The world’s response to COVID-19 has generated a lot of new experiences. People working from home have been learning to juggle the demands of work and homelife while everything—spouses, children, and meetings—are squeezed into the same space. Essential workers in grocery stores, warehouses, and other public spaces have had to implement new safety and social distancing measures, such as wearing gloves and masks or standing behind newly installed plexiglass while continuing to provide valuable services.

How firms and clients interact on projects has also undergone changes, too. Recently, one of GBBN’s healthcare project teams shared a novel experience with its client as they led a series of tours through a physical mockup of a patient room for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s expanded behavioral health facility in Cincinnati.

Full-size room mockups are not new. They’re regularly used to solicit feedback from clients, especially in healthcare settings, where the repetition of unit types makes mockup production economically feasible. By enabling doctors, nurses, and other end-users to move within a space, rearrange its walls and furniture, and simulate possible scenarios, mockups help identify pinch-points and efficiencies that are harder to see in a drawing before final design is set.

What was new with this recent set of mockup tours was that social distancing required the architectural team to direct the tour from off-site. While small groups of Cincinnati Children’s staff—properly suited up in personal protective equipment and observing safe distances—visited the mockup in an unused, off-campus storage space, the design team’s presence was delivered through a laptop that design/build partner, Messer Construction, rolled around the space on an office chair.

This set-up introduced certain challenges. Beyond occasional connectivity issues, the view through the laptop was quite circumscribed and required nimble camera work to keep the conversation along with any explanatory gestures from drifting offscreen. Fortunately, with Messer onsite, we could still encourage the Cincinnati’s Children’s staff to explore the space, by circulating through it, rearranging furniture, simulating patient interactions, etc.

With adjustments to the notetaking process (one person led the tour, asked questions, and recorded responses in a Word document; another marked up the plan; and another annotated screenshots of the live feed) and a conscientious effort to summarize each tour’s findings to those present, we were able to gather excellent feedback to inform our design.

In fact, there were some ways in which the virtual process improved feedback. While the firm moderates its usual, in-person process to ensure that all voices are heard regardless of group size, the small groups for the adjusted tours allowed different care teams to explore their points of view more deeply. Running the tour five times over the course of a week also enabled the design team to have more focused discussions with unit teams and hear the unique concerns about how the room would need to address for their patient population.

The process did require the design team to take extra steps to build consensus. For example, normally the team would conduct a single review of the mockup with the whole group and moderate a discussion of conflicting comments, resolving them with ranked-choice voting during the session. In this case, we could not build consensus live because the whole user team was never together. So, after finishing the set of tours, the team circulated modified drawing options along with an online ranked-choice survey of proposed changes by room component to clarify client priorities as they came to a final layout decision.

Helping clients explore the possibilities of a space in person is an invaluable process, but the disruption in our usual mockup routine has given us something to think about. In particular, we’ve seen the value of a more interactive notetaking process that’s part of the conversation, allowing our notes to help our clients think through their concerns in real time.

We also came to appreciate the use of online surveys instead of live voting to resolve disputed issues because they allow clients more time, free from group dynamics, to consider the questions while enabling us to provide alternative details. Finally, we have a new appreciation for the depth of insight that clients can generate when they’re kept together with their care teams. Though we look forward to being back onsite with our clients, we’ll look for ways to integrate these discoveries into our regular mockup practice going forward.

Angela Mazzi, FAIA, FACHA, EDAC, is an associate principal at GBBN (Cincinnati). She can be reached at Zachary Zettler, AIA, LEED AP, is an associate principal at GBBN (Cincinnati). He can be reached at