July 7, 2020

(Featured photo credit: Max Gersh, USA TODAY Network.)

As a first lieutenant with the Tennessee Army National Guard and a project coordinator with Gresham Smith, I’m used to balancing a lot. Every year, I spend one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer in training. In 2018-19, I was even able to take a 12-month leave of absence to deploy to Eastern Europe to serve on a NATO battle group mission. But I could have never predicted that I’d be called up again so quickly this spring to help with the state’s effort to mobilize a team to design and build quick-turn temporary hospitals in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It led to a unique opportunity for me to use my skills from architecture school and put them to work for the State of Tennessee in my role with the Army National Guard.

From early April through mid-June, I had the opportunity to serve on the COVID-19  Alternate Care Site Task Force that was made up of representatives from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Department of Health. As we began to map out the State’s need, it was challenging to know what the exact need might be. Initially, we started assembling items for a facility with 1,600 hospital beds. While a number of scenarios were outlined based on the State’s models for expanded hospital capacity needed during the outbreak, we eventually settled on two sites that would create approximately 500 additional hospital beds. These alternative care sites (ACS) were located in a facility once owned by the Commercial Appeal newspaper in downtown Memphis, and in an unused space within Nashville General Hospital.

Caption: These before and after images show the dramatic transformation of the former newsroom into a temporary hospital.

Converting a Newsroom into a Hospital

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took the lead on designing and constructing the facilities, while the other entities on the task force handled the rest. My team embarked on assembling everything you could imagine you would need to outfit a hospital from scratch. I was constantly on the phone, drawing up plans and coordinating between many different entities to ensure we were all on the same page. We were competing against other states that were buying these items at the same time. As these items poured in, we utilized a massive warehouse in Lebanon, Tennessee, to stockpile, sort and pack for shipment to the ACS. After all of the items we needed were procured, my next role was helping to coordinate all of the delivery and installation in the alternative care sites in both Nashville and Memphis.

In Memphis alone, I spent about a week on-site, coordinating completion with the Corps of Engineers and organizing 8.5 semi-truck loads of equipment. I was able to lead a team of 55 soldiers over four days to outfit the entire facility with items from hand sanitizer to hospital beds and everything in between. The entire process was incredibly fast-paced. In fact, the Corps of Engineers estimated that it completed a year’s worth of work in 28 days to turn the former newsroom into a hospital. Our team likened it to building an airplane in flight.

With Nashville General, our work was simpler because we were able to use much of the existing hospital infrastructure to support the ACS. We did not have that luxury with the ACS in Memphis, so everything was built from scratch at that site.

Caption: (Left) Gresham Smith’s Brice Holmes with Gov. Bill Lee (Center) in Memphis.

When Two Paths Intersect: Lessons Learned

I was selected for this mission because of my background in architecture and construction. A lot of my day-to-day work of planning and organizing operations ties back to the critical thinking skills that I learned in architecture school and in my time with Gresham Smith. Being able to portray complex multiday operations with decision points, statistics and courses of action in an easy-to-read format helped immensely. That is a feature of a design background and experience. Being able to think through primary, secondary and tertiary cause and effect of decisions while planning for those responses required some imagination and creative thinking. Those are very real correlations between the two careers.

I believe being in the military has made me a better designer, and being a designer has made me a better officer in the Army. There is a lot of give and take while balancing these two roles, but when they overlap, it allows me to serve in so many different ways. Overall, my experience on the task force was really fulfilling, and it’s a good reminder of why I chose both of these career paths. Gresham Smith has always been supportive with flexibility and understanding during my service, and I am so thankful for that.