New Hospital Built to Stand Against Nature

Former St. John's Regional Medical Center, left, and the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, right

On time and under budget, the doors are nearly open at the new Mercy Hospital Joplin. Inside and out, the 900,000-sq-ft facility makes good on Mercy’s bold promise to the community to replace the tornado-ravaged St. John’s Regional Medical Center with a stronger, state-of-the-art hospital. "The new building is opening just 46 months after the tornado hit Joplin, which is approximately half the time you would normally anticipate to plan, design and construct a similarly sized hospital," said Ryan Felton, project director for McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., a member of multiple AGC chapters.

The building is part of a $1 billion Mercy commitment. Features include a unique neonatal intensive care unit, the most advanced linear accelerator for cancer treatment, a cutting-edge emergency department and unprecedented "storm hardened" safety features.

"Having windows that can withstand a storm is a huge deal," said Gary Pulsipher, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin. "Winds like the ones we experienced in the May 2011 tornado caused major damage and once inside the building, they tore things apart and sent debris flying. There was no question we needed to prevent that going forward."

That’s why the structure incorporates a window and frame system that can protect its most vulnerable patients from winds up to 250 miles per hour. Mercy also added a concrete roof, fortified "safe zones" on every floor and half-buried generators away from the main building. Those are the most obvious of many innovations conceived to protect occupants, the hospital and its life-saving services in the event of another disaster.

"That was a historic storm that taught us many lessons," said John Farnen, executive director of strategic projects for Mercy who oversaw the building’s construction. Engineers and architects with McCarthy and HKS Architects studied the aftermath, looking where Mercy could best apply its unique experience.

Strengthened windows have been added to other Mercy buildings during construction, including an orthopedic hospital in Springfield, Missouri, and a rehabilitation hospital in Oklahoma City. Mercy’s new hospitals will get the strongest windows where needed, utilities will be better protected from storms and changes will come to existing facilities, as well, such as new laminate films that will harden glass against storms.

"Because of our goals and requirements in Joplin, we worked closely with our window supplier to invent a new window glazing system that’s like no other," said Terry Bader, Mercy’s vice president of planning, design and construction.

Mercy saw firsthand how strengthened windows survived the 2011 storm. Windows in the behavioral health unit of the old hospital, where strengthened glass had been installed prior to the storm, were intact. "Seeing how those windows survived helped get us thinking about windows in the new hospital and elsewhere," said Pulsipher.

The new hospital has three types of windows. Lobbies and other public areas, where able-bodied visitors can move to safer areas, have windows with a rating for 110 mph winds, stronger than the typical 90 mph rating for commercial buildings. Mercy added a film of plastic laminate to prevent the glass from shattering. The hospital's new emergency department rooms, as well as the hallways connecting the hospital and clinic tower, have laminated glass that’s designed to withstand winds of 140 mph.

The strongest windows are installed in both intensive care units. Testing was conducted in a Minnesota warehouse, where technicians shot the glass with 15-pound, 2x4 wooden missiles at 100 mph, which is how fast debris is typically flying in a 250 mph tornado.

The devastation of the 2011 tornado spurred about $11 million in upgrades specifically designed to harden the new hospital against natural disasters. The advances will protect patients, visitors and co-workers from future storms, and they will ensure that Mercy Hospital Joplin will remain the "last light on" and a source of life-saving services. Upgrades include:

Reinforced refuges – Each floor has a special hallway with reinforced walls and ceilings, where tiles and lights are secured as if in an earthquake zone. Instead of standard interior doors, heavy storm barriers can be closed to secure the safe zones. Rods in the door hardware penetrate into the cement above to hold against intense gusts. All passenger elevators reach the basement where widened corridors can safely hold co-workers and patients.

Protected power – The 2011 tornado cut utilities and even managed to disable the old hospital’s emergency generators. A storm-hardened building is buried across the campus, and critical utilities travel to the new hospital through a 450-foot reinforced tunnel. Local companies provide two lines each of power, water and data communications coming from different directions. The utilities plant also houses generators, and nearby diesel tanks were buried to protect them from storms.

Hallways and stairwells have battery-operated lights that will automatically kick on. Critical life-support systems, such as ventilators and newborn bassinets, have their own battery backup. Some will operate as long as two hours, providing time to move the most vulnerable patients.

Emergency grab bag – Crucial supplies will be strategically stashed throughout the new hospital. They include flashlights, batteries and first aid kits, as well as tools needed amid destruction, such as gloves, crowbars and even snow shovels, which would have been helpful to clear passageways clogged with rain-soaked debris.

Hardened shell – A precast concrete exterior provides a shell tougher than the brick, metal or plastered walls of most commercial buildings. A poured concrete roof holds tight in a gale, unlike the metal decking that blew off the old hospital. A penthouse that holds mechanical units is protected by heavy walls of hurricane-strength boards.

"Mercy applied unheard of standards to areas of the hospital where people can’t quickly escape, protecting even our frailest patients who depend on life-sustaining equipment," Pulsipher said. "It’s part of understanding the unique role of a hospital – what it is, what it does and who it serves."

Mercy is the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves millions annually. Mercy includes 34 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, three rehab hospitals and two orthopedic hospitals, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Associated General Contractors of America