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ᐅ Turning the Impossible to Possible Together: Speedy Construction of the Community Isolation Facilities

Dream big, think big – together, we can turn mission impossible into reality. In 32 days, with the strong support from the Central People’s Government (CPG) and the Liaison Office of the CPG (LOCPG), the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSARG) delivered 20,400 beds in six Community Isolation Facilities amid the early days of the fifth wave of the COVID-19 outbreak. Both the scale and the speed of the entire construction project are unprecedented. Apart from adoption of advanced technology, it takes much team work to give birth to this miracle in the history of the Hong Kong construction industry and provide such quantity in a short time with high efficiency.

At the “CIC – See What I See” event, Ms. Winnie Ho, the designated Secretary for Housing has shared with us the success ingredients of this legendary journey in her capacity as Director of Architectural Services. In hindsight, she sees this massive challenge as a “life-saving mission” that could benefit every one of us in Hong Kong in the battle against COVID-19.

Collaborative Leadership Ignites Team Spirit

Walking back the memory lane, Winnie said the key to success was the strong support of the CPG. It only took the team seven days to complete the Tsing Yi Community Isolation Facility, which could house about 1,300 quarantine units and offer around 3,900 beds. Winnie said that the sourcing of beds could be “a big headache”. But thanks to the staunch support from the CPG, the team could find factories to produce all the necessary equipment and components for the facilities within a short time.

Winnie recalled that with the rapid development of the outbreak, the whole project team raced against time. For example, the supply of water, electricity as well as drainage services have been indispensable to construction work on-site. At that time, the leaders of the LOCPG, the HKSARG as well as project contractor China State Construction International Holdings Limited personally supervised and conducted many multi-party meetings with the goal of resolving problems immediately. Winnie’s team read up blueprints, finalised plans and liaised with colleagues from relevant government departments to ensure that the work could be done on time. This kind of intense communication motivated all teams to work closely with each other. Together with the resources and the highly skilled team pulled in by the contractor, the first phase of six quarantine camps finished construction and entered into service in just 32 days.

Winnie felt that all parties involved in the project shared the same mindset and vision. Leaders took up the roles of “commanders-in-chief” and “deputy commanders-in-chief” in the team, shouldered their responsibility and streamlined the workflow with a determination to prioritise the construction work. Such team cohesiveness enhanced efficiency and performance. Every time when Winnie raised a problem, the team would put up their hands and respond, and contributed immensely by coming up with effective solutions. With this high level of mutual trust, the team morale was high.

One of the big challenges of the project has been that there was no precedent to follow. The design of the quarantine units and ancillary facilities had to reach the same standard as the existing regulations and requirements, and also to meet the actual needs of operational teams. Seamless coordination work was essential. The management team was required to work on and review the design, oversee construction materials production and monitor on-site work simultaneously.

These episodes demonstrated the importance for everyone in the team to understand the mission and purposes behind their work, especially as the construction project engaged a maximum of 15,000 workers at the same time, with half working in the factories in the Mainland and the other half in the work sites in Hong Kong. Without this kind of calling, it would be challenging to make sure everyone is marching towards the same goal.

“Time is life. We are saving lives. With this mindset, we are not taking this merely as another construction job – it is a life-saving mission to help Hong Kong get rid of COVID-19,” Winnie said. “It’s possible. We call this the ‘Spirit of Community Isolation Facility’(方艙精神). This spirit comes collectively from this big group of people. We didn’t set out with a spirit in mind at the beginning. But in the end, this emerged.”

When there is a will, there is a way. The construction speed for the first phase of six Community Isolation Facilities was 60 times faster than that in 2020. Between February and March 2022, around 600 beds were added every day while that in 2020 was 10.

Launching ground for pioneering construction technology

Apart from the determination of each and every single team member, the widespread use of technology accelerated the workflow at construction sites of these Community Isolation Facilities. Many construction related technologies are ready for use, what matters the most is how users could manifest the full potential of technologies to serve their own purposes. In a sense, these sites are the launching grounds for pioneering construction technology. After careful experimentation on large scale projects, innovation and insights come up naturally. The building of quarantine camps proves that the construction industry can enhance quality and speed, without compromising the safety and environmental standards.

Winnie mentioned that the quarantine camps have adopted Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) units to minimize the on-site work time. Workers would simply connect these units to water, electricity and sewage systems available on site.

The use of MiC units encountered a new logistical challenge. To deliver these units within a short window of time, the construction team had to rely on delivery via sea transport. Each shipment could send around 30-40 units to the construction sites. That meant there was a need for more barging points and China State had to build them quickly.

Winnie added that another thing her team learnt this time was that the factory could produce MiC units at a rate faster than the construction site could digest. That created a demand for holding sites. At one of the project sites, there were as many as 10 holding sites to store the MiC units to be deployed. One mega project of another government department had a works site located on one of the holding sites, and the officers agreed to move out within two days. “I’m so grateful. At that time, everybody gave us their strongest support and understanding,” Winnie said.

Under this arrangement, the Digital Works Supervision System could come in handy. The system allows users to keep track of the origin, delivery, and latest status of all MiC units in one glance. It keeps users fully informed real-time.

Technology can provide users a new perspective. The use of drones allowed Winnie to inspect the site from the sky. At one construction site, she relied on drones to check the handling of wastes, for confirmation that proper procedures were implemented. Moreover, drones could “fly” with the lighting system to allow operations to continue at night, which was particularly useful for such an urgent project which required many workers to work around the clock.

"Looking at the image captured by a drone at height is even better than seeing the site on the spot,” Winnie said. “When I stand on the spot, I just see a lot of mud. But when you fly a drone, you can see anything you want to see."

China State also made use of their own developed Defect Monitoring Tools to speed up the handover process. Given that quarantine camps are highly repetitive in terms of structure, the company has developed a mobile application to allow users to tick the boxes in the checklist at ease and organise any necessary follow-ups.

In one case, there were some defect items for improvement at one project. With the mobile application, workers knew where and how to tackle those problems, e.g. putting back signages and fixing a loosened handle. They could then take a picture to show the work done. The supervising team thus could stay in the office and check the progress from their mobile devices, saving the efforts for another round of on-site inspection. Within three hours, more than half of the issues were solved.

Setting up a Common Data Environment (CDE) to collect, manage and disseminate data and project information throughout the project lifecycle is gaining traction and attention in the construction industry. “It is essential to continuously collect data about and identify common defects, analyse how they can be fixed and improved,” Winnie said.

Photo courtesy: China State Construction International Holdings Limited

Caring culture in practice

What touched Winnie deeply was the caring culture in the construction sites and Community Isolation Facilities. While the workers spent their energy and time to finish their work to look after the people of Hong Kong, they were also being looked after. The care stations on the ground, ranging from hair salons to canteens, are still vivid in her mind.

The Community Isolation Facilities also arranged celebration of Children’s Day, Easter and Ramadan to bring a festive atmosphere to the occupants. A cartoon character “Hero of Community Isolation Facility(方艙俠)” was created by the operator Security Bureau to bring in positive energy and for easy communication with the occupants. Winnie and her colleagues also often use instant messaging apps stickers of the Hero to encourage each other.

Construction 2.0 driven by the younger generation

Looking forward, “Construction 2.0” is not a squishy concept. It is our future that we can fully grasp.

One day, Winnie talked to a smart guy who was serving as a team leader at the information technology department at China State. She assumed that he would have studied relevant disciplines such as IT and computer, but turned out he started as a rather common frontline construction expertise. This smart man managed to turn his interest into skillsets applicable to advancement of construction work. Winnie still found this example inspiring.

Indeed, many young engineers that came from government departments, the public sector and contractors said that their exposures in this project were eye-opening. The MiC method impressed them the most with its ability to shorten lead time and raise productivity. So long as young people could equip themselves, they could continue to serve the Hong Kong society at different roles.

Keeping the spirit

“You can see the team members are so proud of their work in building this facility to protect Hong Kong,” Winnie said. “I am very proud of my team. At that time, everybody faced a lot of difficulties. But not one of them said ‘no’, nor being hesitant. They all came in immediately when I called upon them.”

Winnie’s team is still working on two Community Isolation Facilities construction projects, one in Penny’s Bay and the other one in Kai Tak. Both are scheduled to finish within this month. Maybe there will be new challenges, but attitude determines success, no doubt the “Spirit of the Community Isolation Facility” will prevail and the team can overcome all the upcoming new challenges, with one united goal and the generous support from our country.

Last Updated: 2022-06-21 12:12:35