Three words perfectly define Bobby Vance: Architect. Optimist. Hokie.

So when COVID-19 struck the U.S. just five weeks into his new dream job as an architectural designer at the global firm CannonDesign in Chicago, Vance responded with characteristic Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) spirit and eagerly turned his focus to the pandemic.

“I do not believe the future is grim at all,” Vance said. “Though there has been a tragic human toll, I believe COVID is an opportunity to meaningfully change the way we live, work, and play.”

When his office closed for telework, Vance drove to his parents’ log home in the mountains of West Virginia to seek a familiar and inspiring setting. Over the next two months, with a team of CannonDesign architecture, engineering, and health care colleagues connecting via Microsoft Teams – and the input of his retired engineer dad, Tom – Vance developed the COVID Shield. He assembled the shield using materials that could be readily found at home improvement stores for around $3,000.

“Think about it as a big face shield, if you will,” he said. “We wanted to create the least complicated solution to a complex problem. It needed to be an adaptable system that could be easily set up, dismantled, and moved from place to place by anyone. My dad and I prototyped the entire thing in the garage in under two hours. It took just five minutes to put it together.

Bobby Vance (left) and his father, Tom, celebrate a successful prototype of the COVID Shield.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Vance.
Bobby Vance (left) and his father, Tom, celebrate a successful prototype of the COVID Shield. Photo courtesy of Bobby Vance.

Roughly the size of a phone booth, the COVID Shield is a portable testing station that can be set up at entry points in workplaces, college campuses, schools, community areas, and other public settings. Easily assembled, informed by infectious disease experts, durable, low-cost, and deployable in minutes, it offers a convenient solution for mass pop-up testing – whether for COVID-19 or a future infectious disease outbreak.

Here’s how it works: A health care worker stands inside the three-sided polycarbonate structure and swabs patients by reaching through nitrate gloves integrated in the front panel. The swab is placed in a test tube, bagged, and deposited in a transport bin to be sent to the lab. After the patient leaves, a worker replaces the single-use gloves overtop the attached gloves and sanitizes the polycarbonate.

The entire process takes under 5 minutes per test. The stations can be placed individually at sites or linked for mass testing. The shield’s panels can also be customized to display public health messages, branded marketing, or art.

Though COVID Shield is just hitting the market – CannonDesign expects to license the plans for around $1,500 and offer it fully assembled for about $6,000 – it’s already receiving kudos for its no-nonsense, practical design.

Fast Company magazine called it “A great idea to protect those protecting us,” adding, “ideally, it will allow health care professionals to use fewer other items of PPE or to enhance the protection provided by their standard gear.”

ARCHITECT magazine said, “Seeking to reduce stigma around testing while making the process safer for health care providers, global firm CannonDesign has developed COVID Shield, a modular testing facility that enables individuals to get tested without having direct physical contact with the health care staff administering the tests. With COVID Shield, CannonDesign aims to facilitate local, pop-up testing sites, allowing for community spaces — such as college campuses or outside workplaces — to become accessible testing centers as the need arises.”

Bobby Vance leads a tour of FutureHAUS in Dubai, November 2018.
Vance leads a tour of the FutureHAUS for a group of visitors in Dubai in November 2018. Vance served as project manager for the award-winning home, which employs a sustainable and futuristic system of prefabricated building. Photo by Erica Corder for Virginia Tech.

The COVID Shield may be the simplest thing Vance has designed in his eight years as an architect. After completing his undergraduate degree in architecture in 2013, he joined Perkins and Will in Dallas, where he worked on everything from hospitals and higher education buildings to recreation centers and libraries. He returned to Virginia Tech three years later to earn his master’s in architecture while working as a graduate assistant to Professor Joe Wheeler on FutureHAUS, a sustainable and futuristic system of prefabricated building. Vance joined the School of Architecture + Design’s faculty in 2017 and helped lead Virginia Tech’s Solar Decathlon team to international victory in 2018 as the project manager on FutureHAUS Dubai.

“It was a period in my life where my growth was exponential,” Vance said. “I can honestly say that experience has made me into the designer I am today. Helping to lead a team of over 65 people, many of whom had never done any sort of construction before in their lives, and creating a singular goal of success, is a memory that will stay with me forever.”

Vance said Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design prepared him from day one to tackle problems outside the built environment.

“During my first year, we designed everything from a font to a cardboard chair,” he said. “In later years, I turned to physical models (first analog and then 3D-printed), digital renderings, and full-scale mockups, culminating in building the FutureHAUS Dubai project. I explored many scales of design during my undergrad and graduate degrees, which set me up well to solve problems at any scale.”

During a Thanksgiving visit to Chicago in 2019, Vance met up with his former Virginia Tech instructor Andrew Balster, now office practice leader in CannonDesign’s Chicago office. Vance left Chicago with an offer to join the firm that he couldn’t refuse.

Now a member of CannonDesign’s health care studio, Vance works on a range of projects, including supportive housing for the homeless in the City of Chicago, an outpatient care center for Northwestern Medicine, mentoring interns, and serving on CannonDesign’s NEXT Council, a young advisory group to the firm’s leaders.

He also maintains close ties to Virginia Tech, regularly talking and texting with former students, classmates, and colleagues. In February, he served as a critic at Chicago Studio’s mid-term reviews. Vance has even been in discussions with his alma mater on using the COVID Shield on campus – an exciting full circle for the passionate Hokie.

“The COVID Shield and my current architecture projects at CannonDesign Chicago are being realized based on the education, experiences, and relationships I cultivated while at Virginia Tech,” he said. “I believe COVID is our opportunity as architects to make a positive change.”

– Written by Marya Barlow