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Whiteboards, Workshares, and Walkthroughs: 3 tool types for remote collaboration in architecture

By Sam Giglio

          As we near the end of 2021, it’s clear that changes in our work strategies implemented over the past couple years are here to stay.  At Allume, we’re back in the office full time.  To provide a contrasting example, though, I have a friend whose employer has elected not to renew their pre-pandemic lease. While opting out of a physical office entirely may seem like an extreme example, it’s illustrative of the variety of approaches being taken right now. But some version of remote work is probably here to stay: 72% of respondents to this slack survey expressed a preference for a hybrid office-home work approach going forward.

          But what about architecture and design, specifically? A lot of efficiencies can come from the ability to sketch something out with someone sitting across from you. Design is such a multifaceted and dynamic process and I think the hesitancy to embrace fully remote solutions, on some level, is very understandable. However, I think that even in a fully traditional office environment, and even in architecture and design, collaboration technologies have some definite benefits. While I was finishing up my graduate degree and teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, I was only able to contribute to projects in the office thanks to some of these technologies.

          Can remote collaboration technologies really capture the efficiencies and energies of sitting across the table and working through the problem? I think a targeted approach is necessary: applying the right tool in the right use case is crucial. Some workflows are best used internally to maximize our efficiency working with each other and our consultants. Other tools might be best for communicating effectively with our clients. For this reason, I think it’s most useful to break down the problem into three broad categories that make it easy to understand which tools to use and when to use them: whiteboards, workshares, and walkthroughs.

 

Whiteboards

          The first of these broad categories is white boards. In the traditional sense, what are whiteboards good for? Well, they’re really good as a blank slate to draw or write information. This makes them extremely flexible. Use of them is only limited by what you can draw or depict. That’s why I think this class of tools is really good for communication internally among designers, particularly in early conceptual stages.

          Many of the programs in this category are either free or offer the majority of their features for free with the ability to upgrade later. Additionally, the idea of a whiteboard is really easy to understand and access. These digital counterparts are no different: often, all you need is a web browser and you can have a shared drawing surface with any number of users. This makes it really easy for a group to place sketches, draw on them, and even link to precedents or other online content to help elaborate the design concept.

          This flexibility does come with a downside: the blank surface can be very intimidating in the same way as a blank piece of paper. This is why I think these tools are often thought of as being for beginners but really best in the hands of those that can visualize and draw their ideas. While anyone can place PDFs or images on the boards, the true power comes from sketching over them in the same organic way that designers are used to in the office. One tradeoff, though: the lightweight web browser configuration that supports this process means that there aren’t any inherent modeling capabilities. Designers will need to go back to their CAD or BIM software after the meeting to implement design changes to their project files.

          Apps in this category include MIRO, Mural, and Whimsical. After creating an account, users can create a new whiteboard and invite collaborators. Some of these apps have board templates to choose from like calendars, mind maps, or flowcharts. Personally, I prefer to start with a blank board most of the time. From here, basic tools enable users to draw, annotate, and create shapes and diagrams while linking tools allow you to upload images, PDFs, or videos from local, cloud, or URL sources. When compared to the amount of content we’re physically able to have on our desks all at once, going back to a physical plan table actually feels kind of limiting in some ways. The most effective method I’ve found to keep it all organized is to  have different rows of content for each project I’m working on. Then, I’ll add content from left to right with dates for a sort of project timeline.

The platforms have a limit to the number of boards or items users can have active at once with a free account, but the digital space is so big, especially when zoomed out all the way, that the free versions are great for most purposes.

Workshares

          If whiteboards are quick and flexible, workshares are more involved and powerful. They’ve actually been around for quite a while in the local sense: worksharing has been one of the strengths of software like Revit for years now. However, AutoDesk’s BIM360 platform has seen a lot of improvements in the past couple of years due to increased demand during the pandemic. Now, a lot of the same local workshare and synchronization services of Revit are available in the cloud.

          Being integrated with the modeling software means that they may not be as accessible as the web solutions mentioned earlier: each user needs to install the software and have a license or seat. But the good news is, computers that can handle Revit can probably also run BIM360 without issue. And because it’s Revit native, there is no need to redo work after a meeting because it all takes place within the main project file. For this reason, I think this type of application is best used in situations with the design team and consultants in later project phases.

          The biggest downside here is that, like the core Revit package in relation to other modeling software options, Autodesk’s BIM360 is really the standout option with very few alternatives. It can take a while, then, to get used to the particular ways that the software wants to handle worksets and synchronization. Users check out groups of model objects to edit like books at a library. In this way, no other user can accidentally edit something that’s checked out by someone else. Sometimes, the combination of this process with various internet communications can cause errors. However, it’s gotten a lot more reliable with recent updates.

          Allume project manager Christiana uses BIM360 daily in collaboration with other architecture firms and engineering consultants. She emphasizes that frequent communication with collaborators is key. If there is ever a bug with how the software tries to synchronize different users’ work, good team communication helps us catch it sooner. Collaboration tools certainly aren’t a substitute for solid communication strategies.

You can check out a demo of the software here. Note that this post doesn’t even get into the construction management aspects of BIM360 in relation to PlanGrid, ProCore, and other project management workflows. This topic could (and probably will) require its own post at a later date. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on design-side communications and workflows.

Walkthroughs

          Speaking of design communications, anyone who knows an architect well knows that we can very easily slip into what sounds like its own language. I’ve seen it happen to me and almost everyone I’ve worked with: because we take our visual and spatial thinking skills for granted, the strategies that we use to communicate with other design professionals can’t be the same ones we try to use when communicating with our clients. Different strategies require different tools. Walkthroughs are a very effective way to approach client-side design communications.

          I think walkthroughs come with several common assumptions that prevent them from being utilized more. I think the above commentary on professional communication strategies is one of them: if I can read plans, and you can read plans, and we need plans to get the permit, then why produce another deliverable? Interior renovations rarely need to go to planning review, and not all clients need renderings for marketing or fundraising purposes. So is it just an extra service that the client is expecting and the architect will have to eat the cost of? I don’t think so.

There is a persistent idea that creating visualizations like this takes intensive time and resources. These assumptions come from experience: every architect, even most young ones, have horror stories of meticulously rendering still images in school, spending all night on one image just to have a rendering fail or Photoshop crash. The good news is, rendering engines have gotten a lot better even since I was in undergraduate school a few years ago. Programs like Enscape or Lumion can produce quality renders in minutes. And these are no longer just still images: flyovers or walkthroughs take a few hours maximum. Especially with building information modeling, the time it takes to assign the correct materials to surfaces for rendering is greatly reduced.

As mentioned previously, traditional renderers like Enscape or Lumion are standouts in this category. Allume uses Enscape frequently to render still images and walk clients through models. As a plugin for Revit, it can even create standalone files or web links that we can send clients. This means that, even though we have to have the software installed to view the walkthroughs, our clients don’t have to: the process can be as simple as emailing a link to explore it.

A more cutting-edge software, IrisVR, does require each user to have the software installed, but with some powerful upsides: multiple users can stand in the model together and annotate different objects. Even without a VR headset, the ability to walk through the building with a group allows the team to get a sense of scale and notice details in a way that still renders can’t provide. For most cases, only one subscription is necessary for everyone from the team to enter the model. The one caveat here is that the process requires a bit of setup that can be intimidating for first-time users. I still think it holds value for use with clients, though, which is why I include it here.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most lightweight way to get a sense of space is probably a panoramic tour software like RoundMe or Matterport. All that’s needed to get started is panorama images of a building or design. Panoramas of existing spaces can be generated these days using the standard camera app on most smartphones. Additionally, various plugins for Revit (such as Enscape) can generate them from models. From there, it’s as simple as uploading them to Matterport or RoundMe and linking them into a tour using buttons. Pretty much any computer will be able to run these tours in a web browser. Matterport has been around in the real estate industry for a while now, but RoundMe is a great free alternative to check out for smaller projects.

 

Conclusion

          Whether Allume is working with other architects, consultants, or clients, we always try to stay up to date on the latest tools; it’s one of the ways that we strive to bring the latest and greatest to our clients. And even though we’re back at our Elm Grove offices, we’ll continue to approach each project as a unique opportunity. The more tools we can have in our toolbelt, physical and digital, the better we can serve our clients. So whether you are thinking about your next building project or you’re a designer interested in more info about whiteboards, workshares, and walkthroughs, reach out to Allume. We can help answer questions and discuss next steps to help make your idea a reality.

Please note: Allume Architects, LLC is not affiliated with any of the software solutions mentioned in this post. This post does not constitute an endorsement of a particular product or service. Allume will continue to stay current on the latest tools in order to provide the right workflows and solutions to each client and project.

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