Christian Blomdahl, Director of Process Innovation, Suffolk
Virtual design and construction (VDC) has been a mainstay in the construction industry for more than 20+ years. When it was first introduced as BIM (Building Information Modeling) in the early 1990s, the modeling technology attracted the industry’s attention—many contractors immediately saw the value of VDC and believed it could someday spark a revolution in construction. They were on to something.
At the beginning and its core, VDC was used as a preventive measure that allowed contractors to visually identify, assess and resolve design conflicts on a computer screen early enough in the process, before putting a shovel in the ground. Using VDC for clash detection helped teams avoid expensive, time-consuming fixes in the field during the construction process. To this day, most contractors continue to use VDC in this way.
But over time, more visionary contractors saw more significant potential for VDC and believed simple clash detection was scratching the surface of what was possible. Contractors began using VDC technology to create more sophisticated models than ever before, allowing them to build precise “digital twins” of buildings that helped them create more accurate constructability reviews and prefabricate many building components offsite while maximizing efficiency and quality and enhancing job site safety.
VDC allowed contractors to essentially build buildings from top to bottom virtually and then iron out all the constructability challenges before physically making the structures, which saved time and cost. As we often say at Suffolk, “pixels are cheaper than bricks.”
As more contractors began to see the value of VDC, the technology continued to advance rapidly. Today, modeling technology can practically do anything contractors want it to do—while VDC continues to help contractors avoid more complicated design issues earlier in the planning stages, currently VDC also helps clients visualize their projects virtually long before construction begins; solves significant structural and engineering challenges before they can become major issues on the job; and builds virtual schedules, virtual facility management plans and virtual cost estimates that are more accurate and predictable than ever before. New technological advancements in VDC continue to captivate our industry and add increasing value for clients.
Despite the game-changing advances in VDC technology over the past 20 years, nagging questions about the true potential of VDC continue to challenge industry influencers. Today, the construction industry finds itself at a defining moment for VDC. For us to truly maximize the value of VDC now and in the future, we must continue to leverage exciting new advancements in VDC technology but we must also concentrate our efforts on improving the processes and thinking that supports that VDC technology.
The most common process challenges associated with VDC are the often-blurry line between the “design” and “coordination” processes, the roles architects and contractors play in providing design details necessary to begin construction successfully, and the traditional contractual language that stipulates contractors must build from 2D drawings rather than 3D models. As an industry, we can find ways to address these gaps so that both architects and contractors can collaborate more effectively and leverage the power of modeling to its full potential. We can work together and use VDC as a bridge that brings together architects and contractors, supports the exchange of value design data, and enhances collaboration across the entire team.
We can also leverage VDC as a tool to streamline the decision-making process and manage the design and construction of buildings throughout their entire lifecycles, which can include more seamless integration of VDC with design, schedule and cost to effectively measure project “vitals” — because after all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
As building construction projects become more complex and sophisticated, there is little doubt VDC technology will continue to evolve and add increasing value. As an industry, we must continue advancing VDC technology forward, but the key will be to focus on improving the processes that support that technology. Only then will we experience the true potential of this game-changing technology and maximize its value.