What Happens When a “Big Room” Goes Virtual?

Three Strategies to Create an Efficient Hybrid Design Environment

February 11, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: We believe that strong project management drives great design. In this four-part series, we will explore four different and important aspects of project management. The first post focused on accelerated and innovative delivery methods. This post, the second in the series, explores the hybrid design environment. A version of this piece also appeared in Project Management Institute under the title, “Virtual Big Room Keeps a Project Running.”


At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, hospitals were among the organizations most immediately and deeply affected. Because of the immediate action and focus on critical issues—such as upgrading ventilation, building temporary structures and expanding emergency departments—many healthcare organizations were forced to pause construction projects and redirect resources to Covid-related efforts. In a survey of healthcare leaders conducted by Health Facilities Management, 76 percent of respondents reported having delayed one or more construction projects due to the pandemic, while 29 percent reported canceling at least one project altogether.

In our work on Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) hospital expansion project, the pandemic forced the design team, led by NBBJ, to shift from an in-person integrated project delivery model that relied heavily on collocation to a fully virtual work model in a matter of days. Shortly thereafter, the project was put on hold due to the understandable need to focus on urgent patient volumes and other issues. Through strong communication and the use of digital tools and organizational methods, the entire team was able to collaborate in real time, keeping the project on track despite massive disruption. The team’s ability to pivot also allowed the project to restart quickly and efficiently once it was brought back online. Below are three tactics for implementing a productive and successful hybrid design environment.

Create and Implement a Virtual “Big Room”

Project “Big Rooms”—large facilities that support the collocation of the entire project team—are an essential part of integrated delivery, fostering a common purpose, relationship building, as well as speed and responsiveness. Pre-pandemic, the OHSU hospital expansion project was organized around a Big Room environment, relying largely on in person connectivity and teamwork.

While projects benefit from team leadership being on site, the pandemic forced many Big Room environments, including the one at OHSU, to adopt a partially or fully virtual format. This experience has demonstrated that a Big Room doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical location. Just as important as physical collocation is the culture of formal and informal communication, expedited problem solving and shared commitment that characterizes effective Big Rooms. This culture can be built through in person interaction, virtual systems and platforms, or a combination of both, depending on project need.

When the project restarted, the “Virtual Colo” (a nickname for the collocation space), was re-established. This virtual space became an urgent and immediate need when the client requested ideas to support crucial initiatives. The team was able to brainstorm asynchronously and collect the requested information from the broader project team more quickly and effectively using a shared Mural—an online whiteboard tool—and present their findings to the client in a timely and organized manner. While not a replacement for in person collaboration, the virtual Big Room effectively fills the void while social distancing and Covid safety protocols remain in effect.

“Prior to the pandemic, our joint team had a very collaborative, successful in-person collocation project and process. We loved the culture and communication it fostered, so when the decision was made to go virtual, we all hoped we’d be able to replicate the best elements of it,” said Trevor Wyckoff, Vice President – Account Manager, Skanska USA Building. “Thankfully, through flexibility and a commitment from all of the partners, we were able to successfully adapt and recreate the collocation environment in a virtual space, retain the level of communication that occurred prior to the pandemic, and have seen some efficiencies as well.”

The collocation space—or Big Room—on the OHSU hospital expansion project pivoted to a “Virtual Colo” due to Covid-19. While not a replacement for in-person collaboration, the team was able to maintain the level of communication and efficiency that was in place prior to the pandemic through the use of virtual systems and platforms. 


Incorporate Live Models and Virtual Walk-Throughs for Real-Time Decision-Making

In addition to tools for project management and communication, live models and virtual walk-throughs also facilitate real-time collaboration and aid in decision-making. Throughout the OHSU project, the design team used BIM360 to create and share live models, allowing subcontractors and design team members to develop the models together. Laser scanning of existing conditions was also integrated into the BIM360 model, making even more highly detailed information readily available.

In addition, site tours—usually conducted in person—can be conducted remotely using virtual reality or other remote walk-through methods to help broaden a project vision and a shared understanding of possibilities and options. Tools like Open Space—a platform that maps live jobsite photography to building plans—enable virtual teams to do rapid walkthroughs of construction sites to track progress and identify issues. On the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic at the Casey Eye Institute, a neighboring project associated with OHSU designed by NBBJ and built by Skanska, 3D panoramic cameras were used to record construction progress, allowing the design team and contractor to review and track construction remotely. This tactic was also used for jurisdictional inspections, when appropriate, to adhere to safety precautions and social distancing measures.

Use Digital Tools to Streamline the Project’s Workflow

Digital tools such as Zoom, Bluebeam Studio and Smartsheet were in use prior to the pandemic, but an increased reliance on digital communication, project tracking and decision-making has necessitated the use of these tools in new and different ways.

On the OHSU project, the team used Bluebeam Studio—a professional PDF editor with enhanced mark-up tools and collaboration capabilities that enables a more streamlined, interactive review of digital drawing sets—to facilitate virtual quality control page turn work sessions, as well as design and medical planning client work sessions. Interactive sessions were also conducted via Mural to align work and archive information, and to present to and communicate with the Owner. Smartsheet kept the team organized by sharing key project management tools such as pull planning, task tracking and waterfall decision matrices in one portal accessible to the entire team. For example, by translating the analog pull plan calendar that existed in the physical Big Room into Smartsheet, pull planning schedule work sessions could be reimagined as collaborative virtual events.

“Having a well-put-together agenda or slide deck is key for design meetings. Having multiple people on the presentation and documentation side is key—one tasked with notes, one with monitoring the chat and another with operating the presentation. The flexibility to move back and forth is critical,” says Ed Trotter, Senior Project Manager, Design & Construction at OHSU.

In the period since the project was put on hold, the interior functions of the facility changed. As a result, all logs and data needed to be transitioned to support the relaunch process, including phases of the project previously approved for permit as well as in mid-stream of agency review which required updates.  According to the project team, had these documents been managed in a series of separate files, the speed and accuracy of this process would have been compromised—and possibly resulted in a longer offline period for the project. “Continuity of key players has really helped. The team also did a good job of archiving the project for a restart, so much is going well,” says Mr. Trotter.

Accelerated by the pandemic, hybrid and virtual design environments have staying power. The shift to hybrid design environments also illustrates that digital project management and communication tools are highly effective and will complement and amplify the value of in person collaboration. By embracing this new mode of working, projects can be completed faster and more efficiently—without compromising patient, staff or user experience.

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Strategies to Reduce Embodied Carbon in the Built Environment

February 8, 2022

Principal / Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


This post was co-authored by Peter Alspach and Margaret Montgomery

Editor’s Note: As we work with our clients to improve the health of people and the planet, addressing carbon emissions from the built environment is imperative. In this series, we focus on the ethics and economics of carbon-based decision-making, as well as actionable steps to reduce both embodied and operational carbon. The first post served as an introduction to carbon reduction in the built environment. A version of this piece also appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper under the title, “Op-ed: Strategies to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment.”


A growing consumer demand for transparency—especially around sustainability and environmental practices—has implications for industries from apparel to healthcare products. Mars Inc. recently released a cocoa sourcing map to tackle deforestation and increase accountability, and the Fashion Transparency Index pushes apparel companies to be more forthcoming about their social and environmental efforts.

Now it’s time for the building industry, characterized by a lack of information around the materials and practices used in construction and throughout a building’s lifecycle, to catch up. The cost of inaction is too high to ignore. That’s because buildings account for 39 percent of total global carbon emissions. Traditionally, most carbon reduction efforts in the building sector focus on operational carbon—a building’s everyday energy use, which accounts for roughly 28 percent of emissions. The remaining 11 percent comes from what is often ignored: embodied carbon.

Embodied carbon consists of all the emissions associated with building construction, including extraction, transportation, manufacturing and installation of building materials on-site, as well as the operational and end-of-life emissions of those materials. It is also largely “upfront” carbon—the greenhouse gas emissions that are released in the early phases of a life cycle—which means that its negative impact now cannot be reversed later. Most importantly, the magnitude of embodied carbon emissions between now and 2030 dwarfs the incremental impact of operational carbon, therefore, the immediate focus for embodied carbon reductions must be on the next decade.

To reduce embodied carbon in the built environment, the following strategies should be applied across building typologies and sectors.

Select Low Carbon Materials

According to Architecture 2030, concrete, steel, and aluminum are responsible for 23 percent of total global emissions. There is great opportunity for embodied carbon reduction in these high-impact materials through policy, design, material selection and specification. A McKinsey report on embodied carbon in buildings explains, “Two materials may look identical, cost the same amount, perform to the same standard—but have totally different embodied carbon characteristics. For example, a 100 percent recycled-steel beam produced using renewable energy may appear identical to a virgin-steel beam produced using a coal-fired furnace—but have significantly different levels of embodied carbon. Where each steel beam came from and how far it was transported add further complexity.”

Using fewer materials without compromising quality and selecting the right building materials with recyclable content is important to achieving embodied carbon savings. For example, use of recycled aggregates, greener concrete options, reclaimed structural steel, FSC certified timber, or other innovative carbon-negative materials such as plant-based insulation help to sequester carbon and reduce the measured materials’ embodied carbon content. Certified sustainable materials should also be sourced from supply chains that have committed to transparent environmental product declarations and operate a net zero carbon business.

While it can be difficult to discern the embodied carbon in a specific material, certain materials have inherently lower embodied carbon, such as mass or cross-laminated timber (CLT). The use of CLT in healthcare buildings is especially advantageous, as demonstrated in the new Ohana Center for Behavioral Health in California. While hospitals are typically some of the most energy-intensive buildings on the planet due to the use of specialty equipment and the need to operate 24/7, they can benefit from CLT’s low carbon impact and its anxiety-reducing biophilic properties. CLT also lends itself particularly well to modular construction and offsite assembly, which is often faster, more cost effective and more sustainable than traditional methods of building.

The Ohana Center in Monterey, California, redefines the behavioral healthcare environment with natural, cost-effective materials like cross-laminated timber. As one of the largest healthcare buildings to use CLT, the facility benefits from its low carbon impact, its modular components that can be assembled off-site to reduce cost and schedules, and its anxiety-lowering properties. 

Perform a Whole Building Life Cycle Analysis

Life cycle analysis refers to the quantification of an entire building’s potential environmental impact. Conducting a whole building life cycle analysis after material selection allows design teams to spotlight potential environmental issues and identify more sustainable alternatives. Life cycle analyses involve compiling an inventory of relevant material inputs and the associated environmental outputs (for example, climate change) associated with a building, evaluating the potential impacts of these inputs and outputs, and interpreting the results to make environmentally responsible decisions.

As the importance of addressing embodied carbon gains momentum, methodologies and protocols on how to measure embodied carbon in a standardized way continue to emerge. For example, publications that give guidance on and suggest benchmarks and targets for assessing the embodied carbon of buildings and construction materials, or digital tools like Tally, OneClick LCA, EC3, or Athena that can help to accurately calculate embodied carbon. To bring better carbon education and awareness during the earliest phases of our projects, our firm designed Zero Guide, an internal tool that estimates the carbon equivalent of emissions associated with all aspects of a project, providing educated recommendations for how to lower its carbon footprint.

Implement Low Carbon Procurement Policies

For some major materials—for example, concrete—designers can request the embodied carbon footprint information of the mix designs, of which there are many that can meet the design intent if specified by performance requirements. Then, the compliant bid can be selected based on carbon footprint as well as cost, resulting in significant savings. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3)—a free database of construction environmental product declarations (EPDs) and matching building impact calculator for use in design and material procurement—is intended for this purpose. For example, Microsoft’s commitment to becoming carbon negative by 2030 means a reduction in emissions across operations, from buildings to datacenters. The new headquarters in Redmond, Washington, employs innovative energy-saving techniques such as geothermal wells and serves as a pilot program for EC3.

The Thermal Energy Center at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, powers the campus almost entirely through electricity provided by geothermal energy exchanges. The project acts as a pilot program for the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), a free database of construction EPDs and matching building impact calculator.

Invest in Carbon Offsets

In addition to offsetting the ongoing emissions of building operation, the embodied carbon from construction of new buildings or renovations can be offset through a one-time purchase to zero out the construction emissions. Transparency, however, is a critical prerequisite to selecting, analyzing, purchasing, and offsetting embodied carbon.

To effectively reverse climate change and create a healthier planet, carbon-based decision-making is critical. By addressing operational carbon and then embodied carbon in the built environment through low carbon materials, building lifecycle analysis, low carbon procurement policies, and investing in carbon offsets, we can minimize the built environment’s carbon footprint and spark meaningful change.


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Through Their Eyes

How Computer Simulations of Vision Loss Create More Empathetic Buildings for the Visually Impaired

February 2, 2022

Senior Associate, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Alex Almerico and Brian Uyesugi


More than 2.2 billion people in the world are visually impaired, while at least half of these cases—1 billion— could have been prevented or have yet to be addressed. In addition, blindness is expected to double in the U.S. by 2050 due to chronic diseases, like diabetes. For children and adults alike, loss of vision has significant effects on daily life, from accomplishing day-to-day tasks like reading and learning, to overall quality of life and mental health.

To fight against vision loss—and end preventable blindness—the new Oregon Elks Children’s Eye Clinic at the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon,  includes a pediatric eye clinic, as well as centers for retina services, vision rehabilitation, ophthalmic genetics, age-related macular degeneration and clinical trials.

When it came time to design the clinic, the NBBJ team first shadowed patients and interviewed staff about diagnostic conditions in collaboration with OHSU and Casey Eye Institute researchers. The team then used this research to develop custom simulations early in the process that allowed them  to input a specific eye condition and then view proposed designs through that lens.

For example, the models simulated what clinic spaces would look like to young patients with cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, as well for older adults with age-related eye conditions such as macular degeneration. Together, these research techniques were essential to support an empathetic design process that resulted in targeted design solutions to create an intuitive and visually comfortable environment.

The design team used staff and patient research to develop custom simulations to view clinic spaces through the lens of different eye conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and monochromacy and achromatopsia. This approach resulted in a more empathetic design process.

Here is a look at four challenges identified from our research and how the design responds accordingly.

Difficulties with Low-Contrast Colors

Challenge: While patients with macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and low vision have different vision conditions, a heightened sensitivity to low-contrast environments is a common challenge. This means greater difficulty in visually distinguishing colors that are next to one another on the color wheel, or different tints, tones or shades of colors. For example, combinations of red and orange, blue and purple, or dark green and light green, can be more difficult to differentiate for these young patients.

Solution: Enhanced Contrast. To improve navigation and orientation, the clinic utilizes high-contrast materials and colors. For example, design elements like rubber flooring and tile transitions are exaggerated with contrasting colors and textures to distinguish walkways from seating areas. In addition, public spaces such as elevators and bathroom doors are lighter in color to adjacent dark walls, signaling a destination or a public path of travel. Meantime, exam room doors are further accentuated with contrasting, built-in “door mats.” Furthermore, in the entry lobby the greeter desk is cloaked in a high-contrast color, which enhances visibility. The desk also anchors the space with an integrated guide rail that low vision patients can use to navigate to the elevators around the corner.

Bold graphics and contrasting colors and materials—such as high-contrast color combinations and rubber flooring with tile transitions—make it easier for patients to navigate the clinic.

Unclear Signage

Challenge: Navigating the existing clinic was difficult for patients, and it was especially challenging to find the bathroom among a sea of white doors and walls. Patients struggled to read signage and would frequently ask passersby for directions to or assistance with the elevator.

Solution: Bold Graphics. To improve visibility for patients, especially from a distance, signage throughout the clinic is large and high contrast, while graphics and numbers are bold and distinct.  For instance, the optical shop showcases a feature wall, which hosts a welcoming mural with the clinic’s friendly “Casey” mascot, that can be seen from the lobby. A frit pattern on the shop’s glass storefront also helps to indicate the glass enclosure as a barrier and guide patients to the shop entry.

Light Sensitivity

Challenge: The team found patients whose eyes were dilated for their exam waited with their heads between their legs to shield their eyes from daylight and stark white walls.

Solution: A Customizable, Calming Oasis. To provide a soothing, choice-driven experience for patients dilated during their visit, the new clinic features quiet spaces with dimmable lighting. For instance, sub-waiting zones in the children’s exam corridor are programmed with adjustable light settings and gentle, darker colors. Unlike the typical clinic, daylight is minimized throughout and limited to primarily public and staff spaces. The team considered acoustics as well, as patients with eye conditions and patients undergoing dilation can be more sensitive to sound. Playful acoustic panels in sub-waiting zones and in the cafe are inspired by ophthalmological “visual field” diagrams provided by OHSU. Seating areas also feature a dividing wall that creates quiet and active zones, and even hosts a whimsical child-sized opening for young patients to explore.

Dimmable lights and acoustic panels in sub-waiting zones provide a calm and soothing experience for patients undergoing dilation.

Wayfinding Issues

Challenge: The existing clinic lacked a sensory-rich arrival experience to help orient and calm patients, so it was key to create a welcoming entry sequence that offers both a sense of inviting familiarity as well as engaging novelty.

Solution: Textural Variety. A restorative garden adjacent to the clinic drop-off encourages a multi-sensory experience for young patients and their loved ones via textural changes and a tactile wall.  Landscape elements were also selected to build on other senses in lieu of vision. The garden includes a diverse array of fragrant and tactile plants to provide sensory interest—as well as welcoming familiarity—throughout the year. In addition, the team removed all vertical exterior pathway elements such as signs and bollards to create a barrier-free entry, while materials were specified to enhance visibility. For instance, the project uses a darker than typical sand finish to reduce glare and light levels for patients.

By designing with empathy grounded in research that considers  the unique needs of people with eye conditions, we can help our clients better care for patients as individuals—and provide a welcoming and safe space to support them—by first seeing the world through their eyes.


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