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Shown is a front view of the tornado damage
Shown is a front view of the tornado damage
May 24, 2013 7:00 AM CDT

Tornado-resistant hospital takes shape in Joplin, Mo.

New hospital offers lessons in designing tornado-resistant structures


A new hospital taking shape in Joplin, Mo., with an exterior of masonry, precast concrete, and specially made windows, may be the first hospital in the country designed from the outset to protect patients, visitors and staff from the effects of a catastrophic tornado.

The new hospital, to be called Mercy Hospital Joplin, is owned by the Missouri-based nonprofit Mercy Health System and will replace the old St. John’s Regional Medical Center. The old medical center was destroyed in the historic tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011. That EF5-rated tornado was one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded, killing 162 people – including five critical-care patients and one visitor at the hospital.

In designing and building the $350 million replacement hospital, John Farnen, executive director of strategic projects for Mercy Health System, the sixth-largest Catholic health care system in America, identified multiple lessons from the catastrophic tornado. One of the most important was to have a hardened exterior for walls and windows.

During the tornado, the building’s exterior covering and windows failed to withstand the wind and debris of the tornado. The hospital’s exterior at that time was mostly glass; some metal panels; and precast concrete on the main hospital with some exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS), a lightweight synthetic cladding meant to look like stucco. There also was EIFS on the adjacent office buildings.

“When you walked around the areas of the hospital that used EIFS, you could see glass shards stuck in it and pieces of two X fours that had penetrated it,” Farnen says. “Some debris can go right through it.

“The new facility will not be covered with EIFS in any of the patient care areas,” Farnen adds. “Exteriors in those areas will either be reinforced concrete, stone and brick, or precast concrete. The entire exterior skin will be made of a harder material, which will prevent the kind of exterior damage we saw at the old hospital and help prevent the kind of serious interior damage that led to chaos and injuries.”

Farnen says the first and second floors of the new hospital will have exteriors of hand-laid brick. Above those levels the exterior will be precast concrete with brick veneer. He said they would have used hand-laid brick for the upper levels, too, but had to go with the precast concrete in order to meet the project’s compressed timetable. The new 900,000-square-foot, nine-story hospital is expected to be completed in early 2015.

“Brick and stone is just a lot better look,” Farnen says. “Not only does it hold up better in severe weather, but you just can’t beat the look of brick and stone. So, you get a great look and better protection.”

Another lesson learned was to harden and protect backup power sources, and masonry plays a key role in that, too.

“Losing power created a lot of problems for us,” Farnen says. “When the tornado hit, the transformers that provide normal power to the facility were lost almost immediately. So, there was no power of any kind inside the hospital, not even for critical-care areas.

“The new facility will have a separate, central utility plant that will be housed in a hardened structure with storm doors,” he continues. “That structure will be partially buried, and mainly built with reinforced masonry block and brick.”

Farnen also notes that the hardened exterior is no budget buster. It adds only 2 percent to 3 percent to the construction costs. Going forward, he says, Mercy will apply the lessons learned in Joplin to all the new facilities it builds in its four-state service area. Indeed, near the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, the health system plans to break ground next year for a separate behavioural health hospital and a rehabilitation hospital. These also will have the tornado-resistant features.

Originally published in Masonry magazine.

About the Author

Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at


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