The workplace has radically changed since COVID-19 began darkening offices in every corner of the globe. Multinational architecture and engineering firms facing 2020 realities are looking for ways to unify around shared design DNA and culture from remote settings—and to maintain the personal relationships critical to pulling any institution though a historical crisis.
The technical infrastructure to deal with limitations imposed by a pandemic has long existed, but until now, firms have leveraged it at varying levels. For three large architecture and engineering firms—Woods Bagot, CRB, and Buro Happold—the challenge in 2020 is continuing workflow and supporting firm work culture absent physical infrastructure, a task that’s both interpersonal and technological in nature.
Architecture firm Woods Bagot has 16 offices and 1,000 staff members spread across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. “As a global company that has multiple studios, the idea of transitioning 1,000 people in 16 studios to 1,000 people in 1,000 apartments wasn’t that difficult,” says Shane Burger, the firm’s global leader of technical innovation. “The bigger change was how to keep up the cultural traditions that we have.”
These traditions include Friday afternoon cocktails and Monday morning meetings, which recognize birthdays and team milestones. For workable substitutes, the firm has been hosting Zoom and Microsoft Teams social happy hours, some with themes (pets; trivia; and Woods Bagot history, of which there is a lot—it was founded in 1869).
Woods Bagot has drawn on existing digital networks to keep the company marching together. Its DI (Design Intelligence) Portal, for example, is an internal Instagram-style social-media network. It’s a snapshot of what’s being designed across all offices; users can follow interest groups, designers, hashtags, and studios, as well as tag people to bring items to their attention. It’s an opportunity to “have their ideas be more promiscuous,” Burger says. “There’s a sense of equity, community, and involvement that’s still there.”
Perhaps the most significant technical advancement spurred by work-from-home constraints is widespread migration to cloud computing. CRB, whose 1,200 employees in 20 offices across North America and Europe specialize in the design and engineering of biopharmaceutical and food-and-beverage production facilities, has long embraced cloud collaboration—but the pandemic has allowed teams to codify existing best practices and explore the extended capabilities of tools they were already using.
For example, the company uses cloud-enabled Autodesk AutoCAD Plant 3D and P&ID and began migrating projects with imminent deadlines into the Autodesk BIM 360 cloud in mid-March. “We had a plan in place to move all of our projects there this year, but COVID rushed that timeline,” says Technology Director Todd Williams. By April, all new CRB projects were being uploaded into the cloud.
CRB also uses internal social networks across its 18 offices in the United States and Europe, using Microsoft Yammer “like an internal Facebook,” Williams says. “We rolled that out to help people while they’re sitting isolated at home, to reach out and connect with interpersonal stories about their day-to-day life—pictures of their dogs, stuff like that.”
Global engineering firm Buro Happold has used BIM 360 since 2014; 40% of its US projects were already hosted in the cloud before COVID-19. By the end of February, Paul McGilly, associate principal of digital design at Buro Happold’s New York office, along with the company’s IT group, put together a work-from-home plan and migrated all remaining US projects to the BIM 360 cloud. “The infrastructure was already in place; all of our engineers had been allocated laptops and screens and assigned BIM 360 licenses,” he says. “By the time it became clear that we were in a pandemic, we were already working in the cloud environment, so it was business as usual.”
McGilly ran benchmarking tests to determine if migration to the cloud and working from home had an impact on engineers’ productivity. He found no performance drops while accessing models in the cloud while working from home. For example, on the Revit server, it took 30 minutes to three hours to open a model, depending on its size, and 10 minutes to synchronize updates across a VPN connection. With the BIM 360 cloud, it took one to three minutes to open a model and 20 to 30 seconds to synchronize.
Full-scale migration to the cloud has also been a boon for client communication and collaboration. For most projects, Buro Happold shares BIM Revit models and construction drawings, and it coordinates with clients through the cloud. This collaboration methodology was used on its first integrated project delivery (IPD) project, the Engineering Research Center at Brown University, which won the 2018 Autodesk AEC Excellence Award for Building Design of the Year.
Transitioning to remote work requires changes beyond the digital realm. Woods Bagot, CRB, and Buro Happold accelerated getting laptops to staff with the outbreak of COVID-19. Burger says his firm sent out computer monitors and chairs, as well. With new laptops in extra bedrooms or on kitchen tables, “things like ergonomics begin to become more important,” he says.
With travel restrictions, architecture and engineering firms are looking for ways to gather the site imagery and context critical to producing quality design. Finding ways to remotely evaluate far-flung building sites has become more important and more difficult. Woods Bagot is using point-cloud scanning and experimenting with drone photogrammetry. Buro Happold uses tablets to record site inspections or live-feed walk-throughs. Recently, CRB began using Microsoft HoloLens augmented-reality (AR) smart glasses with Dynamics 365 Remote Assist for site inspections and punch lists at 30 facilities so far. The glasses allow sharing and manipulation of images, plans, and models; immersive views of walk-throughs; and remote audio communication.
For Buro Happold, there are still plenty of punch lists to push despite the economic downturn. The firm has 1,900 employees in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, with 300 staff members in the US, which McGilly expects to double in the next three years—growth that will evolve differently post–COVID-19. “How do we deal with that?” McGilly asks. “Do we lease additional office space? The industry’s changing. It may never be the same again. We see remote working as a way to continue to grow but in a smart way.”
Even so, Buro Happold is cautiously making plans to reopen its offices, based on local and building guidance. “Staff will use an app to reserve desks, as the office will function at reduced capacity for now to follow social-distancing guidelines,” McGilly says. “This way, we give our staff the option to work from home or come to the office. The wellness of our staff is first and foremost, and this flexibility ensures a healthy and happy team who will continue to deliver world-class projects.”
Buro Happold’s global offices have seen the productivity gains from their US counterparts in BIM 360 adoption and have already accelerated the migration of their own projects to the cloud, which should be completed this year.
“Looking further, we see opportunities to integrate our open-sourced coding platform BHoM [Building Habitats object Model] with BIM 360,” McGilly says. “This will enable us to more efficiently mine project data from a central source.”
Burger says he’s less interested in defensive design measures to deal with COVID-19 (like clumsy public social-distancing spacers) and more interested in finding ways to increase the flexibility of spaces to live, work, and play—to “take more ownership of our spaces so that they become more multifunctional.” Woods Bagot’s “AD-APT” proposal offers large movable furniture walls on tracks through the middle of a space, defining a flexible series of rooms that can expand and contract as the day goes on, accommodating work, rest, and recreation.
Determining exactly how much studio space the company will need to bring this vision (or any project) to fruition is something of an open question. And disseminating how to reopen workplaces safely will become its own area of specialized design knowledge, Burger says. But once Woods Bagot and other firms answer these questions for themselves, they’ll offer this expertise to clients.
“What does your office look like now?” Burger says. “We need to prioritize the spaces that we use that are most conducive to human-to-human conversation. That means collaboration. It doesn’t mean everybody sitting at a desk staring at a laptop anymore. Those collaborative ideas will become the most dominating aspect of our physical studios because desk space is no longer going to call the shots.”