A Whole New Office
THE TRADITIONAL OFFICE – PRE PANDEMIC
The Drafting Board
Prior to the 1990’s, which to many of us now seem like the Stone Ages, Architects and Engineers mostly drew on drafting boards. Triangles, T-Squares and drawing templates were the tools of the trade. If you had a drafting machine or a parallel bar, these tools were considered serious professional grade.
Drawing using pencil on Vellum or ink on Mylar were the most effective ways to place your ideas on paper to communicate the design and construction process to the rest of the project team.
The Communication Methods
Back then, everyone’s favorite goto method to converse with someone beyond their visual reach was the telephone. The telephone, which was once seen as one of the most amazing inventions, made it possible for voice communication to occur instantaneously from one part of the world to another.
Next, the fax machine came along. Architects and Engineers would fax what they have drawn on paper to each other to graphically describe what they could not explain clearly on the telephone. The fax machine also made it possible for clients to visually see the design without leaving their office. They can now mark up any changes on the same sheet of paper and fax the revisions back to notify the design team.
But since faxes were limited to letter or at most legal page sizes, the entire drawing set (ArchD, ArchE or ISO A1, ISO A0 were the typical sizes) would still be best reviewed with in-person meetings. So periodically the entire design team along with the client would gather around a conference table to go over the drawing set.
The Delivery System
Since the drawing set is the original and only copy, the design team would rely heavily on reprographic houses to make copies (better known as blueprints) of the drawing set to distribute to various contractors for bidding or to city municipalities for review and approval.
When we need to transport the blueprints to these other parties we would have to contact a messenger service to come by and pick them up (which would be typically rolled up for ease of carrying) for delivering locally within our community.
For destinations that are beyond local driving distances, we would then have to rely on shipping by air or by ground services like: DHL, Federal Express (Fed-Ex), UPS or USPS (US mail).
These were really the only practical and economical methods available to all of us to take our ideas drawn on large sheets of paper, duplicated and then distributed from one location to another.
THE VIRTUAL OFFICE – MID PANDEMIC
The Advancement in Technology
Then around the turn of the century, the advancement in computer technology not only exploded but became widely affordable to every home around the modern world. Computers that used to occupy a huge air conditioned space were now not only condensed to a footprint that’s smaller than the size of a table top, but also very economically feasible to own. There were weekend computer sale events where anyone can walk in and learn the differences between a 386 or 486 PCs. Many of us may still remember the long lines around various computer stores when everyone wanted to get their hands on Windows 95 which touted an all new graphic user interface compared to the black DOS screen operating system.
Next, the World Wide Web (www) splashed onto the technology world like a storm. This major revolution combined with the introduction of the internet made it possible for graphics to be communicated on everyone’s computer screen. No longer do we have to rely on messenger or professional delivery services to transport our ideas on paper. We can now place them as digital pictorial images on the internet for anyone to see.
Then came about the idea of electronically sending mail (e-mail) from one party to another. Instead of picking up the phone and calling members on the design team, the Architect can now, using the internet, send a single e-mail to all the recipients. The design intent can now be attached as a digital file in an e-mail eliminating the need for paper copies.
When the digital file became too large or there were too many files to e-mail, there were companies that offered internet options to save (upload) them for others to copy (download). This made it possible for the design team to easily transfer digital copies of their drawing set into a secured on-line storage location for other team members to access. Some of these companies even provided this for free with certain capacity size limits:
Next, new innovations that reduced the size of the computer footprint made it possible to remove the computer off the desktop. The once large luggage size heavy computer is now the size of both your hands and is light enough to place on your lap. You now can even fold it up like a brief case and carry it with you practically anywhere. Now design professionals can carry this laptop even inside an airplane to complete tasks as they travel from one location to another.
Then came the smartphone. This palm size device promised to bring everything found on the computer onto your finger tips and it delivered. Now you can make phone calls, text messages, access your email, browse the internet and even take high quality pictures all from a tiny device held on the palm of your hand.
The New Digital Architect
Since the turn of the millennium and throughout the past couple of decades during the hardware device revolution, many software enhancements came along for the ride as well. Out went the drafting board and in came computer assisted design/drafting (CADD) software. The de-facto standard CADD program the new digital Architect and Engineer used in the US is Autodesk AutoCAD (http://www.autocad.com). This program at one time took over 13 floppy disks to install onto a single computer running DOS. Then when the CD/DVD became feasible, AutoCAD installation occurred using a single DVD on computers now running Windows. Next, due to the stability and affordability of the internet, the entire AutoCAD setup program is now downloaded directly on-line without a need for shipment of installation media. Autodesk currently only offers the use of AutoCAD to end users with either a monthly or annual subscription program. So for $210/month or $1,521/year, you now can access, download and install the AutoCAD product for professional use.
The popularity of doing everything on the computer continued as the whole Architectural and Construction industry shifted from CADD to Building Information Modeling (BIM). Autodesk struck a chord with Architects and Engineers again this time with Revit (http://www.revit.com) as the BIM software of choice. The new digital Architect now would draw everything as a three dimensional object with all the materials and building information embedded in the Revit model. The Engineers would follow suit with their model making it possible to detect design collisions even before the ground breaks at the job site. Autodesk like with AutoCAD only offers the use of Revit to end users with either a monthly or annual subscription program. So for $305/month or $2,425/year, you can access, download and install the Revit product for professional use.
When creating a three dimensional building on the computer is still insufficient for the client to visualize the space, next came virtual reality (VR) walk-throughs of the digital model. Oculus Rift (https://www.oculus.com/rift) offers very affordable VR headsets. At under $300 per VR headset, clients can put these on & instantaneously step into a virtual world where they can sense and feel the building even before being built.
Connecting the New Remote Architect
It is during this time when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Governors of all 50 states in the US and leaders of many countries across the globe all issued orders for everyone to stay home and all businesses (except those deemed essential) to remain closed to “flatten the curve” on the infection rate of this disease. With design professional offices closed, Architects and Engineers now must learn to work remotely from home. The past couple of decades of technological enhancements especially with the use of the internet have actually paved the way to make working away from the office a reality.
i. Virtual Meetings
What became immediately apparent was the need to seek a workable solution to continue to have face to face conference meetings with staff and the design team but virtually instead of in-person meetings. Internet access has now also matured to the point that practically every home has it installed with fairly stable and fast broadband speeds. Over the internet virtual conference meeting apps have also been around for a number of years and used within the office to make virtual presentations. These are a few of the more popular programs:
- Cisco’s Web-Ex (http://www.webex.com)
- GotoMeeting (http://www.gotomeeting.com)
- Zoom (http://www.zoom.com)
These program prices range from $12 to $15 per month. During the pandemic they even offered some free options. So armed with this solution, the digital Architect can now setup and host virtual meetings on-line via the web. Design teams along with the client can now meet without ever leaving their homes. They can see each other using either add-on web cams or with built-in cameras on their laptops, tablets or smartphones.
ii. Office Data Access
Another major challenge is remotely accessing the valuable digital files that have been growing and stored safely within the confines of the office. Now that staff is unable to come into the office, they must be given options to access and work on these digital files from outside the office environment.
Firewalls are typically implemented as a piece of equipment (hardware) to prevent outsiders from breaking in to steal or worse case destroys ones digital files. Our office has invested in a company called Sonicwall (https://www.sonicawall.com/) for a number of years as our firewall stopgap. For a new business class Sonicwall firewall that includes 2 years of technical support and updates, you’re looking at a cost of $5,000. In addition to keeping intruders out, firewalls also provide a method to let permitted users in. Setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) makes it possible for our staff to use their own personal computer from outside the office, connect via the internet, enter through the firewall and access the digital files stored on the network server. But file access speeds will definitely be slower using this method. Depending on internet speeds, what may have taken seconds to open when in the office will now take a bit longer to open over the internet using this VPN solution.
Using Remote Desktop Services or RDS (this used to be called Terminal Server) makes it possible for staff to connect to a single device in the office to run programs and access network data. In addition to the hardware costs, you’ll have to pay for a Microsoft server OS license and the number of seats to access the server simultaneously. To learn more about RDS just hop onto this site: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-server/remote/remote-desktop-services/welcome-to-rds. Staff would still first need to make a VPN connection using their personal computer then execute Remote Desktop (RDP) client to access the RDS. RDP is a free app that comes loaded on the Windows OS. But since programs and data network access all occur within the resources on the RDS, this eliminates the lag that may occur using the VPN solution. Staff wouldn’t need to wait for files to transfer back and forth between the office network and home computer to be worked on. Furthermore, since the programs are already installed and running on the RDS, there’s no need for the same programs to be reinstalled on staff ’s personal computer.
We have staff that have slower computer devices at home and want access to their more powerful workstations in the office. The Chrome Remote Desktop (CRD) app (https://remotedesktop.google.com/access) makes this possible. This free app would first need to be installed on the staff ’s office workstation using the Chrome web browser. Staff will need a Google account for the security sign in credentials and then assign a pin code to the office workstation for remote access. Once the setup completes, the office computer just needs to be left on with Chrome running. Staff should leave the office workstation locked but not signed out to prevent others from accessing it while they’re not in the office. Next, again from within the Chrome web browser running on a personal computer or install the matching CRD app running on a tablet or smartphone, staff just needs to sign in to the Google account and they can select their office computer, enter the security pin and establish a connection remotely into their office computer. The CRD solution allows staff to remotely access their office workstations as if they’re actually sitting in the office.
iii. Data Sharing & Collaborating
Since we have 3 offices around the globe, this brought up a need to make sure the network digital files are the same files regardless from which office they’re being accessed. During the stay at home order, we have implemented the use of the following methods to make sure sharing of the same data files are possible.
1. Synchronized Drives
We researched and found a fairly economical method that allows our digital files stored in all three offices to be synchronized as one. This way when files are updated or changed in our Los Angeles office, the same files in our Amsterdam and Manila office are automatically updated. Our global staff now can always access the latest and greatest files. The company we ended up going with to fulfill this wish list is called Morro Data (https://www.morrodata.com). Morro Data utilizes the speed of the internet and very affordable appliances they call cache drives installed in all three offices to make this happen. The smallest cache drive is only the size of your hand and the cost is dependent on file size capacity needed. The greater the digital data capacity you want synchronized the greater the cost. For under $1,000 you can purchase the smallest cache drive size of 1TB. Since each cache drive is warrantied for 3 years, you would need to budget for a purchase replacement after three years. The cache drives deployed in each office are set up to work together as an organization. So when data is copied onto one of the cache drives, the others joined to the same organization will automatically synchronize and receive the exact copies. File access & locking is based on credentials defined in our network’s Active Directory. Morro Data also charges monthly fees to maintain the 1TB caching at $200 per office. We’re considering phasing out our on-premise network servers so we can put our future investments in Morro Data’s cache drive technology.
2. Microsoft Teams
Often staff need to work on the same Word or PowerPoint document but are unable to because someone else has the file opened for editing. Amongst a number of other benefits of Microsoft Teams, having multiple staff work (collaborate) on the same Microsoft Office document at the same time is a major feature benefit. The entire organization will have to sign up for a Microsoft 365 account in order to use Microsoft Teams. The cost for a typical Microsoft 365 account is $10 per seat per month with an annual commitment. As for Microsoft Teams, this still can be used for free but may change in 2021. You can read more on various Microsoft Team options here: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/microsoft-teams/compare-microsoft-teams-options. Like with Morro Data, you can use your Active Directory to setup all the accounts. Then when you launch into Microsoft Teams, you’ll need to create a team, add staff members into the team and then you are ready to collaborate on Microsoft Office documents.
THE NEW OFFICE – POST PANDEMIC
The Traditional Office Expectations
Before the pandemic the traditional Architect was accustomed to leaving the home and entering an office building to go to work. While in the office he or she would be physically seated most likely within arm’s length next to other co-workers. The employer when hiring the employee has every reason to expect the employee to be physically working in the office. The employee also has the understanding that a minimum of 8 hours a day of working in the office with an hour of lunch is expected from Monday to Friday. There may be a break from being expected to be in the office on Saturday and Sunday. Then, the work cycle repeats. This meets the employer and employee traditional office expectations.
The Virtual Office Realizations
Then when the pandemic hit the now digital Architect had to make adjustments to continue to work effectively. There was a major paradigm shift from working physically in the office to successfully working remotely from home. Flexing the speed and stability of the internet and taking advantage of the technological advancements, the digital Architect soon realized he or she can actually work from anywhere. Instead of working “9 to 5”, the realization now is working at any time and from anywhere “24/7”. Garnishing on the various on-line meeting and presentation apps offered, the digital Architect can host and join virtual meet and greets from within the comforts of home. There is no loss in productivity due to time spent traveling from one location to another for meetings. Deadlines were not only met but even completed well ahead of project schedule. Instead of a drop in productivity, the digital Architect came to the realization that there are great gains from working in the virtual office.
The Whole New Office
As businesses slowly re-open, there are many challenges facing the success of running the office. Some offices have chosen to revert completely back to the traditional office because that’s what they’re comfortable with. Other offices after experiencing the success of the virtual office have chosen to continue to let their entire staff work remotely. But perhaps there will be those offices that want to merge the traditional with the virtual and come up with a whole new office. Now with the new social distancing office requirements perhaps different shifts can be implemented. Staff can have alternating schedules where they come in to the office to work for a couple of days and then work remotely from home for another couple of days. Perhaps various compensation packages could be offered placing the option of working from home on the table compared to working in the office. Hopefully the whole new office will be seen as one where it provides more advantages and benefits for the Architect and the entire design team.
Paul Li graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor degree in Architecture. He has worked in the Architectural field for over 32 years. For the past 26 years he’s worked at STIR Architecture with headquar-ters in Los Angeles. His focus has always been discovering new and im-proved methods to implement cutting edge technology to enhance collaboration in the Architectural industry. Paul can be reached for comments and questions at Paul_Li@STIRArchitecture.com.