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Conn.’s Health Care Sector to Check In on Construction

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Like a well-worn roadway, old hospitals and technology may get the job done, but they are not ideal—especially for an aging population increasingly reliant on state-of-the-art treatment facilities. While the country is full of infrastructure in need of an upgrade, at least one state—Connecticut—is poised to bring its hospital and health-care sector into the 21st century with advanced medicine and facilities to match. Analysts say that with more than $1 billion of expansions and new building planned during the next six years, the state's hospital and health-care sector may be well-positioned to throw a lifeline to the ailing construction industry.

Rendering Courtesy of The SLAM Collaborative
High-Tech: Danbury Hospitals $150-million expansion includes state-of-the-art technology.
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"This is an obvious area that will grow over the years. It's a matter of demographics [as the population ages] and technology advances," says John Butts, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Connecticut in Wethersfield. "If you are talking about pockets of strength, the health-care sector is one."

The sector's growth comes none too soon for Connecticut's construction industry, which has been hammered by the weak economy. Connecticut has lost about 20,000 construction jobs, or one-third of its work force, since 2005, Butts says. He does not expect the many hospital and health-care projects announced this year to yield a substantial increase in construction by next year, however. In fact, the state's overall construction activity is expected to remain relatively unchanged next year. The overall industry is a long way from recovery, Butts says, but at least the health sector appears on course to provide thousands of construction jobs in coming years.

One major factor behind future growth is Gov. Dannel Malloy's (D) recently sanctioned plan to make the state a leader in advanced medical R&D with an $864-million investment in the University of Connecticut (UConn) Health Center at Farmington. The so-called "Bioscience Connecticut" initiative, the state's largest health-care project, is set to create a total of 18,300 construction jobs in six years—or an average of 3,000 construction jobs annually beginning next year through 2018. The 204-acre UConn campus includes medical and dental schools, a research lab and the John Dempsey Hospital (JDH)—all of which are earmarked for construction work.

The planned project, the first major one on the site since 1975, includes construction of a new $318-million JDH patient tower, a parking garage and an ambulatory care center, as well as renovations to the existing JDH tower and to research facilities. The state intends to obtain LEED-Silver certification for the tower and transform JDH into a "smart hospital," incorporating advanced medical information technology. A joint venture of HKS, Dallas, and Steffian Bradley Architects, Enfield, Conn., will design the tower, and Turner Construction will be the construction manager when work begins in spring of 2013.

Already the state has begun to realize one of its goals with the initiative by attracting outside investment. Jackson Laboratory (JAX), a Bar Harbor, Maine, medical research center, is the first of what the state hopes will be many to choose to expand into Connecticut. JAX cites the bioscience initiative as a major factor behind its decision to build a $1.1-billion genetics R&D center on the UConn campus. In a controversial move, the state has agreed to partially fund construction, equipment and operations of the JAX center, which is expected to begin construction in 2013 and create 842 construction jobs.

Butts credits the Malloy administration with trying to cultivate the state's health-care sector and grow jobs in the process. "Research is an area of growth in the state. You have to renovate buildings for that," he says.

State-funded initiatives aside, there are many projects still in the planning stages, a situation that calls for cautious optimism, says Brian Garbecki, vice president and health-care leader at Gilbane Building Co., Glastonbury. "Some of [the announced plans] will become true projects in the field over the next six to 12 months," Garbecki says, but others may not.

Gilbane, one-third of whose work is in the health-care sector, is the CM for the $150-million, 300,000-sq-ft tower addition to Danbury Hospital, which began last March and is set for completion in July 2014. The project, which aims to achieve LEED-Silver or Gold status, includes construction of three 35-bed medical/surgical floors, a 30-bed intensive care unit, a 40,000-sq-ft, state-of-the-art emergency department and shell space for a surgical platform and two possible medical floor additions. The hospital is also adding a section and a level to its 16,700-sq-ft parking garage.

The hospital is the only one in the Danbury area, and "we've outgrown all of our buildings," says Morris Gross, Danbury Health Systems vice president. The institution was founded in 1885 and its last two towers were completed in 1978 and 1985, respectively.

"Technology has changed; we need to update," Gross says. The technological changes in medicine require, for example, more space at nursing stations and patient rooms, he says. "More monitors and other key pieces of equipment take up space, which has also called for changes in codes and architectural design," Gross says.

The Counter Cycle

"Institutional work, including hospitals and universities, has always been countercyclical with construction work," says Rusty Hirst, vice president and general manager at Turner Construction's Milford office. "Hospitals that can afford to, do tend to invest."

Health-care work accounts for about 40% of Turner's work in Connecticut, Hirst says. Turner was CM at the recently completed $130 million, 350,000-sq-ft John T. O'Connell patient tower at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford.

The company is also the CM for Yale-New Haven Hospital's $30-million expansion and renovation of the adult emergency center. This project began in November 2010, with completion slated for November 2012.

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