Using Interactive Tools to Facilitate a Virtual Design Process

By Noah Winkler and Danae Sakuma, Project Architects

A Case Study of the Mount St. Helens Institute Master Plan

Transitioning to an entirely virtual design process a year ago presented challenges as well as opportunities. In August 2020, Hennebery Eddy began working with the Mount St. Helens Institute to design a master plan for their environmental education campus at the National Volcanic Monument. Interaction and collaboration are typical of our process, and our team sought to create a similar atmosphere for the master-planning effort using virtual tools.

Pre-COVID client meetings would have involved several large presentation boards placed around a conference room, allowing the client to peruse and discuss different concepts. To maintain that level of engagement, we created three virtual boards in MURAL, a cloud-based workspace that allows participants to individually pan, zoom, and leave notes. The MURAL platform is user-friendly, and meeting participants picked it up quickly. We split into Zoom breakout groups for more focused conversations after an overview of each design concept. Meanwhile, participants continued to view the MURAL boards and highlight design elements by leaving “sticky notes.” Those who attended the meeting said they felt engaged and enjoyed using the interactive program to absorb the content and discuss ideas.

virtual design process tool Mural
Time lapse of a client meeting facilitated with Mural, with participants viewing and commenting on design options

MURAL also helped us improve internal design communication as we refined the concept. We used it as our digital “pin-up” space, sharing precedents, diagrams, and sketches. This created a fluid feedback loop; team members could see in-progress ideas pinned to the board and respond with sticky notes or messages in real time. The pin-up board also made internal meetings more productive. We were able to view progress in one place and use MURAL’s mark-up tools to roughly “sketch” over drawings — virtually mimicking the marker and trace paper process we normally experience in our design studio. MURAL quickly became the preferred tool for sharing and presenting ideas internally and to the client.

As the design team began producing final drawings and diagrams, the fast-paced master-planning process necessitated constant iteration and quick response to internal and external feedback. Everything from material palettes to siting remained flexible as we collected new information and the client solidified their preferences. To help navigate this uncertainty, we turned to Autodesk Sketchbook, a tablet drawing app with Photoshop-like layering capabilities and an endless library of digital pens, pencils, and markers. The app allows users to begin any sketch with an imported image. So, with a simple underlay and the right stylus, the team had an endless supply of digital (and smudge-less) trace paper.

virtual design process tool Mural
The Sketchbook app and a stylus were used to create final renderings
virtual design process tool Mural
Campus rendering created in Sketchbook by tracing over a site photo with multiple layers to add textures

The app became a tool for sketching, coloring, and redlining over plans, sections, and screenshots from the massing models built in Revit. Our team was able to quickly share these iterations through Microsoft Teams and MURAL, react with comments and precedents, and iterate further. The success of this process influenced the team to produce our final sketched renderings using a similar method, embracing the app’s ability to capture the nuances of hand drawing while allowing for easy edits and adjustments. Sketchbook proved vital as a platform for effective design iteration as well as a streamlined tool for production and post-production.

The efficiencies gained with these digital tools helped the team save time and materials while leveraging the virtual design process to produce a more informed final product. With MURAL’s live feedback and pin-up interface and Sketchbook’s quick layering and editing workflow, critical decisions could remain in flux until the team thoroughly understood the client’s desired direction. In addition, the team was able to communicate quickly and effectively with our consultants and the client throughout the process, allowing everyone to work toward shared goals. Going forward, these digital tools can continue to help our design teams facilitate collaborative engagement, even after we return to our design studio and in-person meetings. Ultimately, they will save our clients money and help them achieve the dreams they’ve hired us to design.

virtual design process tool Mural
Cabin rendering, created with layers in Sketchbook, to test interior finishes