In addition to claiming more than 3,400 lives, the Ebola virus ripping through West Africa has taken a uniquely destructive toll on health care infrastructure. “Entire health systems have crumbled,” Joanne Liu, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres, said in early September. The effects of that destruction became especially visible to the Western world last week: Thomas Duncan, the first Ebola case to be diagnosed in the United States, became infected after helping a pregnant Ebola victim who was rejected from an overcrowded Ebola treatment center.
Part of the problem is that there simply aren’t enough treatment centers that can be constructed in time to house the growing numbers of the sick. To address the deficit, a class full of masters of architecture students at Texas A&M University just wrapped up a three-week project designing rapidly deployable Ebola containment units that can fit inside shipping containers.
George Mann, an architect who runs a health care architecture studio at the university, says he soon realized that hospitals treating Ebola patients would soon become inundated, and typical mobile health units wouldn’t work. “They don’t take the caregivers and the extensive contagion of the Ebola virus into consideration,” Mann says. He instructed his students to design units that included breathable astronaut suits for the caregivers and all the tools needed to construct the centers contained within.
The students–who worked day and night amid worsening news of the crisis, Mann says–eventually submitted 11 designs.
“A lot of what we took into account had to do with transportation–you essentially just pull it off a truck and it’s ready to go,” says Celso Rojas, a second-year master-of-architecture student who created a series of panels that could be organized into different prefabricated Ebola modules. “A lot of our designs did include sourcing water and power. We [would send] tools, everything they needed to build the facilities that we’re designing.”
Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General P.K. Carlton, who helped Mann advise the students, is now shopping their designs to members of Congress.
“Ebola has now knocked out the entire infrastructure for healthcare. How do you then carry on routine operations at the same time?” Carlton says. “Bright young people are brilliant people, and for them to put forward new ideas, and for us to forward them to people who can implement them is extremely important.”
The best designs, Carlton says, took West Africa’s wet climate into account. He was particularly impressed by a beehive design that would keep patients isolated but also protect them from the damp and sweltering heat.
But the student-designed units aren’t just intended for Ebola patients. They’re also meant to treat other patients who now have even fewer access to medical resources than before the epidemic. In theory, they could be used anywhere.
“When we first started the project we were joking about making prototypes,” Rojas, the architecture student, says. “A few days ago, we hear the virus made it to Dallas, and it made the joke more serious. Worst case scenario, you could throw these up quickly in the parking lot of a Walmart and there’s your containment unit.”