Virtual Tour, Real Mockup: Architecture in the Time of Corona


The world’s response to COVID-19 has produced a lot of new experiences. People working from home have been learning how to juggle the demands of work and homelife when they’re both right there—spouses, children, and meetings—all squeezed into the same space. Essential workers in grocery stores, warehouses, and other public spaces have practiced social distancing in other ways, wearing gloves and masks, standing behind newly installed plexiglass windows, and so on.

Recently, one of our healthcare project teams had a novel experience as they led a client on a virtual tour through physical mockup of a patient room for a new facility.

Full size room mockups are not new. We regularly use them to solicit feedback from our clients, especially in healthcare settings. By enabling doctors, nurses, and other end-users to move within a space, rearrange its walls, furniture, and simulate possible patient interactions, mockups help identify pinch-points and efficiencies that are harder to see in a drawing.

What was new with our recent set of mockup tours was that social distancing required our architectural team to direct the tour from offsite. While members of our client’s staff visited the mockup in small groups—properly suited up in PPE, observing safe distances—our design team’s presence was filtered through a laptop that the general contractor carried around.

This introduced certain challenges. For instance, our view was more circumscribed through the laptop, so it is easy for people to move off camera. But with nimble camera work from our contractor, adjustments to our notetaking process (one person led the tour, asked questions, and recorded everything in a Word document, another marked up the plan, another annotated screenshots), and a conscientious effort to summarize the tour’s findings to those present, we were able to gather excellent feedback to inform our design.

“The hardest part,” says GBBN Associate Principal, Angela Mazzi, “is that normally we would do this one time with the whole group and moderate a discussion of conflicting comments or observations, but now need to do it four times to keep group sizes down, so we’re taking extra steps to build consensus.” After finishing the set of tours, the team will be circulating modified drawing options along with a survey to clarify client priorities as they come to a final layout decision.