Fighting the clock and COVID-19: modular construction in support of support public health

When the COVID-19 crisis struck Canada in March, a key concern was whether hospitals could manage potentially massive influxes of severely-ill patients.

Many hospitals created additional capacity by cancelling medical appointments and elective surgeries and clearing their emergency departments, solutions that were temporary and unsustainable in the longer term.

However, it was crucial to isolate COVID-19 patients in order to curb the spread of the disease. This requirement was a major challenge in crowded, aging healthcare facilities - notably in Montreal, one of Canada’s hardest-hit areas.

Prioritizing speed

Last March, Pomerleau was awarded several public works contracts to quickly ramp up the development, design, and delivery of standalone “wards” capable of handling the additional patient influx. In fact, the government expressed its three main priorities as “speed, speed, and more speed!”

In this instance, conventional “site-built” construction - where materials are delivered and assembled in step-by-step phases by a dozen different specialized workers, and subject to the vagaries of the weather - would take far too long. In addition, in mid-March virtually all construction sites as well as construction materials suppliers and manufacturers throughout the province were shut down for several weeks due to the pandemic.

Harnessing its strong adaptability as well as its extensive partnerships across Quebec, Pomerleau rapidly found a viable solution for many of its projects.

Our team reached out to two trusted partners: RCM Group, a design and build manufacturer in Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, and Mecart, a steel module manufacturer located in St. Augustin de Desmaures, near Quebec City.

Shifting away from its residential construction roots, RCM began manufacturing a series of stackable “modules,” structures that could be pre-assembled and delivered as completed wards (between 24 and 96 stretchers/beds) to hospitals throughout Montreal. For its part, Mecart designed and manufactured highly-durable modules designed to add temporary patient beds at Montreal’s Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital.

This approach significantly accelerated project delivery. One contract involved building a 24-stretcher ward for the Lakeshore General Hospital, with office space on the second floor. A conventional build would have taken a year; thanks to this modular approach, Pomerleau was able to cut construction time to only three months.

Due to the tight building deadlines these projects required, many products were selected on the basis of immediate availability and local manufacturing. The modular approach meant that structures could be built directly at the plant, and simultaneously with concrete work onsite. Rigorous quality control measures at the plant helped shorten the duration of onsite work once the modules had been installed.

All hands on deck: the strength of a collaborative approach

At Pomerleau, we believe collaborative approaches directly impact our ability to be agile and to work together in complex environments. These projects provide ample proof; they take into account stakeholder interests, delivery schedule, flexibility, product quality, and user experience. They are the tangible product of a multitude of areas of expertise, in service to the needs of our communities.

To achieve this, it’s crucial that we reimagine the way we think and work.

These projects showed us how. They required significant process changes, notably encouraging professionals to think differently, supervise the manufacturing world, and ensure quality controls would meet onsite needs.

These extensive transformations also took place at a time when we formalized our COVID-19 response protocols into our new global approach to managing health and safety across all of our operations. To this end, I wish to thank the teams from RCM, Mecart, and all of our other partners who rapidly adopted our measures; their response is a testament to the trust and excellence of our relationships.

In the coming weeks, Pomerleau will deliver its modular wards to other Montreal hospitals. Once onsite, these structures will require a minimal amount of work (connections to utilities and other services, for example) to become fully functional. In this case, additional steps such as medical gas hookups and ensuring adequate infection prevention control measures will also be necessary to meet medical standards and protect patient safety. Despite the accelerated timeline, these builds will still fully meet or exceed all Quebec building standards and codes.

Public-private partnerships: crucial to the fight again COVID-19 and the economic recovery  

These outstanding collaborative efforts, and the willingness to be creative, innovative and bold were instrumental to the success of these public health infrastructure projects, a critical aspect of Quebec’s ongoing COVID-19 response.

The strength of our company lies in its ability to manage numerous projects – both private and public – with particular technical challenges requiring the use of specific prefabricated systems (panels, structural elements, electromechanical systems, modules, etc.). The ongoing use of prefabricated construction elements requires mastery of the BIM process, close monitoring of schedules and deadlines, and a thorough understanding of materials and systems. In addition, by ensuring continuous communication across all of our pan-Canadian modular projects, Pomerleau’s teams are key solutioners for each aspect of the build; this expertise enables us to reduce onsite construction time, optimize costs, and reduce onsite waste.

Just as numerous companies rapidly adopted new measures to stay in business, and bolstered by strong political and civic will, we can leverage new and innovative methods to accomplish important projects. In doing so, we’re also stimulating our local supply chain and paving the way for a green economic recovery. This is an incredible opportunity to build a more sustainable future. 


Martin Jacques, Executive Vice President Quebec Building