Engineering in a Crisis

There are times when engineering projects simplify lives, facilitate lives but importantly, as the team working to establish Ebola treatment centres in West Africa illustrated – save lives. Major Nick Francis was deployed to Sierra Leone as part of the 62 Works Group, Royal Engineers to help in designing and constructing infrastructure to combat, cure and contain Ebola in West Africa.

It seems an age away now when the whole world was in turmoil over the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. Sierra Leone saw the origination of the outbreak and there was a vital, time sensitive operation to curb the spread before it became a global crisis. Major Francis and his team were tasked with building three 100 bed Ebola Treatment Units to replace the failing Ebola containment centres that were hastily designed and pushed to capacity.

Nick Francis, now a principal engineer at Eadon Consulting joined the Institution of Structural Engineers, Young Engineer’s Conference on 19thJuly 2016 to talk about engineering in emergencies. His talk on the design and construction of the emergency Ebola hospitals was fascinating and throws light on some of the incredible engineering feats that often get overlooked.


The design of these units had to not only combine a practical, safe and workable clinic but also take into account the cultural, environmental and long term effects of the infrastructure being built. For the design, it was important to ensure that the buildings would stand the test of time, in the poorest areas of Sierra Leone, leaving a legacy of large, stable buildings behind would be essential. It would also ensure that the local people would get behind the construction work and help out in the knowledge that they would be left with buildings for the future.

Cultural sensitivities were taken into account, deeply held religious burial and mourning beliefs about how to bury the dead were considered by the design of specialist visitor platforms to observe specialist nurses in protective uniforms carrying out washing ceremonies. In terms of the environmental implications, it was essential that there was a safe and sanitary disposal of waste. Alowing toxic waste to polute the environment was obviously never an option, but with the Treatment Units located in remote, rural areas of Sierra Leone they had to engineer an alternative. Burined septic tanks and fresh water tanks were strategically placed within the labelled clean green and contminated red zones to keep the site efficiently running.

The team didn’t just have to work out a practical design for a hospital building, they had to engineer a solution to a very difficult problem which in turn contained spores of smaller problems. Built in just eight weeks, the hospital went on to save the lives of hundreds of people. The team had to work quickly and strategically to help remedy a crisis and it is safe to say that without the brilliant work of the Royal Engineers work the crisis could have had a very different outcome.

“Engineering in Emergencies” Nick Francis, Young Engineers Conference 19th July 2016, The Institution of Structural Engineers. A similar talk can be found