Virtual Meetings Enhance Design of University at Buffalo Medical School

HOK designers in New York, St. Louis and Atlanta are using virtual meetings with their University at Buffalo (UB) client team to improve the design process for UB’s new School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The seven-story medical school will bring 2,000 UB faculty, staff and students daily to downtown Buffalo and, at more than 500,000 square feet, will be one of the largest buildings constructed in Buffalo in decades.

Three days after Hurricane Sandy barreled into the East Coast last October, HOK’s project team was scheduled to have a meeting with medical school dean Michael E. Cain, MD, and UB’s project steering committee. Jim Berge, AIA, HOK’s director of Science + Technology in New York and principal-in-charge for the project, was stranded at home in Norwalk, Conn., with no power or Internet connection. Berge was able to make his way to a local café, where he connected a smartphone to his cable Wi-Fi service to create his own Wi-Fi hotspot. This allowed him to use his iPad as both a video link and an audio communication device while participating in the meeting through a WebEx connection.

The rest of the UB team members joined the meeting from four different cities the way they have been getting together on most Friday mornings since the project began last June: through ultra-high-resolution Cisco videoconferencing technology installed in dedicated Advanced Collaboration Rooms (ACRs) in HOK’s New York, St. Louis and Atlanta offices. The client team joins from an ACR built in HOK’s field office, a converted 20-person conference room in UB’s Farber Hall.

“The pictures are clear and the communication that takes place in these video meetings is invaluable,” says Jeff Strohmeyer, AIA, a senior laboratory planner in HOK’s St. Louis office.

A typical trip from HOK’s office in New York City to Buffalo is three hours each way. From St. Louis and Atlanta, getting to Buffalo and back is a five-hour journey. Factor in the cost of airfare, car rental, hotel rooms and travel expenses – and multiply that by eight to 10 people for some meetings – and the savings are considerable.

“The investment required to set up the ACR at the university was recovered in just a few months through reduced travel times and costs,” says Berge.

“We also minimize our carbon footprint by reducing our air travel,” adds Bill Odell, FAIA, who directs HOK’s global Science + Technology group from the firm’s St. Louis office

Most importantly, the ACRs are enabling design team members to develop better design solutions because they can get the information and client input they need, when they need it.

“This is a fast-track project within an aggressive schedule,” notes Berge. “Having access to the university’s dean and his team is crucial to ensuring that this building is complete on time.”

“Collaborating through the ACRs allows us to schedule smaller, more focused meetings instead of waiting to get together in person,” says Kimberly Robidoux, LEED AP, who has led several virtual work sessions for the programming of UB’s medical education spaces from HOK’s ACR in Atlanta. “The visual cues I get from people on the screen help me understand whether what I am saying is resonating.”

“The videoconferences have conserved time, energy and expense,” adds Suzanne Laychock, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and facilities in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at UB. “The personal interactions have been as dynamic as if everyone was seated in the same room and it is easy to share ideas and images.”

As effective as these ACR meetings are, HOK’s team members are emphatic that virtual conversations should not replace in-person meetings – face time is still important.

“You still the need those face-to-face connections to get to know each other and build relationships,” says Kenneth Drucker, FAIA, design director in HOK’s New York office and design principal for the UB project. “But once those personal relationships are established, the ACR becomes an incredibly important tool. It allows us to collaborate fluidly and seamlessly among our different offices and with UB.”

HOK also is leading the design of the Singapore Chancery, an infill building under construction in New York City. The client’s team uses the ACR in HOK’s Singapore office for project meetings with HOK’s New York-based design team.

“Our use of ACRs is a huge firm-wide success story in terms of allowing us to work smarter and design better solutions for clients,” says Drucker. “What’s next – holograms?”

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