Q&A: Building a Great Big Room

Left to right: Raj Daswani, Stuart Eckblad, Laurel Harrison, Cindy Lima, Pete Caputo.
The Integrated Center for Design and Construction at the UCSF Medical Center project.
Left to right: Raj Daswani, Stuart Eckblad, Laurel Harrison, Cindy Lima, Pete Caputo.
The Integrated Center for Design and Construction at the UCSF Medical Center project.

Do you need to co-locate to co-create a virtual model? That is the question project teams often pose as they embark on the virtual design and construction process. While having the right people available and involved at the right time to co-create the model is crucial for a successful project, co-location may or may not be necessary depending upon the project’s size and scope.

However, on large-scale projects, having all project participants working together in the same “Big Room” can be extremely beneficial. Just ask the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay project team, which has been co-located at the project’s Integrated Center for Design and Construction (ICDC) since May 2009—17 months prior to construction start. Following are insights from UCSF Medical Center project team members:

What were some of the goals of setting up a Big Room?

UCSF is known for innovation and leading-edge work, and we chose to deliver this project in the same fashion. We wanted to create the ICDC to bring all parties together, maximize efficiency, reduce cost and deliver the best project we could.

Cindy Lima, Executive Director, Mission Bay Hospitals Project, UCSF Medical Center

The ICDC really gave us the opportunity to enhance collaboration by integrating the different firms in one place around one problem. The key here is really two words: collaboration and integration. This is a seven-year project; it’s hard to keep the momentum. And I think that our delivery model has really done well to keep the interest and motivation for people and being able to work differently.

Stuart Eckblad, Director of Design and Construction, UCSF Medical Center

What are some of the benefits of having a Big Room arrangement?

As the executive in charge of this project, it was important to me to be able to constantly monitor and have a feel for how things were going. So the benefit to me, personally, of having the contractor, the architect and our team as well as the construction manager in the same place working together, collaborating, was really to be able to be part of the process. If this work was happening in a distributed fashion, there’s no way I would have been able to observe and make my own assessment of how things were going. Once we started the Integrated Center for Design and Construction, or the Big Room, we were able to get a handle on the costs, and in the end, we were able to drive at least a $100 million out of the project through the combined and collaborative teamwork of the people designing in the ICDC.

Cindy Lima

How did team communication in the Big Room differ from a traditional project environment?

It’s great to have immediate access to everybody…and it also is good just to appreciate what your colleagues are going through in terms of peaks in work versus slow times, knowing when the right time to ask questions is, when to sit down and have long conversations, and when to say, “Hey, I just need to talk to you about something later.” Really having an appreciation for and developing a sort of single-project culture and social life around the project that isn’t about individual organizations—it’s more about the whole team together—makes it much easier to have team goals rather than individual goals.

Laurel Harrison, Architect at Stantec Inc.

At the very beginning of this project, I was a little bit skeptical of whether or not this Big Room concept would work and whether or not it would really break down the boundaries and improve communication, but I think, having gone through it, I’ve actually seen a real difference in how people communicate with each other and the way change is communicated on the job, which I found to be very beneficial.

Pete Caputo, Principal at Cambridge CM, Inc.

What are the keys to a successful Big Room?

One of the keys to making ICDC work is not just getting them in the same room, it’s really about working out a process for how do you make decisions. When you get 18 different firms in a room, it can be pretty complex. At the same time, you also want to get rid of the whole aspect that you have 18 different firms. They have to operate as one virtual organization.

Stuart Eckblad

Really having everyone at the table is refreshing. Everyone having an equal say in how to achieve this kind of mission that was handed to us is really quite interesting, where the client essentially says, “This is our goal, you guys come together and figure out how to get it done.” And we came together, and I think we did.

Raj Daswani, Associate Principal at Arup

To do this really effectively, it requires a cultural shift from everybody that participates. The client has to want to do it, they have to believe in it and understand the benefits of it, the contractor has to and the design team has to…having a reluctant party, even only one reluctant party, can really throw the thing off. But if everybody does buy into it and believes in the idea, then, yes, I would recommend it.

Laurel Harrison

What are some of the lessons learned from this Big Room experience?

The earlier I think you set it up in the concept of the project, the better off the project is going to be.

Pete Caputo

Initially, we didn’t bring our entire team out here. Our architects are very interactive with our entire office, and we all are very used to bouncing ideas off on each other all of the time…when we started in the Big Room, we started with a partial presence, and that didn’t work at all.

Laurel Harrison

What I would do differently is spend more time upfront working with the people coming on board to align, for example, how is group decision making really going to work?

Raj Daswani

First of all, I would absolutely use this setup again. I think it was incredibly productive. It allowed for relationships to develop, and that allows people to solve problems and get through the challenging times together. If I were to do something differently, I think it would be to try to jump ahead and…set up the systems a little earlier.

Cindy Lima

For more information, view the video?“Building of a Big Room: Rapid Integration?for Enhanced Project Delivery”?at