Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) has progressed rapidly over the last decade, with both increased industry demand and the improvement of relevant software packages and plug-ins driving its progression.
Highly inefficient workflows and longer production hours have given way to more refined models and improved integration between disciplines across the AEC industry. It has become a far more cohesive process enabling efficient and rapid design changes along with the use of more data rich models.
VDC has also experienced growth and advancement through the adoption of gaming engines, providing the ability to immerse oneself into an interactive environment, interrogating embedded BIM data and ‘rehearsing’ construction sequencing whilst viewing from any angle.
With the addition of project-specific temporary works, construction equipment, transportation, site logistics, and even fabrication, 4D sequencing has become more than just a structural and architectural sequencing tool. We refer to it as a ‘Digital Construction Rehearsal’ (DCR).
The intention of this article is to discuss the expectations of VDC in the digital model age versus industry realities and experiences to date. It will also cover how the Digital Construction Rehearsal has become critical in locating and resolving clashes between disciplines, providing risk mitigation, and preventing project time and cost issues. These are just some of the reasons it has become a desirable and valuable asset for the AEC industry.
Virtual Design & Construction
What Is It and How Do We Define It?
Multidisciplinary collaboration within the AEC industry has long been essential for the production and delivery of successful project outcomes. VDC enhances these deliverables by combining these multidisciplinary AEC digital design techniques, along with data-rich BIM, to develop bespoke solutions for all project stakeholders.
At its most fundamental, VDC can be a simple construction program linked to a 3D model (4D model sequencing). However, at its most advanced, it can be a virtually simulated environment via the use of gaming engines allowing interactivity and model interrogation, among many other options.
VDC provides a suite of business benefits including more informed decision making while minimizing project delivery time frames and performance risks thereby reducing costs, improving safety, and adding further value to a project. Having the ability to explore, interrogate, modify, and validate complex engineering concepts is, in short, a highly valuable asset.
In addition to benefits during the design phase, VDC also helps explain design and construction intent in an accessible visual format to project stakeholders, government departments, and the general public. It is a method that allows all interested parties to obtain a rapid understanding of the design and construction intent. Someone who does not have an engineering or design background can more easily and quickly understand a proposed construction methodology via a static image or animation as opposed to attempting to interpret technical drawings and documentation.
VDC has mostly grown from the requirements of construction engineering, and is also where its greatest benefits have been realized for use. It provides the ability to detail and convey complex construction engineering strategies and concepts in a format that provides additional clarity and confidence for a project.
VDC helps provide insights into both permanent and temporary works designs and can also be used to develop Digital Construction Rehearsals incorporating construction methodologies and erection sequences, programming and scheduling, site and construction logistics, as well as construction risk management.
Not only does VDC enhance project stakeholders’s understanding of engineering processes, it also facilitates greater collaboration between engineers and technicians in numerous ways. It helps with communication across design teams, for example by locating design clashes across permanent works such as structural, architectural, services, and civil models. It also plays a critical role in construction engineering by highlighting potential clashes between temporary works and the permanent works designs. This allows cost and time reductions to be identified during the design phase instead of the construction phase when it can be expensive to resolve on-site or can result in safety issues.
VDC can be used for high-level overarching methodologies of a project site down to micro-sequencing of specific construction details whilst providing model-based clash detection simultaneously. It can also be used to detail unique architectural and design elements of a structure that could be difficult to explain via conventional methods. Some of the key services VDC is capable of detailing and explaining include:
4D+ construction methodologies: 3D models staged against program quantities, cost, and embodied carbon
Construction equipment sequencing
Site logistics planning
Site induction and Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S)
Separable portion handovers
The high-rise construction methodology below is an example of how VDC was able to detail separable portion handovers which were a Unique Selling Point (USP) for this particular design. It enabled the developer to populate and utilize completed areas of the structure while construction continued on the upper floors.
This animation of the Monash University Biochemical Building is an example of a full construction methodology detailing site logistics; construction vehicle, public vehicle, and pedestrian access; temporary works and equipment positioning and sequencing; as well as micro-sequencing the façade installation. This provided stakeholders and contractors a far greater understanding of what was required on-site, from lay down areas to construction zoning, but more critically, how to maintain access to other university buildings during construction.
Over the last decade, the demand for VDC on projects has increased dramatically and is becoming standard practice in many engineering consultancies. This increased industry demand and the improvement in software and plug-ins is driving the progression of VDC but can also make choosing the best option for VDC production confusing. Deciding which software packages and processes to use among the multiple options available will ultimately be, of course, a question of best fit for each individual set of business circumstances.
Autodesk is obviously a leader in this space. Robert Bird Group (RBG) heavily utilizes Autodesk products such as AutoCAD, Revit, Navisworks, and 3ds Max in conjunction with specialist plug-ins and in-house focused development to achieve its VDC requirements. This process suits the particular purposes of RBG; however, effective 4D sequencing can readily be achieved by using Revit and Navisworks.
Whatever the choice of software and process chosen to deliver an effective VDC outcome, there is no doubting the benefits it provides. Inefficient workflows and longer production hours have given way to more refined models and improved integration between disciplines across the AEC industry, which has helped VDC to become more intrinsic to the overall design process.
Early Lessons Learned
The first major project in which Robert Bird Group utilized VDC was AAMI Park in 2008. AAMI Park is a 30,000-seat rectangular stadium in Melbourne, Australia with a unique lightweight roof structure. This lightweight design meant the roof was unable to support its own weight until the final structural member was installed, thereby requiring a specialized bespoke construction methodology to build.
This methodology proved difficult to explain to project stakeholders, including the builders, via traditional methods, due mainly to the complex nature of the construction engineering requirements. For this reason, it was decided to detail the proposed methodology in 3D.
Initially the focus was on an overall stick build sequence of the roof. However, it was so well received that the scope expanded, firstly in more detailed complex micro-sequencing for the project, but as the project progressed, 4D sequencing soon became critical for several project elements including:
Roof shell breakdown
Roof shell member delivery and transport envelopes
Site access and logistics
Equipment and crane locations (including crane radius)
Stick build of each roof shell member
Propping and de-propping of each shell
Project tasks were broken down to a high level of detail. The roof steel model was produced in Tekla, the bowl structure in 3D AutoCAD, and 3ds Max was used to produce the 4D sequence and detailed imagery and animations.
A typical issue that arose while producing this and subsequent construction methodologies was models not being split effectively for use in construction sequencing. At the time, Revit use was in its infancy within the business and the models were produced mostly with documentation only in mind. Problems faced were model elements such as columns and cores running at the full height of the structure. This was satisfactory for the purposes of documentation (at the time), but not for 4D sequencing. Now, technician teams model using BIM not only for documentation purposes but also with sequencing in mind to avoid double-handling of models.
VDC proved to be pivotal on AAMI Park for the roof shell transportation analysis. Each roof member was required to fit within a set envelope for transportation. The envelope dimensions were based on overhead tram lines located around the site and street furniture to be encountered on the chosen transportation route from the fabrication yards.
Roof shell models were split individually to determine appropriate sizes for transportation. This then dictated how each roof member would be fabricated and appropriate locations for member connections. Roof members were then fabricated in order of installation based on documentation produced through VDC. They were labelled so they could be positioned appropriately in the laydown area on arrival to site allowing for efficient location and installation during the construction process.
VDC was also pivotal in reducing costs during this project phase. Overhead tram lines did not have to be dropped as first expected, for example, thereby not only reducing time and cost of transportation, but also mitigating risks and enhancing safety outcomes.
The Future of VDC
Interactive Simulated Models
While interactive and immersive simulated models utilizing gaming engine technology are not a new concept within AEC or VDC, it is only in recent years that we have seen an increased interest and growth in their use. They are fast becoming the new norm for model federation and coordination as well as for 4D sequencing. With advancements in software development and improvements in computer hardware, it has also become more accessible and less cost prohibitive than it was previously.
Robert Bird Group has been utilizing the Unity Gaming Engine Platform for various purposes over the last decade, but more recently has focused on the development of a VDC-specific capability utilizing the Unity platform in conjunction with the full suite of Autodesk AEC products to enhance its engineering design solutions.
It's an interactive, data-rich, real-time model viewer called Reveal. Instead of a series of fixed outputs, the viewer provides users with the ability to experience, view, interrogate, control, interact, and collaborate from anywhere within the model and at any stage of the construction sequence, in a digitally simulated environment.
In addition to facilitating multiple design options in any 3D software, static and real-time BIM data can also be embedded to easily communicate to clients and stakeholders.
Not only does it provide greater collaboration between engineers and technicians, the platform provides an intuitive way in which engineers can review model detail and element properties whilst also retaining the integrity of the original Revit source model and its rich metadata. It is an invaluable project coordination tool, especially for projects that require 4D sequencing, and provides engineers and technicians greater accessibility and control.
Emerging capabilities will only enhance all of this even more. The future goals are to provide bidirectional links between multiple model platforms, automated model optimization, program linking, and integration of parametric model designs. It's not just VDC that benefits from these integrated virtual models but the wider contributing digital design team as well.
Key features of this capability include:
Interactive model design review
Model interrogation and validation
Model data federation (inherited from Revit models, for example)
4D+ construction methodologies
Interactive 4D construction sequence timeline
Technologies such as augmented reality (AR) are still in their infancy, but they are going to be very important tools for the future use of such models. The ability to interact with virtual construction models in a real-world environment will be very powerful. Whilst there are already some AR options available, they are limited in capability and still in early stages of development.
Underpinned by construction engineering and an accelerating advancement of technology, VDC has grown to become a vital and integral tool for the AEC industry. Technology will continue to open doors and opportunities to drive its progression. Continued multidisciplinary collaboration and focused development will see it continue to become more streamlined and solution-focused. We are in a golden age for VDC and we are only limited by what we hope to achieve with it. It will be exciting to see what possibilities arise not only in the immediate future, but also as VDC rises to future challenges and opportunities.
Stephen Lester is the VDC manager for Australasia and South East Asia at Robert Bird Group. Stephen has worked for several top-tier engineering consultancies within the Infrastructure, High-rise, Mining, Aviation, Transportation and Remediation sectors. During this period, Stephen identified opportunities within the engineering and construction industry to develop a capability focused on offering clients a digital simulation of their projects from conception to completion, including virtual construction. In 2006, Stephen completed a master’s degree focused on developing VDC and in 2008 he joined Robert Bird Group using his industry experience to build, develop, and evolve a bespoke in-house VDC capability. This VDC capability has been successfully deployed and implemented on multiple large-scale and complex landmark engineering projects globally for RBG. Stephen and team are continually developing and expanding this capability to lead, respond, and cater for in this fast paced and rapidly evolving space.