March 25, 2021

Meeting tight deadlines at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic

In early 2020, the COVID-19 crisis took hold of daily life in New York City, and The Bronx Lebanon Concourse Division Campus Hospital, part of the BronxCare Health system, was designated as a COVID facility. Hospital facilities had to run optimally while it was in crisis mode – but the main cooling tower was in urgent need of replacement.

Ensuring Cooling by Spring

Ecosystem was contracted to replace the main cooling tower, located on the 17th floor. Although the replacement would take place in winter, when demand was limited, we had to deliver cooling capacity because there was no redundancy. We knew the facility well, because in 2014, we had implemented a new central cooling plant on the seventh floor.

Ecosystem proposed implementing the new cooling tower in two complementary phases:

  1. Installing a new 400-ton dry cooler, which was a more efficient way to cool in winter: It would handle the smaller cooling load and enable the cooling tower to turn off, resulting in energy and water savings. By allowing the cooling tower to turn off, the dry cooler would also extend the time when the cooling tower could be implemented. The dry cooler installation was performed as planned in December 2019, pre-COVID.
  2. Implementing the new cooling tower. This was originally scheduled for February 2020 but delayed at the start of the pandemic. There was a backup plan: if cooling could not be installed by spring, we could install temporary cooling on the street, which was not ideal when the hospital was so trafficked.

Leveraging Relationships

There was already a short window to perform the work, and the public health crisis further narrowed the window for the rigging schedule. At the height of the COVID epidemic in New York, many decision-making processes had understandably been disrupted as attention turned to managing the public health crisis. The hospital and our team were pressed to have operable cooling systems for the spring, so we had to act swiftly nonetheless. Gabriel Teyssedou, Ecosystem’s Senior Project Director and General Manager in New York, explains: “The hospital was reacting to the crisis in real-time, and changes were happening by the hour. Communication with the hospital was key to implement the best plan that would allow construction to happen.”

Our construction managers and design engineers worked closely with the hospital, leveraging their contacts with the MTA, New York City Health, and other authorities to speed up permitting requirements for the rigging to lift the cooling tower to the 17th floor. The process moved quickly:

  • On the morning of March 20, we still didn’t have any permits.
  • On the afternoon of March 20, all permits were granted.
  • The entire rigging and cooling tower installation took place on March 22, less than two days later – speed and efficiency almost unheard of in New York City.

Flexibility in the Face of Limitations

Moving the cooling tower to the hospital roof on March 22, 2020.

Obtaining the permits required some creativity to comply with regulations. In normal circumstances, both floors immediately underneath the rigging path must be evacuated.  This was impossible in March 2020, as the floor directly below the rigging path was being used exclusively for COVID-19 patients. Working closely with the hospital and healthcare workers, Ecosystem presented an optimized rigging path, which meant that only the nurse center had to be evacuated; patients were able to remain in their rooms, undisturbed.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the cooling tower was installed right next to a ventilation exhaust system, which represented a potential health threat to contractors. As a general contractor, we had to take the best health and safety precautions to protect the workers’ safety. Ecosystem’s safety team worked assiduously with our contractors to ensure a secure working environment.

Integrated Team Steps Up

Much of the project’s success was made possible by very close collaboration between Ecosystem team members – with and without access to the site – and with the hospital’s project team. Even in extraordinary circumstances, our team was able to stay focused on the outcomes. Off-site design engineers and on-site construction managers worked with the hospital to overcome restrictions, guarantee that patient care would not be disrupted at a critical time, and ensure a smooth implementation.

Even after the cooling tower was implemented, Ecosystem was still on site, ensuring that controls were working well. This is standard for Ecosystem even during the height of a crisis: We don’t leave the client once construction has finished, observing the new systems in action to make sure that they can perform optimally.