The Little Big Room

The Little Big Room

By Scott Green on March 28, 2011

Everybody has heard of the advantages of a Big Room.  This is where the whole project team co-locates for the entire project to work collaboratively, solve issues before they become crises and deliver higher value to the project.  This sounds grand, but what about the “typical” construction project.  How can these synergies and advantages be gained when the whole team is not joined in an Integrated Project Delivery agreement?  That’s what this article addresses, how a “Little Big Room” can be used on projects based on the following example.

Project Background

The project is a 12-story, 420,000 SF medical office building.  First floor is composed of the main lobby, central services and a shell space for retail.  Floors 2-4 will be clinic spaces while floors 5-12 are shell floor capable of supporting additional clinics in the future.   The owner contracted with the construction manager in the typical CM at Risk manner.  The mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection (MEP&FP) subcontractors were engaged early using a design-assist approach.  They will become the engineers of record for the project.   Given the complexity of clinics, it was decided BIM would be used to coordinate MEP&FP systems.

Just as coordination was ready to begin, the owner requested the exam rooms be relocated from the perimeter to the interior of the building, effectively stopping the coordination efforts on floors 2-4.  During this time coordination was completed on the 1st floor and the shell floors 5-12.  This left the more complex clinic floors for the end.  Not only were the clinic floors more complex, but construction would start there sooner since they were lower floors.

The Problem

Coordination was being done with everyone working from their own offices.  File management utilized the project SharePoint site.  Each subcontractor would model its own work.  The construction manager would then assemble the federated coordination models, check for collisions and distribute results to the team.  Email was the primary communication means between the team members.  The process worked great for the shell floors, but the increased complexity of the clinic spaces started to highlight some shortcomings of the process.  Everyone was working in their own office and communication started to drag on.  For example, the mechanical contractor would send an issue in the morning to the fire protection contractor, who would then put it in his queue to look at after lunch.  The next morning, the fire protection contractor would send out a possible solution.  By this time the mechanical contractor had already moved on to another area and would check the solution after lunch.  The following morning, day 3 in issue life, the mechanical contractor would respond if the solution was acceptable or not.  This process was time consuming.  The team members were not doing it on purpose; it just happened as a result of the process.

The fire protection contractor identified the problem and suggested the process would move along more quickly “if we were in the same room.” The construction manager started to investigate whether this was possible. As luck would have it, they had some office space in a full-size project mockup that was repurposed and the technical capability to host a Little Big Room.  A few phone calls later, the MEP&FP subcontractors were on board to co-locate in the Little Big Room for two weeks.  Hesitation was the initial response until the proposition was fully explained.  It seemed everyone was having the same issues and wanted to resolve them.

The Solution – Little Big Room

Monday rolled around and everyone started to arrive, and arrive they did – complete with workstation towers, monitors and accessories.  Two laptops and four workstations filled out the room.  Everyone had dual monitors, except for the electrical subcontractor, who managed with a single 42” display.  Setup went quickly.  Most had software licenses and databases loaded locally.  Network connections were provided for those that didn’t and allowed everyone email access to keep connected with their respective offices.

It was amazing to see the process in action.  Instead of email ping-pong, actual discussions were being held. The classic “hey come look at this” phrase was in rampant use.  Full understanding by all parties was possible by looking at the same screen together.  The team was working differently, and processes changed as a result.  Instead of posting to SharePoint, jump drives were utilized.  Each drive was labeled with the specific discipline (piping, plumbing, fire protection, duct, electrical).  The most recent files were always available to everyone.  The role of the construction manager also changed in the Little Big Room:  Instead of documenting each of the collisions in the federated model and sending it out to the team, the federated model was continuously updated and issues were shared with the team.


The coordination of the three clinic floors was completed in roughly three weeks, the first two spent together and the third devoted to final cleanup.  Every subcontractor was happy with the process and noted how much quicker it was than expected.  The construction manager has received positive feedback from the MEP&FP subcontractors and encouragement for Little Big Room use on future projects.

About the Author

Scott Green is the Manager of Construction Technology for Tarlton Corporation, a St. Louis-based construction management and general contracting firm.  Scott is responsible for the implementation of BIM and Lean construction practices companywide.