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Kaiser hospital renovations continue as ICU, surgical center near completion

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Until its planned central hospital becomes a reality, Kaiser Permanente needed a way to serve its base of roughly 515,000 members the way it wanted to. That need sparked the decision to upgrade — in a big way — the workhorse of the health care provider’s 26-facility San Diego network, the San Diego Medical Center/Kaiser Foundation Hospital on Zion Avenue in Grantville.

While Kaiser is working on a number of upgrades throughout its San Diego County facilities, the changes taking place at the Zion Avenue hospital are definitely among the biggest, with a total expected cost of $294 million.

As it stands before the upgrades are complete, the nearly 19-acre location is home to 392 hospital beds. By the time two parts of the upgrade are complete later this year, the hospital will have a capacity slightly larger than that with the re-model incorporating a new 17-bed surgical unit and a new neonatal intensive care unit.

Construction has just completed on the neonatal ICU, and it’s expected to open in mid-September. The surgical unit is expected to open in mid-December.

But the slightly larger capacity isn’t the biggest story surrounding the upgrade, which doesn’t really aim to change the hospital’s footprint. Kaiser Permanente’s project director, Terry Muldoon, indicated that the bigger story is what the upgrades will do for patients and the hospital, which needed the changes in order to stay operational through 2030.

Together, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and Kaiser Construction — Kaiser’s Permanente’s own capital projects construction firm — are bringing the four-decade-old building some much needed infrastructure improvements. Work on the building has been ongoing since April 2010 to upgrade and bring up to current code all of the hospital’s electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, including a new chiller plant and chilled water distribution system. The elevators are also being improved with all new equipment and cabs, and the building’s IT infrastructure is being upgraded to new hospital standards.

Additional work is planned to make the hospital more accommodating and welcoming to patients, such as upgrades to bathroom fixtures in patient rooms.

The Los Angeles architectural firm HGA and San Diego’s HMC Architects were the project’s two principal architects.

“The facility’s condition was such that it would not be able to operate in the condition we want it to until we were to have replacement hospitals into this service area,” Muldoon said. “We needed to extend the life of this facility and decided to make a substantial investment in it.”

Planning for new hospitals has continued in the meantime, Muldoon said, and Kaiser is concurrently designing its new central hospital, expected to be built in Kearny Mesa starting in 2013 and operational by 2017, around the same time the Zion Avenue project will be complete around August 2017.

The earliest phases of work, which began with the purchase of the Garfield Specialty Center about three miles from the hospital, are coming to a close at the job site. Purchasing that property allowed for the remodel that’s bringing the new neonatal ICU and surgical unit to take place, since the Garfield Specialty Center was able to be re-worked to handle Kaiser’s outpatient and ambulatory services and free up space in the hospital.

The project was initially budgeted for a total cost of around $250 million. Additions to plans throughout construction, such as the chilled water distribution system, were found to be in need of replacement and increased the budget to around $302 million.

But Kaiser spokesperson Mina Nguyen Nicoletti said the project is running under that figure.

Construction is taking place 24 hours per day, seven day a week, with a total 126 workers performing various work.

The various infrastructure systems being replaced, Nguyen Nicoletti said, are for the most part out of plain view, but will still be replaced with more modern equipment that provides a more “contemporary feel.” They’ll also be more energy efficient, she added.

Another piece of the work will bring more modern lobbies and patient circulation paths, which is one of the ways the renovation will make hospital stays more welcoming for patients, Muldoon said. All of the new beds will also be built for private accommodation.

Considering that the hospital’s function is to improve the condition of its patients, careful planning was required to keep construction from interfering with that goal. Muldoon said the principal issues have been noise, vibration and construction crew members winding through the building, but that the hospital has been successful in keeping problems at bay.

“Construction always has an impact,” Muldoon said. “We have very significant issues to maintain a safe environment, from an infection control perspective, as well as other safety issues, so we have a very rigorous program to do that.”

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