A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant is allowing a team of Nebraska Engineering researchers to tackle many projects with the need for quick solutions, including a couple currently addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many projects will come to researchers from The Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction as part of a four-year, $400,000 grant through the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The team includes Kevin Grosskopf, professor of construction programs; David Yuill, associate professor of architectural engineering; and Jennifer Lather, assistant professor of architectural engineering.
Rather than having a fixed scope for work, Grosskopf said, this grant allows NREL to submit task orders for multiple quick-turnaround research projects based on an industry need that the team can complete in a short amount of time, some as little as a few weeks. That turnaround can be valuable in forming responses to a pandemic.
"What they've been coming to us for in the last few months is COVID-19-related activities," Grosskopf noted. In recent weeks, the team has worked on two such projects: a shelter-in-place guide and a ventilation study in assisted-living facilities.
The rapid response from The Durham School team could be especially valuable in responding to a potential resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic in coming months. A potential second wave of infections could strain the healthcare systems in the U.S., creating a surge in demand for hospital beds, especially those in intensive care units, greater than is currently available.
Though NREL has not yet funded such a study, Grosskopf said a possible solution is using prefabricated, modular construction to create shells (or modules) – as is done in the construction of some hotels and apartment buildings – to rapidly create new facilities, some as tall as five stories with as many as 600 beds, on existing hospital sites such as surface or parking lots.
The off-site fabrication of these stackable modular units would condense a typical construction schedule by 30 percent or more, Grosskopf said.
"When you look at a possible second wave that could come this fall or winter, you won't want to shelter these infected individuals in field tents," he said, noting that government projections about a second wave show U.S. hospitals could face a shortage of nearly 300,000 intensive care unit beds and another 1.4 million in-patient beds.
"From the time you get the go-ahead to the time you actually move patients into these units could be as little as 30-60 days."
The manufactured modular units could also be repurposed for energy-efficient, affordable housing after a crisis ends thanks to better quality control in the build process, said Grosskopf.
"In production warehouses, you start out with basic frames that are fabricated and then roll down the line through work stations, where another part of the building process is completed until you have a finished module," Grosskopf said. "This allows for better inspection during the process and more rapid turnaround."
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