Birmingham-area companies Sanders Realty Trust, Gresham Smith and Partners, Robins & Morton team up on Indiana hospital project

By Russell Hubbard – The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The new hospital and medical office building being built in Valparaiso, Ind., is a complete rout for Birmingham.

From the financing of the doctor’s offices to the design and construction of both it and the $130 million hospital, it has been all Birmingham companies all the way.

The Southerners who have dominated a small swath of Hoosier land are Sanders Realty Trust, which was chosen to finance and own the medical office building next to the under-construction Porter Memorial Hospital; Gresham Smith and Partners, architect of the doctor’s offices and the new hospital; and Robins & Morton, the general contractor on both projects.

“It has been a real natural partnership,” said Robin Savage, chief operating officer at Robins & Morton. “It is a big project for the area, with us peaking at about 600 jobs on the construction site, and 126 new jobs when the hospital is complete in the third quarter of next year.”

All three companies are health care specialists. Sanders Trust owns doctor’s offices and hospitals nationwide. Gresham Smith is ranked 21st among top health care design firms by trade journal Building Design + Construction. Robins & Morton every few years is ranked the nation’s top general contractor in the health care industry by Modern Healthcare magazine, and is usually in the Top Five year in and year out.

But it took the Indiana project to bring them all together for the first time.

First came the hospital, with Robins & Morton hired by Tennessee-based hospital giant Community Health Systems to build a replacement for the existing Valparaiso medical center. The architect was the Birmingham office of Gresham and Smith.

Then, it came to the adjacent medical office building, a $12 million job. Increasingly, hospitals and doctors want no part of owning and operating them. That’s where Sanders Realty came in. It won a bidding round against 20 rivals for the right to finance the construction of the office building, then own it, collecting rent from the occupying physicians.

“The hospital had already been under construction for a year or so by the time we came around, so both of them were already on-site,” said Rance Sanders, head man at Sanders Realty. “We are definitely deriving some solid economies of scale because of that.”

Building medical centers and offices can be tricky. There are germs, there is radiation, and seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Savage, of Robins & Morton shared some techniques being used at Porter Memorial:

• Infection control is a key concern. That means no carpets and no seams between walls and floors where germs can hide out. Floors are covered a vinyl-sheet material for easy cleaning.

“It has been interesting to see the evolution,” Savage said. “In the late 1970s, when we started in health care, the idea was to make the patient feel at home, so all the rooms had carpet.”

• Seconds count when it comes to life threatening conditions. That means intensive-care units are increasingly being built adjacent to emergency rooms, where heart attack and stroke victims often get initial treatment. While that sounds easy, Savage said, it takes a complete re-think because the support staff and administrative tasks of the hospital at-large are usually somewhat distant from the ER.

• X-ray and cancer-treatment wards give off a lot of radiation. X-ray rooms are completely lined with a lead sheet attached to the back of the gypsum board wall panels. Cancer treatment wards get four-foot concrete walls.

“Extreme radiation,” Savage said. “You have to contain all of it, and it takes a bank vault.”

The authorities aren’t trusting types when it comes to radiation. Savage said all radiation areas are tested by a physicist before the hospital can open, to be sure none is escaping.

As for the design, Gresham and Smith managing director Jim Griffo said a main emphasis was on environmental issues. Medical office building stormwater, for example, is collected and deposited directly in the water table, as opposed to being allowed to run off on its own to streams and sewers. Each tenant in the building will have the ability to monitor and control its own energy use.

“That sort of thing is no longer a novelty, or unproved,” Griffo said. “It is mainstream.”