delivered and installed in time to meet the project deadline?

“The logistics of getting a new generator delivered from the mainland were a bit of a nightmare,” Chen admitted. “Luckily, we were able to identify the necessary components needed to fix the existing generator and get them delivered two days before the project was set to open.”

img-covid-19-usace-projects-power generation


The St. Croix facility's existing emergency generator was still in disrepair following damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Extensive on-site testing was conducted to determine the best path to bring the generator to working condition.

Making a Difference

All three projects placed paramount importance on the safety of the engineers, architects and contractors on site.

“We had our temperatures taken every day when we walked in and completed sign-in sheets with self-assessment questions,” Policke said. “There was a definite commitment to due diligence and safety requirements.”

In total, the projects provided the Army Corps with around 80 additional patient beds for treating COVID-19 patients at the height of the surge.

“A lot of the projects I work on are high rise residential buildings,” Policke said. “Those projects are a lot of fun, but to deliver projects like these as part of our nation’s response to COVID-19, in such a tight timeframe, was really special.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of our teams’ work on these projects,” added Patty McCaffery, senior vice president with WSP and the principal-in-charge on all three projects. “Their efforts were critical to aiding the country’s response to COVID-19 and improving resources to treat infected patients in local communities. They embraced the critical nature of the work and pulled out all the stops to deliver for USACE and our project team.”

[To subscribe to Insights, contact the editorial staff at [email protected].]



Bringing the spaces to modern standards would have required a time-consuming tear down and redo, so the decision was made to refurbish and replace the existing equipment to get it ready for patients more quickly.

Related Publications