Design Firms Collaborate on New COVID-19 Mobile Testing Lab

Perkins and Will’s New York studio, along with its Denmark studio Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects — and in partnership with multi-disciplinary design group Arup, has designed a plan to retrofit out-of-use school buses into mobile testing labs.

Image courtesy of Perkins and Will

The scalable and inexpensive plan would help address insufficient testing and significant lag times for test results , reduce the risk of contamination en route to or at a larger medical facility, and put to good public use a fleet of currently idle school buses nationwide.

Additionally, the plan assists under-served, lower-income and homeless populations who are disproportionately impacted, both economically and medically, by COVID-19 and face greater challenges in accessing testing and treatment.

“While no one is immune to the COVID-19 virus, testing and treatment is not a level playing field. It is the under-served communities, including lower-income and homeless populations, that need our urgent help at this time,” says Mariana Giraldo, architect and strategic planning specialist in Perkins and Will’s New York studio. “We wanted to harness the expertise of our interdisciplinary team to help those in need during the crisis. We believe the mobile testing lab is a scalable and accessible solution to close the gap on testing in our home, New York City, and across the world.”

Image courtesy of Perkins and Will

The concept of the COVID-19 mobile testing lab was informed by Perkins and Will’s expertise in science and technology, healthcare, urban planning, planning and strategy, and IT. The firm’s Denmark studio, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, lent expertise specifically in industrial design, and its Innovation Incubator program, which awards research grants to staff seeking design solutions to real-world problems, allows the team to continue enhancing the plan.

The team identified seven key parameters to guide their design process: equitability, mobility, accessibility, speed, flexibility, ease of implementation, and scalability. Retrofitting under-utilized school buses into testing centers met the team’s criteria, offering a solution that could be adopted on a national and potentially even global scale.

“As we’ve been closely watching the evolving circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had the opportunity to look at the international response and learn from other countries,” says Giraldo, who conceived of the idea with Enlai Hooi, an industrial designer with Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.

“While the concept of widespread testing is at the forefront of many countries’ efforts to curb COVID-19, there remain substantial inequities of access to testing that we are attempting to address in this approach,” says Hooi.

Perkins and Will based the layout of the mobile testing lab concept around the newly-approved Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 test, enabling vulnerable populations and isolated groups to be tested and receive their results within minutes.

Ideally, individuals would be referred to the mobile testing lab through doctors and appointments would be made through a mobile app, so that crowds could be controlled and social distancing rules adhered to. Given the testing solution’s emphasis on equitability, smartphone access or a referral from a doctor is not a pre-requisite and everyone is welcome to sign-up.

Image courtesy of Perkins and Will

Once the Perkins and Will team developed the prototype for the lab, where individuals are swabbed for testing, they invited their industry colleagues at Arup to design the project’s companion app.

“We aim to bring together intuitive technology and service design into a unique mobile care space,” says Arup’s Director of Digital Experience Design Paul McConnell. “Through rapid prototyping we can better learn and refine how we get people through the process and give communities the confidence to return to normal.”

Every element of the mobile testing lab, including the generators, HVAC systems, and the awnings, is designed to be sourced from  off-the-shelf from vendors, ensuring easy replicability across communities.

To support lab technicians, the rear of the bus could include a respite area, a gravity-based hand washing sink, a refrigerator for water and lunches, seating, and storage options for personal protective equipment. In addition, a clean flow process could be implemented, and a negative air pressure system created, to minimize the risk of environmental contamination within the lab space. Generators could be placed on top of the bus to provide electricity.

The COVID-19 mobile testing lab is supported by the Perkins and Will Innovation Incubator program. Perkins and Will is actively looking for additional project partners while also sharing the concept freely. In doing so, the firm hopes to offer antibody testing, or administer vaccines — once discovered and approved — to society’s most vulnerable populations, and maximize collective efforts to close the gap for COVID-19 testing.