Speed, Collaboration and Grit Transform McCormick Place Convention Center into Healthcare Facility

Innovative building systems decisions made 25 years ago enable converting a convention center into a 3,000-Bed COVID-19 facility in less than 30 days.


In only two weeks, McCormick Place has become a resource for people who’ve contracted the coronavirus. The first 500 temporary beds were mostly completed over the weekend, and work continues to help as many as 3,000 patients infected with the coronavirus before the month’s end.

Why was McCormick Place selected for a quick transformation? According to the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the infrastructure there is a great fit for a hospital. Electricity, sewage and water all meet the needs of health care. Important codes have also been met, and parking is plentiful.

The search for potential sites for makeshift hospitals is a high priority across the country. More than 300 are being considered, mainly in areas with the highest threat of the affliction. Hotels and dormitories are being considered, but convention centers – such as the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, which will house those not infected with the coronavirus – are prime locations.

Their flexibility – hosting a car show one week and then multiple smaller shows, such as medical systems exhibits, the following week – is the low-hanging fruit to temporarily increase beds available for healthcare. Due to stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and the cancellation of every major event, these facilities would have sat empty otherwise.

Convention centers are tied to the strength of local economies. According to a study cited in Crain’s Chicago Business, “McCormick Place is a key economic engine for the city, hosting 50 to 60 major non-public events a year that account for close to $900 million in annual local spending.” The design and construction for these facilities is complex and often deadline-driven based on commitments to event organizers. Given our past work on McCormick Place, Javits Center and other convention centers around the world, our team is able to apply our expertise to these projects in a manner that creates the highest value for their public-private owners.

The facilities at the McCormick Place Convention Center that are being converted for healthcare were completed as an expansion in the 1990s. During design and construction, our team made several design decisions that anticipated the future of the conference-and-event industry. Among them were decisions for the distribution of environmental control and ventilation, electricity, compressed air, water, drainage, natural gas, telecommunications and other building systems to enable the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority to attract more events by providing full infrastructure services flexibility.

At the time, I wrote an article for Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine entitled “McCormick Place Prepares for the 21st Century.” As we come together to reduce the impact from a pandemic that is moving faster than anyone anticipated, it is heartwarming to see how decisions we made over 25 years ago are helping society overall.

Looking back, the final three paragraphs from the article summarize the impact of our team’s decisions enabling the transformation occurring now.

“The McCormick Place expansion demonstrates successful integration of state-of-the-art mechanical, electrical and architectural systems, meeting reliability, flexibility and energy efficiency through cost-effective solutions. Both design and construction processes are successfully integrated through in-depth and comprehensive investigations.

“To simplify installation and improve on-site workmanship, a number of components were standardized. Primary equipment, such as pumps, heat exchangers, air-handlers and ventilation fans, is uniformly sized and features a modular design with identical components for easy installation and maintenance.

“High efficiency systems were chosen, with focus on lowest energy cost and consumption, least first cost, flexibility and reliability. A high volume of supply air and the smart selection and arrangement of air-handling units and space finishes provides proper indoor air quality. Building-automation and lighting-control systems allow for improved operation. And an integrated, modular design of building systems and duct/pipe distribution systems provides for economical installation.”

The current state of events has sparked collaboration and creative problem-solving at a speed and level I’ve never experienced. Together, we will be developing new ways to look at buildings and their highest-value use in normal as well as in extraordinary times.

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