Collaboration is at the Heart of DeForest Architects Success

Tracie Simmons ArchiCAD, BIMx

When John DeForest started his Seattle based practice in 1999, he never imagined collaborating across thousands of miles. That changed when a key employee (now his partner) wanted to move to Tahoe City to be closer to family. As a result, DeForest Architects found themselves well prepared to work remotely with clients in 2020. “Learning to work closely with clients and colleagues at a distance opened up new markets that were previously out of reach” said DeForest.

INTERNAL TEAM: DeForest Architects started working remotely with their “Great Projects Anywhere” initiative prior to COVID shutdowns. Because the team was already up to speed on the technology, they were able to focus on building remote interactive design sessions with clients.

Archicad is a big part of keeping the team together. DeForest sees it as a more architect-friendly BIM platform than its competitors. The practice already had people in the Seattle area working a few days a week from home plus their second office in Tahoe City, so working on a model on the server wasn’t a new experience.

CONSULTANTS:  DeForest has found relatively few consultants working with residential designers have adopted BIM yet. It’s on its way “but more often we’re filling in the gaps.” The firm exports .dwg files or imports SketchUp or AutoCAD files into the model as needed, but DeForest sees the next wave of young graduates embracing BIM.

“We had planned to run seminars with consultants to let them know about the benefits and untapped potential.” A staff member with a background in film production is working on series of short videos as an alternative to in-person presentations.

DeForest said they’ve tried using some BIMx construction documents, but field superintendents have been reluctant to carry an expensive iPad instead of tucking a roll of drawings under one arm. Project managers in the office appreciate the detail and clients love the ability to look and click to see in 3D. Contractors have been quick to grasp the value of using models exported from Archicad for visualization, especially being able to turn layers on and off to examine the project. Recently, there’s been more interest from fabricators in BIM drawing exchange, using the model as a tool to check for conflicts.

CLIENTS:  Whatever the tools, DeForest’s focus is on facilitating client collaboration. “Our goal is to use tools that help engage clients in the fun and creativity of the design process.” An initial model workshop has been one of DeForest’s favorite project kickoff exercises with clients. There’s something special about touching and manipulating a model, and setting up cameras pointed at the model table isn’t quite the same. “Talking about architecture and trying to describe it all in words is limiting,” said DeForest, “but it’s starting to feel more natural.”

The missing piece is the spontaneous reactions of collaborating in the same space, but virtual reality is starting to fill that gap. DeForest Architects has been an early adopter of VR technology, helping clients visualize and experience their project more intuitively. They use Iris VR software on almost every project.

It doesn’t have to be photo realistically rendered to be effective in letting clients get a feel for space and proportion. VR used to mean clients had to be in a special room at their offices, but DeForest recently “walked” a client in London through a whole house using Iris’ “multi-user feature. “The surprising thing is, if you get enough cues right you have that feeling of co-presence in spite of an eight-hour time difference.” He came out of the VR and felt like he’d “just spent time with a friend.”

DeForest still wants to get back in the office. Collaboration is at the heart of their design process with clients, often using trace paper sketching and physical models as key tools to touch and feel the design as it takes shape. On the other hand, they’re learning new ways to use virtual reality to provide that sense of being there. “Whether analog or digital, every tool we use needs to make the design better,” said DeForest.

Written by Sue Lani Madsen, AIA Member Emeritus, Freelance Columnist
You can reach Sue Lani at