There’s no doubt that quarantining international travellers is the ‘debacle du jour’. Could there be a design solution? This small proposal says yes, with a win-win.
At the beginning of the COVID outbreak the federal government was completely unprepared for the need to provide quarantine facilities. Which is surprising since it is their responsibility to manage quarantine and they even has a minister for it. But at the first National Cabinet, they had no plan whatsoever for quarantine.
It was up to Dan Andrews from Victoria to proffer the idea of using hotels as an interim solution, a suggestion he surely must rue, as mismanagement came back to bite him so badly. We now know that hotels fail because they are unable to be securely ventilated to prevent cross-contamination (discussed here). And still, a year later, the federal government still has no sensible plan for national quarantine facilities.
Yet, there are examples of dedicated quarantine facilities throughout Australia, built by each state and territory from the mid 18th century to address the problems of diseases arriving at our isolated isle by boats (the only mode of international transport). Hence, they were located close to the coast, often with wharves for disembarkation. Here are some of those facilities:
Across all of them we can see some consistent design features: there are numerous small buildings (as opposed to a large ‘prison-like’ building), they are all single storey, narrow in plan for cross ventilation and separated for better air flow, with wide eaves and plenty of outdoor space.
The ‘ne plus ultra’ is on North Head in Sydney, first built in 1832 for quarantining a cholera outbreak that lasted until 1851. It expanded with a series of buildings of different qualities - first, second and third class, then, as now, society is divvied up - a wharf, hospital and cemetery where some 560 of the 13,000 internees are buried. The quarantine ‘station’, under national control since 1901, finally closed in 1984. Yes, only 1984.
Ironically it now serves as a grand tourist attraction (no internationals at present) and is thought ideal for accommodation as a part has been converted into a high-quality four-star hotel. Perhaps this would have been a good hotel for today’s quarantine, even if the wharf is too small to have accommodated the infested Ruby Princess.
With all this precedent it’s hard to see how the federal government was so blind-sided, but it could now atone for failing so miserably to meet its obligations by building a quarantine facility near every international airport (the modern-day wharves), on Commonwealth land or sites borrowed from the States.
The designs would draw on three ideas: the form precedents of the older Q stations, the expertise of the mining corporations in building instant towns, and the development of the prefabrication industry in Australia.
The prototype, and the only one the feds have been able to point to, is Howard Springs, SE of Darwin. Originally built in 2012 by Japanese energy company Ipex to house 3,500 workers, it was closed and abandoned in 2018. From February 2020 it became a quarantine facility, initially for arrivals from Wuhan and later from Victoria. Since October last year it has been used for repatriating Australians principally from Europe.
It is now known as a ‘National Centre for Resilience’ - thanks to Scotty from Marketing, but the ABC’s Philip Adams calls it ‘John Howard Springs’. And it’s now run by the NT government as the feds don’t want to be associated with any possible downside issues. Nevertheless, it gives us a good guide to the design way forward: it’s made of many low scale, well distanced single units with appropriate central facilities.
Crucially there are two sectors of manufacturing that can build this kind of facility quickly: the mining industry handles large infrastructure, and the demand for units would be a huge shot in the arm for the nascent prefabrication industry, which needs to ramp up.
Australia has never adopted prefabrication in the same way that it has been in NE America, Europe and Scandinavia. Our prefab industry is mainly targeted at site sheds and smaller movable buildings for mobile home parks. Ironically however, this may be ideal for making purpose-built small single-storey houses to meet the needs of returning travellers.
We have everything we need in this country to build these lightweight, easily erected, prefabricated buildings. Current technology focuses on using Bluescope steel, firstly in framing using Truecore and various Colorbond profiles for cladding. The industry should engage clever architects and engineers to stretch the existing knowledge into providing better compact designs and better fabrication systems.
My one reservation is to avoid the seemingly easy solutions adopted in the ‘Building the Education Revolution’ that deferred to big firms that gouged huge fees for project management. The lesson to be learnt from the report into that Rudd era initiative showed that the best performers were in WA, where traditional procurement methods of trusting the designers (architects and engineers) turned out so much better.
There are all indications that this COVID emergency will last much longer as new variants are resistant to vaccines and third world countries have a patchy recovery. And then there is possibility that there will be new pandemics, indefinitely. It may take years to become safe, so the construction of new quarantine facilities proximate to international airports is an investment in the future.
They are a rare case of a win-win: we can address the issues of returning travellers from overseas in the COVID environment and we can improve the use of Australian made designs and materials to build the quarantine stations of the future. The several hundreds to thousands, of units in each quarantine facility will give rise to an industry that could further provide short to long-term accommodation for the homeless and those in housing stress.
I'm not for a moment suggesting that the new mobile home quarantine facilities would become heritage items as those of the past, but they are absolutely needed for the safety of our future. And we need to start today.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]