Digital Collaboration: Designing During COVID-19

By Michelle Vo, Vice President

Working in isolation is a strange feeling for architects and designers. Our discipline is, forgive the pun, built on the concept of iteration: sharing and critiquing ideas, revising our work, learning from one another, and turning moments of inspiration into viable designs solutions. At its best, the practice of design causes a buzz of excitement and collaboration; in our most frustrated moments, the support of colleagues to critique and question our work can make all the difference in driving ourselves to dig deeper for innovative solutions.

Though the Hennebery Eddy team is working remotely, we definitely aren’t isolated. In fact, we became a fully remote workforce in a single business day and smoothed out minor wrinkles in about a week. To do so, we drew from lessons learned by our aviation projects team, which has a field office at Portland International Airport (PDX), and digital collaboration with partner architectural firms in Denver, Chicago, and the Bay Area and other consultants across the United States and internationally.

Our airport design team has spent the past six years working on the Terminal Balancing project at PDX, navigating ways to make the dispersed team highly productive, finding digital solutions for nearly every project need. While we still touch and feel materials before selecting them and use physical mock-ups to confirm our design solutions prior to construction, the rest of the work is primarily digital.

Our aviation team uses a variety of software solutions including BIM 360, OneNote, Smartsheet, Bluebeam Sessions, and Teams, which allow us to collaborate. The software is complemented by a hardware suite including 360-degree cameras, laptops, iPads, cell phones, and VR goggles. For example, using iPads to video-cast site visits via Teams, we can bring many team members on site with us digitally each week, including the client.

Several steps helped us successfully scale up our remote work solutions to the entire firm:

  • In the years ahead of the pandemic, all employees were issued laptops.
  • At the onset of the pandemic, before any stay-at-home orders were issued, all employees began taking their laptops home each evening.
  • One project team executed a half-day remote collaboration test to identify any hurdles. This test confirmed the need to deploy BIM 360 to all projects, which we did in a single day.

If we could turn back time, we would have increased our office internet bandwidth ahead of needing our entire team to work remotely. We also wish we were using softphones. Fortunately, using BIM 360 has saved us from having serious bandwidth issues, and it helps us collaborate with partner firms and consultants. Many of the software tools we have deployed will remain critical for collaboration after we are able to return to the office, particularly tools that allow multi-user collaboration.

What have we not solved digitally? A way to touch and feel materials – and that’s probably a good thing. When the outcome of our work will be experienced in built form, we must be able to physically experience materials to know for certain how the building will interact with its inhabitants and users.

What do we miss? Direct, in-person connections and shared experiences with our colleagues, clients, consultants, and project stakeholders. As these interactions return, we expect the things we are learning now will make us all more flexible, adaptable, and efficient.