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Pandemic challenges and solutions: Leveraging the virtual design studio

December 21, 2021

Ask an Expert: Assembling a virtual design studio to generate and evaluate design ideas proved that remote collaboration is a powerful tool

By Andrew Burnett and Lee Warren

This article first appeared as “Ask an Expert: Leveraging the virtual design studio?” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 13.

Working from home while pursuing a design-intensive opportunity might not sound ideal. But as architect Andrew Burnett and project manager Lee Warren discovered, remote collaboration can be a powerful design tool. Andrew and Lee talk with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly, about the remote process.

Some digital design collaboration was already being done by our global teams in BIM environments, though not from home. Has the pandemic accelerated this opportunity to explore designing remotely?

Andrew: Definitely, but honestly, none of us had a choice. For designers, there is constant evolution in the way that we work, we’re always adapting to new technology that reshapes our workflow. The pandemic really put fuel in the tank for that change. 

Virtual design studio concept rendering for tower project in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

We were surprised in that things worked so well. Technological capability is always increasing, but some of us worked under the assumption that we can’t completely trust technology. That it could fail us. Then, 22,000 people go remote in one week and wow, everything is working. We could see the value of the investments in IT infrastructure.

In the Miami office, work resiliency became critical after experiencing Hurricane Irma. We gradually switched almost everyone to laptops so we could work remotely after a storm event. So, for us, that working resiliency was already in place.

What have you learned from this year’s remote collaboration?

Andrew: As designers, we assumed that it’s not possible for us to work remotely and be creative. We rely on interaction with each other, feeding off each other’s energy and trading sketches. We assumed that we’d be unable to bounce ideas around remotely and that the design quality could suffer.

Instead, it’s been a success story. We’ve had to be our most creative during what we thought were the worst possible conditions for a design studio. We have been tested, thrown off balance, but it’s put us in a stronger place. The virtual design studios and charettes that we held proved that working remotely was not the worst condition for a designer. There are aspects of it that sharpened the designers. Most importantly, you spend more time on communication, so it becomes more conscious, purposeful, and crafted.

Tell me about the moment when you realized that you needed a virtual design studio.

Andrew: We were working on a very large, multi-tower project in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a developer, doing site-test fits. They planned to hire another firm as the design architect and to retain Stantec as the architect of record. We helped the client look at that original design proposition and rationalize the program, the parking, and the pricing. Eventually the client realized that the scheme they had would never work.

The client knew us for our infrastructure work in New York, but we had to show them we could produce iconic design. They said, “you always make us look good. We want to give you the freedom to design. Make it inspirational, compelling, and design something that makes sense to build from a financial point of view, then this four-tower project in Fort Lauderdale will be yours.” But there was a twist, we only had a week to deliver.

Of course, we said no problem, we can do something in a week.

So, what did you do?

Andrew: We thought the best thing we could do would be to get as many people involved across a larger virtual design studio as possible—to generate a lot of different ideas very quickly. I paced around my backyard making calls to put together a team. We tapped our teams from the Winnipeg, Manitoba, and San Francisco, California, studios, plus our teams in Miami and in Orlando. Everyone jumped right in on a Friday. On Monday, everyone hit the ground running. By Wednesday, we were showing early design sketches and options to get client feedback. We developed those ideas through the weekend and presented it on the following Monday afternoon.

Concept sketch produced by the virtual design studio team.

We developed three options. Eventually, we narrowed it down to one and developed the program, metrics, and renderings. We sold our client on the idea and continued from there. There’s no way you can get that creative diversity from one mind, one place, or even one studio—especially in that amount of time. No one had to do the heavy lift alone.

How did the client react?

Andrew: Our client told her partners that she was impressed with the work, and it made her feel like she did when she was in architecture school. That’s what we want to project—that moment when we’re open to other ideas, most curious, and most productive. If you can approach your design with that creative curiosity, combined with wisdom and experience, then you have a powerful design studio.

Are there pros and cons to a remote studio?

Andrew: The downside of a Teams meeting is that I can’t read body language as easily. But on the positive side, it’s a bit like The Masked Singer in that you’re not seeing the person as much as you’re seeing the work and you’re hearing the voice. You can focus on the work.

We have a round robin of 8 to 10 people showing work, each presenting for a minute or 2. You find strength in their ideas that isn’t always there in person.

As a company, we’re built to work this way, to leverage the deeply talented individuals we have around the globe.

How did you guys standardize the presentation of these ideas?

Lee: When we first kicked off Fort Lauderdale, I thought I’ve got 10 designers, this is going to be chaos. I need to put some things in place where they can just color within the lines. We decided early on how to present the project—11-by-17 inches on a digital screen—plus some interesting ways we would present the floorplans and the hardline work. We told our designers they could draw freehand and scan or photograph it. Do whatever you want, but we need something we can show in the first round of ideas.

What kind of process did you put in place to make sure that this would happen?

Andrew: Lee treats the design process as a deliverable and working remotely tapped right into that.

Lee: Right away, you put yourself at the last day and say, alright, what am I delivering? How are we going to get there? What are the absolute necessities along the way?

Andrew: Process engineering from a design mind was critical. We needed someone who could see how to go from that blank piece of paper to presenting a design in a week. Lee was fantastic at creating a process and setting up a schedule for daily deliverables to keep us on track.

During this chaotic flurry of activity, we needed someone to think about design who understands the detours you need to take to arrive at a design. He made us focus on the message and organize the parts that support that message. 

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Virtual design studio concept rendering. “There’s no way you can get that creative diversity from one mind, one place, or even one studio,” Andrew Burnett says.

How did this process affect the early career designers?

Andrew: It was amazing to see them contribute. They were emboldened by this way of working, and realized that when they put more forward, it was welcomed. That sort of nurturing environment is good for developing young designers. It gives them the confidence to move quickly with a design, to put something out there, and to develop an idea as a team. It also created an alliance and communication between the older generation of designers who have the experience and the younger generation who are driving the applications, and that allows ideas to flow more quickly.

If we go back to the office tomorrow, what do you take from this that makes us better?

Andrew: Certainly, the inter-studio design charettes and collaboration will continue no matter where people are. We’ve done this several times now. As a company, we’re built to work this way, to leverage the deeply talented individuals we have around the globe. We’re building networks that are strong because we see each other collaborating, thinking about ideas, goofing off, and celebrating our design successes.

Those connections aren’t going to go away, and so as project opportunities come in, we may choose to put together a design effort alongside our proposal and fee. Let’s put up the “bat signal” and see who responds to come up with some ideas. That will stay regardless of whether we’re all in the office together or not, because we’ve tasted it now.

 

About the authors

Andrew Burnett leads hospitality and residential project teams from Miami, Florida, approaching design with the belief that design can be profitable, buildable, and beautiful.

Based in Miami, Florida, Lee Warren excels at shepherding boundary pushing projects at the forefront of design technology from inception to ribbon cutting.

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