We talked with Jason Li, the VRBIM Technology Team Leader, Senior Associate of M Moser Associates, to learn how they’re helping companies adapt to a “new normal” by developing a social-distancing planning extension for SketchUp. The M Moser Covid Planner, Social Distance plugin enables users to quickly analyze and create occupancy reports to comply with social distancing guidelines, helping clients return to office in a safe, efficient way.
All media courtesy of M Moser Associates unless otherwise stated.
A panorama photo grabbed from M Moser Associates’ virtual office tour to orientate employees to the changes in their London office.
As workplaces plan for a return back to the office, what is the most common project scope or requirements you have received to work on?
Most of our clients preferred to indicate seats as “vacant” as a social distancing measure, rather than reconfiguring the entire office. This deters people from gathering closely together while carrying out reshuffling works, and limits additional logistics costs, like hiring workers to move the furniture or renting a warehouse to store the furniture. Leaving the current furniture layout as-is was the most cost-effective solution during the earlier stage of this pandemic.
A panorama photo of M Moser Associates’ London office with social-distancing labels on walkways, chairs, and monitors.
Tell us how M Moser’s new extension came about and what it does.
This M Moser Covid Planner, Social Distance Extension allows users to visualize (in almost real-time) different seating plans according to specific social-distancing criteria. It’s engineered to give results, based on user-defined social distancing, while also returning the “baseline result” (maximum seats with relatively lower occupancy ratio) intuitively, like SketchUp. This way, more people could be seated in the entire office, yet fulfil a lower occupancy ratio average when comparing different seating zones. It helps clients to make decisions to spot the most cost-effective zones to re-open, as they are usually based on either HVAC systems or layouts with physical dividers.
We didn't create the extension right away. We discussed and tried different workflows together, to experience and see what stuck. We used other software to dimension seat to seat distance, selected unavailable seats and assigned them SketchUp layers. By end of the process, we identified that generating the social distancing results was the slowest part of this whole process. However, everything that completes this “new normal” design, is driven by this important social-distancing baseline.
A screenshot of the toolbar, showcasing the extension's functionalities.
Through trial and error, we identified some pain points before we developed the extension. The traditional way is to measure out the distance between each table in AutoCAD or Revit drawings, and then indicate seats as vacant, one by one. Working with hundreds of tables and chairs is a time-consuming task, leading to low efficiency and errors, especially in the large-scale projects we are dealing with. We are aware that we are responsible for human lives, so it has to be as accurate as possible. If we used the traditional method, we wouldn’t be able to get immediate results on the spot, making live tests of different scenarios with different social distances and collaborating with others in real-time impossible. By the time the drawing is completed, clients may give additional information that changes the scope.
“Working with hundreds of tables and chairs is a time-consuming task, leading to low efficiency and errors, especially in the large scale projects we are dealing with. We are aware that we are responsible for human lives, so it has to be as accurate as possible.”
A workplace floor plan produced in LayOut, with social-distancing parameters in place, representing seats that can be occupied in green, to-be-vacant seats in red.
Could you walk us through how this extension works?
Step 1: Import a LayOut drawing
SketchUp’s interoperability made it easy to work with other file formats. All you need is a LayOut drawing in DWG format, a vectorized PDF file, or an IFC model. Simply import the reference file into SketchUp Pro.
Step 2: Define social-distance metrics
The extension allows users to set up the social-distancing space in feet or meters.
Setting up social-distance metrics in the project plan.
Seat availability changes as social-distance metrics changes.
Step 3: Define seats
Define the seats and floor area, and it’ll recognize the same type of seating across the entire project floor plan.
Select similar seats easily with a Select Similar Objects function.
Groups can be created with preset definitions: open space, semi-open space and enclosed rooms. You can also name and navigate to rooms and areas easily.
Create different zones by using the Create New Distancing Group function.
Designers and architects can quickly filter by active/inactive/screened seat status, and the number of active and inactive seats will immediately be reflected in the Entity Info panel. In our practice, we generally avoid using workstation screens because people can’t hear each other well with these up.
Select seats with the same status by clicking the Select Same Status Objects function.
Step 3: Export different file types simultaneously in one click
Select and export, JPG, PNG, DWG files in one click! JPG format is useful for quick sharing from device to device; PNG is good for putting up a presentation deck in PowerPoint or Keynote; and, DWG provides a fundamental reference plan with all groups/blocks/layers for engineers and sustainability & wellness advisors, to further their details.
Other helpful features:
Manually override seats
Users can also choose to manually override certain seats, such as seats along the walkway.
Indicate seats installed with screens
Seats with screens are indicated in yellow. It will also prompt users if they have a screen in place and identify the screen in the model.
Generate a report to make critical decisions easily
A report can be generated in a click of a button to show the number of active, inactive, and screened seats, occupancy ratio, and density rates. This data can be used by workplace strategists to help clients make critical decisions for space management. Armed with this information, businesses can get a better understanding of their operating costs, evaluate the cost-effectiveness of re-opening their workplace, and estimate the level of safety within the space.
Image of a report generated by M Moser’s extension, showing the number of active, inactive, and screened seats, and occupancy ratio and density rates.
What other areas does this extension help in your workflow?
Producing results instantly enables us to provide multiple variations to clients, and even facility managers, on the fly during an online meeting. In some cases, we even share the screen and give them the control to pick seats and test. All types of live collaboration are truly enabled with this extension.
More time can be spent on being creative with our analysis. We can identify high-traffic areas like the pantry, kitchen, and spaces where people are likely to socialize, where it is important to keep safety measures and precautions in mind. Redistribution of amenities can also be considered as a way to redirect the traffic flow to lower-risk areas.
“Producing results instantly enables us to provide multiple variations to clients, and even facility managers, on the fly during an online meeting. In some cases, we even share the screen and give them the control to pick seats and test.”
In this layout, M Moser added a drinking fountain in the center (blue dots), versus the original with one single pantry, to disperse the traffic and avoid crowding.
Signage in M Moser Associates’ London office reminds employees of hi-touch surfaces.
SketchUp’s ability to customize plugins quickly for specialized workflows is very valuable in this situation.
What are some guidelines for architects when working on return-to-office projects?
Since the very beginning, M Moser has been working closely with IWBI (International WELL Building Institute), and we’ve also seen the published version of IWBI HSR (Health Safety Rating), to protect lives.
In addition, we’ve studied the guidelines from America CDC, United Kingdom, China CDC, and Singapore’s various government agencies. These guidelines mostly revolved around space planning, MEP alteration and addition, equipment supplies, operation and maintenance. Overall, M Moser understands the concept as, the higher the level of replanning efficiency, the more lives will be saved and protected.
A guideline won’t be enough to make us more efficient on a daily basis; we need tools that are customized for this scenario to help our people, and the professionals in our industry, especially during this difficult time.
Social-distancing created in different seating zones in M Moser Associates’ London office.
Do you think this pandemic will influence how workspaces are designed in future? Is the social-distancing concept here to stay even after the vaccine is distributed?
I couldn’t speak at the SketchUp China Summit for Beijing Design Week in late September this year. So I watched the whole event online.
Even though social-distancing and masks were no longer a requirement in China, I noticed the attendees still intuitively distanced themselves in the event. During the pandemic, we all experienced working remotely and attending meetings virtually… and it works. This could potentially initiate a change in how offices are designed and bring in new user-scenarios.
In my opinion, the widely popular open-office concept could transition into an activity-based workspace, which is far more dynamic. In one of our recent jobs with a famous financial institution, spaces are designed by personas rather than “setups”. I personally believe the form will eventually follow the function.
About M Moser Associates
Since 1981, M Moser has specialized in creating high-performing physical, social, and digital work environments through its expertise in architecture, interiors, engineering, technology, sustainability, wellness, and construction.
With a global perspective on the ever-changing nature of work, over 1,000 experts across 21 locations embody an innate curiosity and the desire to engage with clients from concept to delivery. This holistic approach enables us to provide integrated solutions that empower people to be their most productive, supporting the cultural transformation required to meet an organization’s unique and evolving business needs.