Hospital pod proposal pitched for Chesterville factory site

A recent overhead shot of 171 Main Street North, with inset image from SNC-Lavalin PAE's proposal document to assemble a substantial mobile health unit on site from shipping containers.

Nelson Zandberge
Nation Valley News

CHESTERVILLE — A model field hospital made of shipping containers could be erected outside the former Nestlé factory in advance of a possible federal purchase of several such facilities, which would be stored unassembled at the Chesterville site and deployed around the country as required. Full assembly of the first demonstration model by a military-connected contractor — containing as many as 20 beds — awaits only a green light from Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGS).

So says the spokesman for the “mobile health unit” (MHU) proposal, Robert Spencer, president of SNC-Lavalin PAE, who received North Dundas Council’s OK on Tuesday to temporarily relax the township noise bylaw should construction on the model proceed outdoors at the 171 Main Street North address.

A 17-year-old  joint venture between the storied Montreal engineering firm and American defence services contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers, SNC-Lavalin PAE has specialized in logistical and engineering support for Canadian military deployments in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kuwait and — until recently — Iraq, according to Spencer.

A 32-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, the retired airforce logistics officer tells NVN the venture has now set its sights on creating containerized field hospitals equipped with a mix of regular and intensive-care beds for the Canadian civilian marketplace as part of the country’s COVID-19 response. Spencer alternatively describes them as “mobile respiratory care units.”

“They can be situated adjacent to a hospital or in a standalone manner in a small community, for example, that might not have a major healthcare facility,” Spencer explains. “So they’re very mobile and scalable and modular in that they can be configured for any number of beds.”

“All we have right now is an approved design, and we’re waiting on the government to tell us either to pause or to please go ahead and demonstrate.” He expects the government to signal its intention within days or as long as a couple of months from now. If given the go-ahead to produce the model hospital, he suggests it’s likely to have a capacity of 20 beds along with admission, laboratory and staff areas — all comprising about 50 interconnected sea containers in that case. Assembly of the mock-up should take a week after the 20- and 40-foot containers are pre-cut and manufactured by contractors in Ottawa and Montreal.

However, Spencer envisions the “lego-like” modular system being scaled up to complexes as large as 100 beds. The Canadian government, he says, may be in the market for up to 10 facilities of that size. But first, officials will have to like what they see if the model is built.

When not needed, such ready-to-go complexes would be stacked and stored outdoors at the Chesterville site — to be deployed across the country in the event of outbreaks or various disasters, such as a hospital burning down. The government has not yet indicated what it’s willing to spend, he says, nor would Spencer tip his hand on what the developers hope to collect per unit.

No actual manufacturing — i.e. cutting of steel — will occur at the Chesterville site, he emphasizes, just assembly and storage at what he deems a “logistical hub” for the joint venture.

Noise and truck traffic won’t approach the levels seen at the address when it was still a Nestlé coffee factory, he suggests, noting that Deputy Mayor Al Armstrong made that salient observation at the last council meeting.

He also hopes to host a community day for locals to check out the project, should the initial demonstration assembly get the go-ahead from the feds, “so you could come out and see what you’re community is contributing in the country’s fight against COVID-19.”

In May, SNC-Lavalin PAE started leasing 55,000 square feet at the former factory owned by IDP Group Inc., with potentially another 75,000 available if required. He calls the place “a great combination of large indoor warehousing and also expansive outdoor space for assembling the mobile respiratory care units.”

Ironically, the IDP Group earlier came forward with a proposal to produce intensive-care pods targeting the long-term care sector, out of similarly repurposed shipping containers. That project, however, is unrelated to the plans of IDP’s latest tenant, according to Spencer, who says that SNC-Lavalin PAE coincidently became aware of the property through a broker in Montreal.

He says they have only one competitor, based in Vancouver, operating in the Canadian market.

See the SNC-Lavalin PAE proposal in full, below.


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