Expert Q&A: Temporary Containment for Occupied Healthcare Renovation

By HCO Staff

President and CEO of STARC Systems, Chris Vickers, recently shared with us his perspectives on trends in temporary containment for healthcare renovations—including pandemic response lessons he thinks will carry forward, how inputs from STARC customers are shaping and leading important design advancements and his predictions for the future of modular temporary containment in healthcare. STARC Systems is re-imagining what’s possible with modular temporary containment for occupied renovation in healthcare and other highly specialized environments.

HCO: Take us back to when you first entered the industry. What did the temporary containment for healthcare renovations landscape look like?
CV: At the time I joined STARC about four years ago, the majority of temporary containment was being done with traditional methods – typically either plastic or drywall. Modular containment had only been around for five to ten years at that point and the industry didn’t yet see reusable modular as an option. A huge amount of education was needed. However, those who did use modular immediately saw the benefits over traditional containment methods.

HCO: In what ways have you observed the modular temporary containment industry change or grow over the last 3-5 years?
CV: Prior to the pandemic, construction had been very strong for several years, especially for healthcare renovation. An aging population is creating an ongoing, increased demand for services. These factors are coupled with the healthcare industry being a highly competitive and innovative space. Leaders are always pushing for the best for their patients and staff. When healthcare systems bring in a new piece of equipment, or need to upgrade facilities, the bar is especially high for making those improvements without impacting patient and staff safety or caregiving.  Healthcare, like any industry, is impacted by things like economic slow-downs – but they must continue to innovate and meet needs, regardless of conditions.

Another significant change is people now have a much better idea of what reusable modular temporary containment is and what the benefits are, especially for the healthcare environment. We’ve put a lot of energy into getting the word out and educating the market. The biggest education challenge we encounter is that while modular is more expensive upfront than traditional methods like drywall would be for one phase, it can be used in multiple phases, and multiple projects, which results in it quickly paying for itself.

HCO: What makes modular temporary containment particularly suited for the healthcare environment?
As your readers know, with healthcare there are very strict codes around infection control. The highest infection control rating, ICRA Class IV, requires that sensitive areas have negative air pressure created within the renovation space to prevent dust and debris or pathogens from escaping into the occupied space. If you think about the renovation of an office building versus the renovation in a healthcare setting, the healthcare setting containment is so much more critical because of the potential for spreading of infection. Today, given the pandemic, we realize that protecting those occupied spaces during renovation means not only cutting down on dust, debris and noise, but also making sure there is not an opportunity for infection to spread across the building.

There are also added safety concerns to consider when using a traditional method like drywall. For example, installing drywall creates a lot of dust and debris – which means you actually have to contain the area while you’re building it. It also takes a long time to put up. If you need to move down the hall or around the corner, you must rip it down and put it back up. All of this results in added time and extra disruption to patients and staff.

HCO: Are these safety considerations a big part of the design process for STARC?
CV: Absolutely. That is really where it all started. Our founder was a healthcare contractor who was frustrated with using drywall for all its shortcomings. This is actually why he came up with this product. First and foremost, he wanted it to meet ICRA Class IV standards. This means, unlike some other options, we design gasketing and panel connections into our solutions which create foolproof, airtight connections. These design features make it possible to sustain the negative air pressure necessary to meet even the most stringent ICRA Class IV requirements.

HCO: How do you imagine lessons from the pandemic will carry forward in modular temporary containment?
CV: During the pandemic, renovation actually slowed down. What we found was that modular walls were being used to create isolation of Covid patients – much like the critical need of keeping dust and debris from moving out of the renovation area. STARC panels kept the virus from moving out of patient rooms and into the occupied space. From this perspective, I think people realized that modular walls in healthcare systems present the distinct benefit of increasing the capacity for isolation space. Infection control, while always a high priority, will likely be a much bigger issue post pandemic. Hospitals will be looking to renovate rooms (like emergency rooms) to ensure they can keep patients separated from others who are or may be infected. Modular temporary containment will certainly be needed for a part of that renovation. Additionally, modular will also be a bigger part of permanent design in hospitals to create more flexibility and ability to meet constantly changing situations. Lastly, fast space reconfiguration needs will also carry forward post pandemic – and an area modular walls are particularly primed for.

HCO: Beyond pandemic response, what are the most common containment questions, challenges or inputs you field from customers?
CV: There are two big areas that people bring up. One is cost. And because contractors are focused on bringing projects in under budget, they are understandably very focused on the here and now. It’s not always immediately apparent that a product like a temporary wall is actually a capital expense – like a piece of machinery, which you can charge a small portion on one project and do that again three or four times and get your money back. We work to get folks over the hurdle in understanding there doesn’t need to be a one time use charged to the project.

The second topic brought up a lot is the need for a modular wall system when a one hour fire rated barrier is required for the project. The need is driven by national, regional and local codes. These codes often state that if you’re renovating a space and impact the fire rated wall during that renovation – which is almost all the time – you need to have a one hour fire rated temporary containment wall to protect that area, unless a working sprinkler system is being used. Many times, especially in major cities and in California, a one hour fire rated temporary containment wall is required. To date, the traditional method is building drywall – to the deck above, through the spaghetti of pipes and wires – which is a very costly and time consuming effort. I think the market has an unmet need and one that people continue to ask us about.

HCO: What do you do when you find unmatched needs like one hour fire rated temporary containment?
The fire-rated wall solution has proven to be elusive. We’ve spent a considerable amount of R&D effort knowing that customers are looking for a solution. When they buy products that work in one area, they wish they could buy a product that works in a one hour fire rated application. We are very excited to be launching the first to market one hour fire-rated, reusable modular wall. It will change the market – much like the way modular wall systems did for the non-fire rated environment five to ten years ago. Customers who are already field testing the product have expressed a ton of excitement about it and about helping us better understand their needs. We’re planning to be in market with our FireblockWall™ this summer.

HCO: Where can our readers find more information about the new fire rated wall?
We have information and a full guide about our FireblockWall™ Fire Rated Containment Solutions here. We are also hosting informational webinars over the next several months.

HCO: Is there one thing you think people in the industry should be thinking about more?
I think hospitals, architects and everyone involved in design really should be thinking about using modular to be prepared and flexible for future changing needs, not just as a reactionary tool. We’ve all learned it is impossible to have enough – or the right – space ready to go when something like a pandemic surge hits. We now have the possibility and really, the need, to incorporate modular when thinking about permanent design.

HCO: Sounds like an exciting time for the company?
CV: It’s really great to be part of a company whose mission is to help make the world and facilities safe from infection and allow people to continue to work in that environment. I’m most excited about our team of people who deliver the highest quality and service – and who every day provide us with new, innovative ideas based on customer’s needs and requests.