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.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Follow nbbX