Big Room Misconceptions and Inefficiences


The concept of the ‘big room’ seeks to improve the productivity, efficiency and teamwork of a construction and design team by gathering key individuals to one central, physical location to foster collaboration, help overcome communication barriers and produce more efficient results. However, the promise of a proximity solution assumes that physical distance is the issue behind the human element of poor communication and, by closing this distance, individuals are better able to resolve issues in a timely matter. It seems to make logical sense on a macro scale that if everyone is in the same physical location construction issues can be resolved and decisions made in a timely manner. However, on a micro scale the experiment does not always work as planned and the logical premise breaks down under human nature. Ultimately, the cost is not worth the reward.

Communication problems certainly will not be reduced by physical relocation. They must be resolved by understanding intent, purpose and specifics while reducing the human elements of irrationality, egocentrism, communication and language barriers.

The main proximity issue of the big room concept revolves around priorities. Construction and design are about prioritizing issues and the organization of those priorities to produce a product in the most cost-effective manner. The better individuals and team organize and manage priorities, the more efficient and effective they can be in creating a product. Depending upon how the priorities are arranged and managed will ultimately determine profitability. The big room concept causes serious priority misalignment to occur within the operations of an organization and ultimately increased costs due to inefficiencies. While the concept is true that the big room allows individuals greater access to resolve issues on an immediate basis, it causes priorities to become the pressing issue standing at the door. Here’s how:

A contractor has a constructability issue affecting work 10 weeks out. At that point in time, the issue is his highest priority. He takes this issue to the architect in charge of the area. In the big room sense, this means that he walks down the hall and stands at the door or conducts a meeting. However, the architect-in-charge is working on his highest priority issue which affects work installing within four weeks. The problem exists that both priorities hold the same weight for each individual respectively. However, the architect issue is in reality the problem that holds the highest priority for the project. The big room concept causes a priority clash. The architect will likely spend time on the contractor’s issue even though the architect’s issue in this case holds a greater weight.

In a traditional sense the architect would have received an email or phone call that could have been more easily prioritized. Even though the contractor might "feel" as though he is not receiving the necessary attention, the project is actually running in the most cost-effective manner for the project. The big room produces a management of issues dependent more upon the proximity of individuals that the actual urgency.

The standard argument for the big room concept comes from the traditional management model for construction. A physical meeting is the best solution to team-managed issues and problems. The meeting in the traditional sense takes place with everyone necessary to solve the issue present. The proximity brought about by locating everyone in the same place provides a more effective setting for meetings, involvement and decisions. The argument certainly seems rational on the surface but again the human element causes a significant disruption and breakdown so as to defeat the goal.

The argument for meetings as a solution to manage problems is certainly valid given a few reasonable assumptions.
1) The problem is a team issue and must be resolved as a team.
2) Only team members with information and decision authority regarding the specific issue are invited to the meeting and speak.
3) Only relevant issues pertaining to the assembled team are discussed.
4) The meeting is organized with agenda and meeting minutes.
5) The meeting is provided with a time limit for discussion and resolution.
6) Discussion is not only limited to the issue but is limited to defining the problem and solution.

The greatest human difficulty with proximity and a meeting-centered culture is that all issues become classified as team issues. In reality a good portion of issues do not need a team and could be resolved by one-on-one conversations or other forms of communication. The big room lends itself to becoming one big meeting where teams spend all day discussing issues and resolutions. This can become a collaboration of a few attentive individuals with the rest focused on other items (i.e., smartphone syndrome). Add the nonfunctioning time for each person and the cost of the big room meeting complex is enormous.

The issue cannot be stressed too much that informal meetings in the big room concept on the surface are its greatest benefit and at its core its disastrous downfall. Informal meetings can be anything from a small group of people sitting together in a room without an agenda discussing an issue to a conversation that takes place at a doorway. There is no doubt that informal meetings are critical to a project’s progress and success; however, even more critical to management of the process and profit is that these meetings are prioritized and given weighted value.

In a more standard construction situation where distance is a limiting factor of informal gatherings, meetings take place by phone, email or and at times in person. These methods provide for a sorting and priority processing of the issues. Thus, the manager is better able to sort issues by urgency, potential cost, schedule, and significance. This sorting process is one of the major methods by which construction management remains efficient and effective. Remove this process and significantly more management is required to handle the day-to-day management tasks. The project can quickly become a review of issues on a haphazard basis. The risk associated with this type of management is that more urgent items do not receive the necessary attention and construction management costs increase.

One of the considerations that is rarely discussed but causes significant cost issues is the relocation of necessary people and electronic tools to provide for a big room.

Computer networks, hardware, software and physical environments that would otherwise be already established in home offices must now be relocated to a new site. The physical cost can be quite large and quantifiable but the intangible cost can be significantly higher. Individuals who are relocated must face the daunting task of reestablishing work routines, relationships, and environments while being isolated from previous internal resources. This reestablishment process is significant and expensive in time, effort and personal emotional establishment. It can often take teams significant time to understand the intangible inner workings found within a group of individuals. Communication and management styles, interpersonal communications and emotional connection establishment will cause significant issues for an extended period of time and will be a major cost to the project in efficiency.

When considering the move to the big room, consider more than simply the logistics of computer networks, hardware and furniture. It is critical to understand the inefficiencies found in the intangible concerns of isolation from resources and the reestablishment of relationships.

While the big room concept on the surface appears to have some advantages, proximity is not the solution to the communication issues found in the traditional construction project. In fact, forced proximity causes significant issues for priority management and ultimately the profit and cost of a project. In reality, if one considers current electronic communication methods, the big room concept already exists. Team members are all connected in a large electronic big room. And, with it, they have the advantage of prioritization, internal company resources and the ability to minimize unnecessary social communication and the costs of relocation both tangible and intangible.

Damon Socha directs the virtual construction department for Lydig Construction Company, a member of Inland Northwest Chapter AGC and AGC of Washington. He teaches AGC’s BIM Education Program Units 1-4.

Associated General Contractors of America