Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell

Managing Partner, NBBJ, @SteveNBBJ
Steve McConnell is the Managing Partner of NBBJ and serves on the Board of Directors that governs the firm. He joined NBBJ in 1990 and was named a partner in 2003. Steve oversees NBBJ’s Design Practices Futures committee, ensuring that the firm’s design practices lead the industry in innovation. Through his leadership, he has fundamentally shaped the culture and process-driven design approach of NBBJ to create new value by integrating research, collaboration, interdependent client relationships and the cultivation of innovative ideas.

Virtual Reality: The Architect’s Next Great Productivity Tool

NBBJ Is Incubating a New Virtual Reality Start-up Named Visual Vocal. Here's Why.

January 9, 2017

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was coauthored by Steve McConnell and John SanGiovanni and originally published by DesignIntelligence.

Virtual reality (VR) is transforming businesses and dominating media headlines as the technology becomes increasingly popular and surpasses $6.5 billion in annual revenues. Yet that number pales in comparison to what is predicted for the future: research shows that by 2025, the industry could be worth $110 billion, a 1500% increase.

Today, VR is synonymous with companies like PlayStation, Oculus, Vive, and Samsung, who have used the technology to develop devices and experiences which are focused primarily on entertainment. Meanwhile, the use of augmented reality, VR’s “sister technology,” is also on the rise as demonstrated by Nintendo’s Pokémon GO, which became an international sensation and boosted the Japanese company’s stock price to its highest level in six years.

Another area where the potential of VR is just now being realized is the construction industry, which accounts for $8.5 trillion globally in annual revenues. While development and building construction represent a small proportion of VR’s overall use today, we surmise that its market share will grow at a rapid pace as architects, developers, general contractors and clients become more familiar with its use. In fact, we predict the next generation of VR tools in development now will make the overall real estate industry more productive, efficient and engaged in the design process.

The Creation of Visual Vocal
That is why, earlier this year, NBBJ began incubating a new virtual reality startup, making it the first architecture firm in the world to do so. Called Visual Vocal, the namesake of which represents the core features of the project — visual and audible communication — the company is one of the first to actively pursue a new productivity platform through virtual reality.

The need for the tool is simple. Architects deal with complex visual datasets such as renderings and drawings. But getting those files into the hands of clients is difficult not only because of their size, but also because they are not often legible to people outside the profession. As it stands now, there is not a tool that can sufficiently communicate design intent in an immersive three dimensional format and easily collect feedback.

Here’s how the tool works. Let’s say a major healthcare system hires an architect to design a new hospital. Under the current methodology, hospital stakeholders — which could include executives, facilities managers, doctors and nurses — would meet with the design team at regular intervals, reviewing drawings and renderings to determine if the project is headed in the right direction. When changes are made, it would then take architects time to redo the design and present new options.

With Visual Vocal, a new process emerges. Using the tool, stakeholders would download an app on their Apple or Android smartphones, attach an inexpensive pocket-sized folding viewer to the screen, and immediately immerse themselves in a fully-rendered 3D environment that shows different versions of the hospital.

Users would be able to visualize major spaces throughout the new healthcare facility and, while doing so, select preferred design options and outcomes. At the same time, users will also be able to listen to embedded audio of architects narrating the design so users have a greater understanding of its concepts and intended outcomes.

During these processes, stakeholders can also use their own voice within the VR system to annotate more detailed feedback to the design team. The system also offers a patented “Immersive Survey” feature, to quickly capture feedback from very large groups of stakeholders. Best of all, clients can experience what the project will feel like, and provide their feedback, anytime, anywhere.

Project leaders using the tool are no longer required to be in the same place or even the same time zone in order to experience a project’s design and provide feedback. This feature alone could be a major time saver for busy executives. On the back end, the Visual Vocal tool allows user feedback to be quickly tabulated, calculated and organized in an easy-to-understand system that can be accessed in real time by the design team.

Driving Better Value for Clients
The benefits of this new way of doing business are numerous. First, the tool is a way to increase collaboration between members of the design teams themselves and, importantly, between the architecture firm and its clients, subcontractors and other consultants. Second, the tool saves time and money, by reducing the number of meetings required to come to a design consensus. Finally this approach makes the design process more inclusive and enjoyable for all participants.

Because everyone has a smartphone and downloading apps is easy, the Visual Vocal tool gives architects the power to solicit feedback from hundreds or even thousands of users. For example, while the tool might be used on a corporate headquarters project by only a select group of company leaders, a waterfront redevelopment project for a city could allow the tool to be accessed by hundreds of people. Citizen engagement has always been important, but it is especially so today, and the Visual Vocal tool gives governments and community organizations the power to solicit feedback from people everywhere.

Looking Toward the Future
Since its debut in May 2016, the Visual Vocal team has grown its staff from 2 people to 10 and has secured seven figures of venture-backed funding. As partner and investor, NBBJ has helped the company develop, test and refine the product and is in the process of integrating the mobile-based VR platform on projects in the US and Europe. These projects range from a large technology headquarters in the US to a research lab at a prestigious university in the UK. Beyond Visual Vocal’s architectural collaboration platform, the venture sees vast opportunities for its core VR communication technology as the landscape of Virtual and Augmented Reality continues to expand. Forthcoming innovations will only make VR communication patterns more commonplace, such as Google Daydream in late 2016 and AR systems like Magic Leap in the future.

Later this year Visual Vocal will be available to the industry at large. The architecture industry is ripe for innovation, and disruptive technologies that bring greater productivity to the process of design should be encouraged. By making this tool available to many, it has the potential to boost the output of all architecture firms, thereby increasing the industry’s relevance to clients around the world.

What’s next for Visual Vocal and VR in general? After expanding to the architecture industry at large, the team will develop similar platforms for other industries that could benefit from its application, including aerospace, manufacturing and even molecular biology. In the meantime, look out for VR on your next architecture project, and see how it can make collaboration more effective and engaging than ever!

Steve McConnell, FAIA, is managing partner at NBBJ, named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, and the architecture firm of choice for tech companies by Wired. John SanGiovanni is CEO and co-founder of Visual Vocal and a serial entrepreneur, strategist and inventor, having founded three ventures and co-authored more than 20 patents in the areas of AR, VR, and mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Driverless Cars Will Transform Things You Never Expected

Nine Ways Life Will Change When Automated Vehicles Become a Reality

May 18, 2016

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Monday, Alan Mountjoy reported how BMW is planning for a disruptive future; on Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles. On Thursday, Alex Krieger looked at the potential downside of increased congestion.

 

We are on the threshold of a once-in-a-century shift in the nature of cities, as driverless cars take off and car-sharing programs continue to expand. We asked several designers at NBBJ to predict how driverless cars will transform our cities, and here is what they had to say:

 

Sharing

People think they are going to buy a driverless car. The reality is they will be buying a service and not an actual car. The service will be like Uber but without the driver. GM just invested $500 million into Lyft. The idea is GM builds cars and you pay GM for a car to come pick you up. No parking needed, and the car just keeps going. Think of a service where you fly to Denver, get out, and a car picks you up and you don’t rent a car. Worldwide service. Perhaps that’s why my daughter said she does not want to learn to drive. She is almost 10. In the six more years it will take to get this up and running, she might just get her wish. Pretty cool.

Dan Ayars, architect

 

Valet Pick-up

With drivers — Uber, taxis, food deliveries — the car arrives before we get away from our desks and down to the curb. So imagine queues of driverless cars all lining up at 5:00 to pick up employees at the end of the day. The cars would still need on-street parking spaces or off-street valet areas to queue. If they are shared vehicles, then maybe less space is necessary, because my colleague takes the first car and I get the next one — but if I own my driverless vehicle, then I will care which one I get! If that space isn’t curbside, it’s in the first level of a parking garage or in a well-designed alley. Either way I still anticipate queueing and congestion.

Kim Selby, planner and urban designer

 

Affordable Housing

One UC Berkeley study found that every shared car, like a Car2Go, removes nine to 13 vehicles from the road. In an above-grade urban parking structure, imagine what could be done with 12 out of every 13 parking stalls! Millions of square feet of valuable space, already built within our cities, will become available as a platform for affordable housing.

The problem with affordable housing is that no one can afford to build it. But parking structures are already built, so the cost of constructing the primary structure is already accounted for. These are high-quality concrete structures, and we all know how popular it is to repurpose existing buildings into housing. Affordable housing is something most cities are struggling with, but if they suddenly had this massive, found resource? That’s when affordable housing becomes affordable.

Steve McConnell, architect

 

Adaptable Garages

We need to start designing buildings that can transform themselves when the evolution to driverless cars occurs. The parking structure itself requires new design solutions. If we begin to institute flat-plate floor layouts with higher floor-to-floor dimensions, garages can be transitioned to creative office space, loft residential units, unique retail destinations or even boutique hotel designs in the future, when the demand for parking decreases.

We should also look at mechanical parking solutions that separate the driver from the automobile upon entry. This would result in less built space for parking and ease the transition to other uses, but so far the cost of mechanical systems is difficult to rationalize and, more importantly, the time required for car retrieval is burdensome. Regardless, we need to address innovative planning and parking solutions today, with an eye on the future, to allow us to move quickly to accommodate coming trends in urban living.

Rick Poulos, architect

 

Public Transit

One concern about driverless cars is whether public transportation will benefit. Equitable access to jobs and services by means of public transit is one of the most important things the city does, yet many cities are seeing a drop in the use of public transportation with the advent of Uber, Car2Go and similar services.

Having said that, public transit agencies that implement driverless buses will save a lot of money on both labor and, potentially, bus storage costs. Services like van pools for seniors and others with mobility problems could become more cost-effective as well. These savings should be reinvested in research, infrastructure and design to improve public transit.

Cities could also charge a congestion fee for single-occupancy driverless cars entering the city center (London and some other cities charge similar fees now). The money generated from this would go towards funding public transit, and it would create a less congested inner city to make that public transit more efficient; this isn’t even contingent on driverless cars, but could incentivize people to take transit today. Regardless, cities need to join the conversation around driverless vehicles now, so this new service doesn’t just benefit the wealthy.

Amy Taylor, urban planner

 

Pollution

The primary source of air pollution caused by automobiles is the particulate matter (very fine dust and debris, including particles of tires and brake pads) they throw into the atmosphere while traveling on both paved and unpaved roads. Cleaner air standards have helped mitigate the air pollution caused by exhaust fumes, but particulates still remain a primary source of air pollution, especially in urbanized areas like Tucson, where inversion layers are a major factor. So it’s safe to say that driverless cars, even if electrically powered, will still contribute to air quality problems to some degree.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner

 

The Power Grid

To be truly marketable on a mass scale, driverless EVs will require us to rethink our existing infrastructure to account for more frequent and accessible recharging stations. Our cities will experience greater demand by EVs not only at the home, but at the job and every location in between: airports, passenger ferry terminals, churches, stadiums, shopping outlets, national parks, vacation resorts and more. The grid system as we know it today will demand more transmission facilities and upgrades to existing substations at the district level, in order to account for more power-surge requirements at peak periods at the local level.

Couple this expanded demand with new renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, solar thermal heating, wind power and geothermal, and the future energy model will likely require expanded energy fields, in addition to an increase in local and district-level distribution infrastructure. How we plan for this new grid system, as our cities grow taller and more dense, will be a question for city planners, utility providers and land owners alike.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner

 

Car Culture

American society is so automobile-oriented, with status, image, fashion, machismo, control, speed and independence wrapped up in car ownership. An automobile is a mechanical extension of oneself. The space within it is the driver’s personal space, and the manner in which it is driven is an outward expression of each driver’s personality and, often, of masculine power: revving engine, squealing tires, laying on the horn, hard stops.

Driverless cars would largely take this “power” away, making our automobile culture less aggressive, more civil and more polite. They would create an orderly transportation network where every vehicle maintains its own space (no tailgating, no cutting another vehicle off), operates at mundane, optimal speed and efficiency (no revving, no jackrabbit starts, no wheel-squealing), and delivers its passengers benignly to their destination. Driverless cars, by turning power and control over to the machine, would “emasculate” the culture of driving. Probably for the better.

But what about those who continue to drive human-controlled vehicles? When they know that autonomous vehicles will respond safely and without resentment, will they drive more aggressively? What traffic laws, if any, will be necessary to keep aggressive drivers from taking advantage of a newly safe, efficient, emotionless transportation network?

Kim Way, urban designer and planner

 

Parenting

As a parent, would I put my middle-school student in a driverless car and send her off to soccer practice by herself — one less chore for me to do after work? I’m not ready to allow her to go anywhere unattended in a driverless car, for many reasons. What would she do if an accident happened? (And they have, already.) What if it was possible for her to redirect the car and go somewhere else? Who chaperones her arrival, the soccer coach?

And that’s just with older kids. Until they are eight years old (in Washington State, anyway), how do you deal with car seats and booster seats, strollers and kid paraphernalia in shared, driverless cars? You would have to carry everything with you before the car drove away. Many of these devices can be quite bulky — they would have to be redesigned, or offices, shopping centers, restaurants, etc. that cater to families would need to provide storage areas on-site. Did we just replace the need for a parking stall with lockers?

Kim Selby, planner, urban designer, parent

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

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Computers Will Design
Our Cities

How Architects Use Computational Design to Build a Better World

September 2, 2013

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

We live in a time when computing power is redefining the ways companies make money, and people experience the environment around them. Big data and sophisticated computation allow business leaders to make more informed bets on the future. Likewise, architects, engineers, planners and designers use the latest computing methods to design smarter and more innovative environments.

Architects who embrace computational — or parametric — design tools are changing the science of design. Computational design allows architects to gain a much better understanding of how their ideas will work in reality, whether on the scale of a city, a single building or a single person walking into that building. It helps to quantify measurable factors, from cost to energy consumption to social impact and more, while also addressing aesthetic concerns such as artistry and meaning.

Consider three examples:

  1. Buildings are significant consumers of energy. By nearly every estimate, they account for more than 33% of total global energy use, and up to 67% when considering all the resource-consuming devices and systems within those buildings. Computational design can reduce that impact by scientifically predicting the outcome of “passive design solutions” — factors that cut energy consumption, such as materials which retain or give off heat, or devices which shade against the sun and reduce the need for air conditioning. Architects have no excuse for designing buildings that haven’t carefully considered energy management in a passive way. And the payback is enormous thanks to immediately lower energy costs, which can then be factored over the life of the building.
  2. Computation can also lead to efficient stewardship of construction materials. For instance, at NBBJ, the firm I work for, we used parametric design tools to calculate the most efficient structural system for a stadium in China, which resulted in a 65% reduction in steel used compared with similar facilities. In the face of high worldwide demand for steel, conserving resources in this way is not only ethical from a sustainability perspective, but it also makes good financial sense.
  3. Designers are in the early stages of using parametric tools to enhance local communities at the micro scale of an individual building and the macro scale of an entire city. Architects can build a hypothetical urban plan in a computer model and then change parameters (block size, zoning regulations) and the distribution of public spaces (parks) to run simulations that predict the likelihood and pattern of future investment. By altering the parameters, planners can fine-tune a plan to encourage economic development and innovation, while making it as easier for people to meet one another and form social bonds. Computational design determines not just how to allocate resources, but how to construct the social fabric of a city that is healthy, safe, meaningful and inspiring — that’s when this tool becomes truly transformative.

It’s often said that the architectural profession is slow to evolve, but right now a radical change is unfolding in how design firms can be relevant and valuable. There will always be a role for creative intuition when architects interpret the results of computational design. But the architecture firms that will be leaders in delivering a better tomorrow are those that can marry the art of design to the science of design.

This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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