HKS, Zahner Partner on Personal Protection Equipment for COVID-19 Health Workers

By Julie Wellik

HKS and Zahner, an architectural metalwork design and engineering firm, have joined forces to create reusable personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical professionals and health care staff caring for COVID-19 patients.

Zahner die-cut 2,500 face shields, and HKS put its network of 3-D printers to work to make the headbands that affix to the shields. More than 1,200 sets of PPE – each containing two face shields, a 3-D printed headband and elastic band – have been produced, sanitized, packaged and delivered to dozens of health care systems and front line medical providers across the U.S. and in Mexico.

HKS’ Heath May, Director of LINE, and HKS Chief Technology Officer Cory Brugger, led the volunteer effort with the help of teams of HKS employees located in regions around the U.S. and Mexico City.

May and Brugger formed an alliance with Make4Covid – a Colorado-based coalition of makers, designers, artists and engineers, hobbyists and medical professionals, united in purpose to design, manufacture and distribute essential equipment for health care workers and first responders.

Make4Covid was launched to support Colorado’s health care workers, but as the need for PPE swelled beyond that state’s borders, Make4Covid expanded its reach. The volunteer coalition has made and distributed more than 80,000 pieces of PPE since launch. Make4Covid’s website is a one-stop repository for monetary donations, volunteer makers and health care providers who want to request PPE. Make4Covid’s open source designs for PPE are vetted through a medical advisory board to ensure they’re safe for medical workers’ use. 

Kansas City, Missouri-based Zahner fabricated the metal panels for two notable HKS-designed projects: SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Pacific Plaza Pavilion park in downtown Dallas, located adjacent to HKS headquarters.

“HKS’ relationship with Zahner goes back several years and is founded on trust and a shared sense of purpose,” said May. “It was easy to pick up the phone and ask if they’d be interested in partnering with us.”

Bill Zahner is CEO of the 124-year-old family-owned metal engineering and fabrication firm. He said the decision to contribute expertise and equipment was an obvious one for him and his team.

 “We’re glad that HKS invited us to help and proud to join the effort alongside HKS and so many other talented medical, engineering and manufacturing organizations,” Zahner said. “We want to do our part and Make4Covid has done an excellent job assembling resources and facilitating a national distribution effort.”

The face shields, made from durable yet flexible PETG plastic, were die-cut in Zahner’s Grand Prairie, Texas facility. With the Zahner factory temporarily shuttered due to the virus, its shop workers leapt at the opportunity to help. May had some difficulty sourcing the material, which has been in high demand since the pandemic took hold. “PETG sheet stock is a versatile, transparent material that’s impact resistant. It’s the preferred material for PPE,” said May.  

HKS deployed its 3-D printers and laser cutters, normally used for model making, to work around the clock to print the headbands and cut additional face shield material. From Los Angeles to Dallas, Chicago and New York, Richmond, Virginia to Mexico City, dozens of HKS employees joined the effort to support health care staff working to save lives. Several employees took the Makerbots home to produce headbands, and some HKS offices established daily shifts, rotating staff to physically visit their office on a continuous cycle to print, retrieve and set up the next batch of headbands to print.

HKS made the PRUSA Printer model headband for the face shields – a free, open source design that the medical community recommends and anyone with a 3-D printer can make. According to May, HKS printed the headbands using PLA, which is an approved material and a commonly used plastic that design firms use to 3-D print architectural models.

May said HKS meticulously ensured that the PPE it produced is as safe as possible for health workers to use. “Even though we’ve taken great care to produce the face shields, they’re not FDA-approved, but because we’re in an emergency situation and the medical community is in great need, we labeled our packaging stating as much,” said May. “Any HKS staff handling the PPE is masked and gloved to minimize the contact we have with it. We disinfected each face shield individually and included the date the units were bagged to prevent cross contamination. 

“After the units are bagged, sealed and labeled, we let the kits to rest a day or two, so if there is any contamination, it dies off before the hospital receives it. And most of them are sterilizing the units again before use,” said May. Because each kit contains two face shields, workers can swap out the shields for cleaning, or if one gets scratched or damaged, there’s a back-up ready to go.

May and Brugger coordinated the firm’s effort to recruit employee support in not only printing headbands, but all the related logistics including shipping, PPE assembly, printing, assembling and outreach to HKS’ health clients to inquire about their needs.

“Each regional office is leveraging their relationships and responding to the needs in their local communities,” said May. HKS’ Chicago office set up a GoFundMe page and raised more than $5,100 to support the purchase of materials. Steven Marsanico, an HKS architect from Brooklyn, sourced 252 face shields from the Dallas office and made 126 headbands in his basement workshop – then handled the PPE donation to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. “The dedication and spirit of our firm and staff is truly inspiring,” said May.

Zahner donated all its labor and fabrication facility to die-cut the shields, and HKS covered labor, shipping and material costs for the PPE.

Will HKS make more PPE? May said that’s possible.

“Zahner is on board to cut more shields, so if we’re hearing about ongoing need related to Coronavirus outbreaks or hotspots, we’ll produce more,” said May. “We’ve distributed our full PPE supply to health providers around the country and in Mexico City. We’ll continue to evaluate the situation day to day.”

Julie Wellik

Julie Wellik is a Senior Writer at HKS. Based in San Francisco, she writes stories about some of the world's most impactful design work coming from HKS' reach in health, hospitality, sports, education and sustainability. She is a passionate co-director of Citizen HKS, the firm's public interest and global social impact program.