DIRTT Environmental Solutions Brings Innovation to Healthcare Construction

By Jack Stubbs

Big changes might soon be coming to the Seattle healthcare construction industry, with a recent case study at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, WA, providing an example of technological innovation in construction methods. The case study was conducted by Calgary, Canada-based DIRTT Environmental Solutions Ltd., a company whose acronym—“doing it right this time”—reflects a larger aim of revamping the construction industry.

DIRTT’s vision, according to its web site, is to streamline the construction industry by creating mass-custom modular solutions that offer speed, design, performance and environmental sustainability. DIRTT’s efforts come at a time when expediting the construction process is a key concern, according to Julie Pithers, public relations resource at DIRTT. “Construction in our industry actually does need a big technological leap forward. The construction industry right now is suffering because everybody has a much shorter schedule,” Pithers said.

Older, more long-standing methods of construction like prefabrication are outdated not only from the logistical standpoint of timing and efficiency, but also in terms of the customer’s autonomy, which is limited with conventional prefabricated construction, according to Pithers. With prefabrication, “you [the customer] don’t really get what you want; you get what that manufacturer can make,” Pithers added.

In the Evergreen case study, DIRTT utilized the ICE software, technology that provides graphical, interactive exploration of the customer’s desired design, which is instantly calculated into the various parts, pieces, connections and pricing associated with the design. From this point, the information goes to the DIRTT factory where the walls for the space are manufactured, taking into account all of the specifications.

The medical planning and design for the case study was done by Seattle-based Salus Architecture, Inc.

Crucially, the ICE 3-D technology allows complete customization of the space right down to the last detail. “[The technology] brings together the worlds of customization…with it, the customer is able to alter all of the components [of the space] to the right dimensions, to be the right finish and elevation, to put the electrical outlets exactly where you want them,” Pithers said.

Photo by Nathaniel Willson. © Nathaniel Willson 2016. All rights reserved.

In a video posted on DIRTT’s website that showcases the Evergreen case study, members from the hospital—including Ty Heim, director of construction, and Amy Cole, assistant medical planner—explained some of the central aspects of the project.

The main architectural component being constructed with the ICE technology is a prefabricated wall system installed on-site in various locations inside the hospital. The modular, pre-manufactured wall system is installed in both the patient rooms and also in the core area of the service support, nursing stations and physician offices, according to Heim.

This installation method allows for flexibility on behalf of the Evergreen staff both before and after the walls have been installed. “The systems are such that we can access them at any time by removing any of the installed wall panels,” Heim said.

The prefabricated wall system is also designed with an eye to improving the experience of the patient as well, according to Cole. “We were trying to minimize the things that actually are installed above the patient’s head, so that we aren’t leaning over them as much as we always find ourselves doing,” she said.

The pre-manufactured wall panelling system also ensures that the architectural design of the space does not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the medical staff. “We tried to create the ability for the nurse to do her job from either side of the bed…we also wanted to make sure that outlets and other features were easily accessible,” Cole added.

While Evergreen medical center case study provided a look at an on-site application of the ICE 3-D technology, it might even have been utilized further, according to Pithers. “From Evergreen’s experience, their only regret is that they didn’t construct the space using more of this technology,” she said. However, Evergreen might also be able to capitalize on future opportunities to harness the technology in the designs for their space, with future renovations planned for the rest of the hospital.

The ICE technology not only expedites the design process of the physical space itself; it also presents the user with a more accurate view of what the end product might actually resemble. “Instead of [creating] the building information modeling, this is the building information production; you’re actually making the [end product] that you’re looking at,” Pithers said.

Another central element to the construction technology is a decentralization of the expertise on the job site, according to Pithers, a factor that was particularly important in the Evergreen case study. “Everybody involved in the process can understand things simultaneously. With a job like this, clinicians and physicians are involved…it helps the doctor understand what they’re really asking for…And they can understand how [the design] fits into the rest of the space,” she said.

DIRTT is already planning to take the technology to the next level by making ICE even more of a visual experience, according to Pithers. “We’re working with VR and mixed reality, so that you can walk around inside [the] space…to get the patient’s and the nurse’s point of view looking out of the glass,” she said.

The construction method has also been applied in case studies at Group Health Cooperative, a primary care facility in Madison, Wisconsin; a medical center in Detroit, Michigan; and San Francisco-based Sutter Health.

Photo by Nathaniel Willson. © Nathaniel Willson 2016. All rights reserved.