In the Era of the Mega Project, Technology and Research-Based Collaborations Drive Innovation

Though COVID-19 has affected our world in many ways, it has not derailed the design and construction of many large university and hospital campuses, mixed-use commercial centers and stadiums. As these structures continue to rise, it’s evident that the era of the mega project is upon us.

Compelled by clients’ desire for enhanced efficiency, the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries are facing a turning point in the creation of high-performing places — a turning point that calls for meaningful partnerships and a commitment to leveraging technology. The design and delivery process is changing to meet the demands of mega projects, expanding to include big rooms and research and development-driven collaboration.

“Project delivery has evolved for more fluent and cooperative service providing in design and construction to make for better outcomes,” said HKS Principal Jim Whitaker, Director of Government and Alternative Project Delivery. Whitaker leads some of the firm’s most integrated, stakeholder-intense projects, design-build and public-private partnership endeavors that contractually stipulate more collaborative delivery approaches than traditional design-bid-build projects.

“We are completely comfortable doing design as a live performance art in front of a fully integrated team of engineers, specialty consultants, construction contractors and trade subcontractors and other third-party stakeholders,” Whitaker said, emphasizing HKS’ long history of delivering complex projects.

We are completely comfortable doing design as a live performance art in front of a fully integrated team of engineers, specialty consultants, construction contractors and trade subcontractors and other third-party stakeholders.

Collaborating in Physical and Virtual Big Rooms

Job site trailer compounds and ‘big rooms’ where contractors, engineers and client representatives work together are common settings for HKS architects and designers. Typically organized under a charter that outlines parameters for how various stakeholders will combine efforts, big rooms enhance relationships among architects, engineers, contractors and clients from many sectors including aviation, health and higher education.

“It’s a shared leadership model in a precisely timed dance. Everybody in that conversation has got something meaningful to contribute that matters at the moment that it matters the most,” Whitaker said.

Large projects particularly benefit from the big room approach. Often encompassing multiple structures, hundreds of thousands of square feet and demanding extra budget and time considerations, they require unparalleled coordination.

To deliver San Francisco Airport’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1 Boarding Area B, which opened in 2019, HKS worked out of a 200-person big room on airport grounds throughout the project lifecycle, starting during early design phases. The SFO big room charter document — like many others used in the field — outlined communication protocols, decision-making responsibilities and stakeholder roles. Fulfilling her position as “governor” of the HKS team, designer and project coordinator Faten Abdullah interfaced with representatives including other designers, engineers, construction contractors and airport officials on a daily basis. She believes one of the biggest perks of a big room is increased efficiency.

A broad range of stakeholders work in the SFO big room, where over 200 people including HKS employees collaborated to deliver the aiport’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1, Boarding Area B.

“Being in the same room with all the different disciplines and contractors was a great advantage. You can just walk right up to a consultant, ask a question and resolve an issue in no time,” Abdullah said.

The SFO big room helped break down communication barriers commonly found on complex projects and increased the speed at which the team could deliver the world-class terminal — a crucial factor for a client with rigorous goals for guest experience, revenue and sustainability.

“Design charrettes and coordination meetings were held on a regular basis, which helped the project move forward faster,” Abdullah said.

For Ahuja Medical Center in Beachwood, Ohio — a two-building expansion next to the original greenfield hospital HKS designed more than a decade ago — HKS Principal and Director of Health Lynne Rizk and her colleagues worked in big room settings during early design phases. Rizk noted big rooms are a “great way of gaining consensus” and that collaborative decision-making means “everyone has ownership for the result.”

Component teams comprised of individuals from the owner’s representative, HKS, consultant groups, the construction manager and sub-contractors met on a weekly basis and planned to move closer to the hospital just before COVID-19 hit last year. When the pandemic forced project teams to work in a fully digital environment, HKS and its collaborators took the big room virtual. Moving component team meetings and large convenings online, the virtual big room exchanged sticky notes and in-person conversations for digital pull planning tools and video conferencing software.

“Everyone adapted to it,” Rizk said. “There are electronic ways of doing the same thing that we did in the room. We learned a lot of lean ways to work…we learned to be more efficient because we had to,” she said.

The project, which opens in 2023, stayed completely on track. Rizk says the team “didn’t skip a beat” in carrying out user and client meetings for the remaining schematic design, design development and construction document phases virtually. She believes that the client was satisfied with the transition to remote working and even experienced unexpected savings on air travel and hotel expenses for the project team.

Rizk hopes other HKS clients will see that it’s possible to design and deliver even the most complex projects in a digital environment. Though she believes virtual collaboration is here to stay, she doesn’t want it to “take away completely from the personal connection with the client” because it’s an important part of a collective process that helps a team meet project goals successfully.

Building High-Performing Teams Starts Within

Mega project delivery — whether it happens in a big room, a traditional setting, or via an alternate delivery model — starts with assembling adaptive, high-performance teams with people that complement one another’s strengths, Whitaker says. HKS strives to build more successful, balanced teams, in part by creating new technologies.

In recent years, HKS’ Chief Technology Officer Cory Brugger has worked with colleagues to develop a proprietary platform and process to track and advance employees’ technological skill sets. He believes that innovative design solutions are not about technology itself, but rather how architects leverage technology to better serve project outcomes. Brugger says that when staff members are familiar with design and delivery tools, then assembling teams and developing a delivery strategy can be a creative, rewarding exercise.

Innovative design solutions are not about technology itself, but rather how architects leverage technology to better serve project outcomes.

“It’s being able to shuffle the ingredients to make the recipe right for the project,” Brugger said, adding that delivering high-quality projects with consistency is foundational to HKS’ mission.

With more than 170 programs ranging from business development and project management software to energy modeling, design and 3-D visualization tools at our disposal, HKS can assemble teams that best accommodate clients’ desired skill sets and collaboration methodologies — teams that can better meet the goals of complex projects.

When the Tools Don’t Exist, Create Them

Opportunities to develop new tools and build relationships abound on mega projects. In designing and delivering SoFi Stadium, the new landmark Los Angeles-area arena set to host the 2022 Super Bowl — HKS created a new design application and an unprecedented delivery methodology.

For the stadium’s perforated metal skin, HKS’ Laboratory for INtensive Exploration (LINE) developed a custom computational tool that could handle the complex geometry of more than 36,000 uniquely sized metal panels when off-the-shelf software couldn’t rise to the challenge. The custom tool allowed the design team to create a massive digital model, an accurate virtual version of the physical skin.

In creating the state-of-the-art skin of SoFi Stadium, HKS developed a patented delivery methodology for stamping and sealing digital models.

“The closer we are in the virtual environment to the physical environment, the more information and accuracy we have to predict, coordinate, communicate the intent of a project,” said Brugger, describing the value of a data-rich digital model.

The technological innovations taking place with SoFi Stadium’s design and delivery would not have come about without observations made on another large HKS sports project — U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which opened in 2016. LINE’s Director, HKS Principal Heath May learned then that the value of a model ‘greatly superseded’ the value of paper drawings, which require more interpretation by contractors and fabricators.

The SoFi Stadium design team approached the California Board of Architects to consider accepting a digital ‘model of record’ so the skin could be fabricated with the most accurate specifications. After extensive discussions and documentation, the Board approved the request. May said no one had ever used digital models as an official instrument of service before.

The complex building skin came in under budget and on time. May and Brugger agreed that without trusting partnerships — the fabrication team at Zahner Metals worked with HKS and the client every step of the way — the new ‘true digital delivery’ process would not have been possible.

HKS recently patented the methodology to digitally stamp and seal architectural documents and has licensed the intellectual property to startup company Concert BDC, a move Brugger says aligns with HKS’ goals of advancing architectural practice and the AEC industries at large.

“We know the needs from our peers, our collaborators and the stakeholders in our projects,” Brugger said. “It made sense to invest in bringing it to market.”

Embedding Research and Collaboration in Many Different Ways

Mega projects like SoFi Stadium present exciting opportunities for collaborative research and development, serving as a laboratory to advance new ideas shared by both clients and designers.

“[Larger projects] can be more like academia, where we can go from one year to the next and study something,” May said.

In actual academic settings, complex projects are plentiful, and universities have big ideas for how the research and design can go hand-in-hand. For example, the Detailed Project Program for the University of California, San Diego’s North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) design competition included a mandate to provide a piece of original research related to the project. The University’s central mission of advancing research aligned with HKS’ research and outcome-driven design methodology.

Project teams at NTPLLN streamlined delivery in later phases of the project by employing big room-style coordination, further exemplifying the many types of collaboration a complex project necessitates. Working closely with design-build partners at Clark Construction Group, the HKS San Diego office expanded its footprint to accommodate a shared space where teams could effectively see through all final aspects of the project’s design and construction ahead of its Fall 2020 opening.

The rich partnership that developed between UC San Diego and HKS led to the establishment of the NTPLLN as a living-learning laboratory, a formalized research coalition with on-going studies and another large project currently underway: the UC San Diego Theater District Living and Learning Neighborhood.

To deliver the UC San Diego North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, HKS and partners worked in a collaborative big room environment.

Contributing to the Full Project Life Cycle Brings Value

Through long-term partnerships, performance modeling and post-occupancy evaluations, HKS is continuing to expand into earlier and later phases of the project life cycle. Brugger believes these services, along with a robust collection of data and qualitative information, create additional value for clients and improve our ability to complete large-scale projects.

“We’re trying to move in the way of historically-proven models, where we leverage data and benchmarking on past projects to inform how we make decisions in the future and how we advise our clients,” Brugger said.

With every mega project we design and deliver – from SoFi Stadium, which hosted its first game last fall to Sun Yat-Sen Hospital in China, one of the largest hospitals in the world set to enter early planning stages soon — HKS project teams endeavor to use every tool in our toolbox, make new discoveries and build lasting relationships.