bKL face shield

A friend of bKL Architecture models a face shield created in the firm's Aqua Tower studio

bKL Architecture is making face shields, and hundreds were donated in April to the medical industry to help protect health professionals from COVID-19.

Operating 10 3D printers around the clock at their design studio in the Aqua Tower, the firm is fabricating and assembling the personal protection equipment with help from a team of employees and volunteers.

“Since our office is closed, it seemed like a good idea to start fabricating these,” bKL employee Andrew Tyson said.

The main components of the shield are fairly common items: an 8.5 x 11-inch transparent sheet of acetate, like the ones used in overhead projectors; and a hair tie, like the ones that you can get from a place like Walgreen’s. They attach to frames that are formed by plastic threads fed through the 3D printers, which are normally used to print miniature architectural models.

Under normal circumstances, Tyson spends his days transforming bKL’s architectural plans into scale models for client presentations. Now he and a few volunteers work in an office that is essentially empty due to the stay-at-home orders.

To maximize personal safety, the volunteer teams consist of a bKL employee and the spouse or roommate of that employee. They spend most of their time assembling the shields.

The process involves separating the individual frames, which are connected to one another when they emerge from the printer, and punching holes into the acetate where the hair tie “straps” bind the pieces together.

Tyson estimated it takes an average printer “about two hours” to create a single frame for the face shield. “One printer can print twelve masks in 24 hours,” he said. “We let them run all night.”

Fully functional

According to Dr. Carina Yang, a New Eastside resident and University of Chicago Medicine, Department of Radiology neuroradiologist, the results are worth the effort. She described the equipment as “fully functional” after receiving a sample from bKL founder Thomas Kerwin.

“The face shield is a piece of plastic that hangs in front of your face and helps to stop droplets coming at you,” she said. “It’s got an elastic strap that is adjustable, and the plastic across the forehead is very smooth.” With proper cleaning, she noted that they should be reusable.

By Dr. Yang’s estimate, approximately 20 interventional radiology faculty, trainees, and staff currently work at the hospital each day. They perform minimally invasive, imaging-guided procedures that are often essential for the wellbeing of patients.

A large number of other radiology staff who perform x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and are also at risk of exposure to the virus. The “extra layer of protection” added by the face shields is a welcome addition to their standard equipment.

The radiology staff are “very close to the people who might be infected,” she said. “They help set up chest scans. They’re in these x-ray and CT scan rooms right next to the patients, helping them get in position and hold their arms in a certain way. They have to really get in there.”

Besides enhancing employee safety, Dr. Yang believes the equipment provides a priceless morale boost.

“Part of it is feeling that someone did something to help,” she said. “Not that doctors normally need a lot of thanks, but in these times when people are ignoring social distancing guidelines and certain governors elsewhere in the nation are not espousing stay at home orders, it helps.”

We’ll make more masks

According to Tyson, there’s a lot of help to go around. He acquired the print file for bKL’s face shield design from Chicago’s artistic maker community, a group of do-gooders who actively share open-sourced information with people who need it.

“From the second this crisis began, they started working on stuff for healthcare workers,” he said. “Face shields, respirators, and a whole plethora of safety equipment that can be made by hand.”

The community rallied around bKL’s initiative by funding the purchase of six of the machines through a gofundme campaign. “Our initial goal was to produce 100 masks per day,” Tyson said. “Now, we’re producing up to 130 per day. If we can purchase any more printers, we’ll make more masks.”

When the health crisis ends, bKL intends to donate the printers to the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Public Schools, both clients of the firm.

To support bKL Architecture’s COVID-19 Face Shield Initiative, click here.

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