Going virtual with interior design
When Mike Johnson bought Eteriors, formerly GRIT Building Solutions, three years ago, he never imagined a pandemic like COVID-19 would spread to the Pacific Northwest and make his business a health and safety necessity.
More than a decade ago, the Portland-based interior construction company made the transition from low-tech, traditional construction to a high-tech approach that allows it to build projects virtually and complete the on-site portion with a small crew in a matter of days rather than weeks.
Johnson, the company's principal, said Eteriors' design process begins with a meeting where they use augmented and virtual reality to review designs with clients. Instead of meeting around a set of blueprints, he and other staff members meet with clients in a three-dimensional space using virtual reality software, with people from different cities coming together through augmented reality.
The augmented reality meetings allow clients to walk around a designed office space with their designer and see how an architect or general contractor could review a design. Eteriors specializes in office and retail space, government and education buildings, and health care facilities.
The projects are then manufactured off-site by converting digital files to physical components with Eteriors' manufacturing partner at one of three North American plants. This not only shortens the amount of time it takes to build a project but requires 70 percent less labor on job sites. Fewer workers on a job site also means less dust, debris and disruption, Johnson said.
"This technology really has advanced us into something that is much more efficient, adaptable and sustainable," he said, adding Eteriors employs four people, and its installation division has 11 employees.
Flexibility is another advantage of the high-tech process, as 90 percent of the designs can be reconfigured to fit changing needs without making replacements or starting a project from scratch. As an example, Eteriors can move walls and adapt for a more open workspace in the future.
Johnson noted that while Eteriors' primary goal was to reduce its carbon footprint and the amount of waste headed for the landfill during its construction process, its mission has now shifted to reducing "the COVID footprint."
"What has been amazing for us is that we never thought we were prepared for or planned for a pandemic, and now we're realizing how future-proofed our technology is for this," he said. "We know we're operating extremely safely without any hindrance to the construction schedule, and we haven't skipped a beat on any of our projects over the course of the last two months."
COVID-19's initial impact for Eteriors was that its manufacturing partner ramped up its rapid response for the health care industry to premanufacture operating and procedure rooms, ship them and assemble them in hospitals and emergency departments. Fortunately, the coronavirus curve flattened and the additional health care space has not been needed to date.
Johnson said the pandemic had generated more conversations about what design and construction will look like in the new normal. Office spaces may be increasingly designed with parts and pieces that can be taken down and reconfigured, which could help create a space to fit for safety needs now and then reshaped later when people can work closer together.
Or, in another scenario where more people are working from home, office space may be designed to accommodate just a couple of people while others work remotely and share virtual space.
"It's really shown us that we don't need to go back to the office. Our project managers and designers have only visited the job sites a handful of times over the last two months," Johnson said. "Our conversations with the architecture and design community are around not only the way we can virtually get people into a space but also around the flexibility of it. What they need today they may not need in 12 months or 18 months. Who knows?"
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