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How NYC architects are 3D printing protective gear to help local hospitals

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Architects are crafting thousands of face shields for first responders each week

Courtesy of SHoP Architects

As the number of COVID-19 cases began to spike in New York City in March, architect Jay Valgora and his son, Jesse, an architecture student at Syracuse University, dragged a pair of 3D printers three blocks from his firm’s office to his Midtown loft.

There, they assembled the equipment transplanted from Studio V Architects, along with a third printer ordered from the Czech Republic, into a makeshift manufacturing hub of protective gear for healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been running near around the clock since,” says Valgora.

Valgora is one of a growing number of architects and designers across New York City who are churning out thousands of desperately needed face shields each week to protect medical professionals battling the novel coronavirus.

3D printers and other tools that would have normally fabricated design prototypes and building models have been repurposed to craft medical shields, joining grassroots movements across the country to produce desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE). In the five boroughs, where hospitals are facing an estimated need of 50,000 face shields per day, a network of makers has emerged to convert studios into face-shield factories.

In Bushwick, staff at SHoP Architects' prototyping lab have mobilized to convert the firm’s mini-factory into a PPE powerhouse, manufacturing 440 shields per day to send to Weill Cornell Medicine, a medical school and biomedical lab in the Upper East Side. Instead of 3D printing, SHoP is CNC-milling visor bands. This is a technique the company says it has refined, enabling it to go from producing 110 to 440 visors per day.

Fabricators clad in masks and gloves work at the lab in six-hour shifts, all day and all night. They’re producing visor bands adapted from a design created by Erik Cederberg of Sweden-based 3D Verkstan. (This design, without major modifications, is the only one approved by Weill Cornell.) Next week, the firm will ship its first batch of 1,000 shields to the hospital system.

“We were just itching to make something to help when all this started,” says Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner at SHoP. “So we said, we have this little factory; let’s put it to work.”

Courtesy of SHoP Architects

Others who share that sentiment have focused on 3D printing strategies. Valgora, founder of Studio V Architecture, was among the first to join a statewide effort known as Operation PPE. The endeavor, which launched at the fabrication lab of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in Ithaca, New York, began with a dire plea in late March for face shields from Weill Cornell.

Once faculty put the call out to alumni, the effort ballooned with several of New York City’s biggest and best-known firms—including Bjarke Ingels Group, Handel Architects, and Kohn Pedersen Fox—adapting to produce the protective gear, along with many other smaller firms and students.

Valgora, a Cornell alum, has worked to expand that network with a website of resources for makers looking to get involved and by sharing technical advice on a Slack channel with more than 100 users. He’s also collaborating with Illya Azaroff, president-elect of American Institute of Architects New York State, to help coordinate production across the region.

The rapidly-growing effort shows that any New Yorker with technical know-how can help support the city’s healthcare workers, says Valgora.

“People that aren’t from New York don’t realize that this is such a city of neighbors who want to know and support each other,” says Valgora. “What’s exciting about this is it shows that even a small firm can help out, even a student can help—it’s not just the big firms.”

Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

To keep up with demand, designers are innovating to increase production of the protective components. Valgora stresses the importance of following Verkstan’s original 3D design, since it was developed with medical professionals, but it some cases, designers are making enhancements.

Edg, an architecture firm based in Midtown, made a small but meaningful tweak to the visor band, allowing for a tighter and thereby more protective fit. The company has also managed to increase production by some 30 percent due to a handful of careful tweaks to produce 1,000 face shields per day, according to John Meyer, a principal at Edg.

“From a technical standpoint, this is solidly in our wheelhouse,” says Meyer. His firm, which has also launched its own informational website on producing face shields, intends to continue production for as long as there is a need, and perhaps expand the effort to other parts of the country where protective gear is needed.

“It’s not a venture without cost, but the potential human cost of not helping makes the choice clear,” says Meyer. “We are all in this together, and each of us needs to do what we can to help get through this.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said SHoP is 3D printing visors. Instead, SHop is CNC-milling visors. Curbed regrets the error.