Large construction companies aren’t generally known for being leaders in adopting new technologies. But Gilbane Building Company is different. With an aggressive deadline looming to complete a new building for the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Gilbane turned to prefabricated construction and virtual reality to get the job done. As an added bonus, this building project also serves as a living learning lab for current Wentworth students studying construction management.
John Myers, Director of Virtual design and Construction, Gilbane Building Company: Industrywide, construction is one of those industries that’s always hesitant to want to be the first one to adopt any new technology.
Jack Duggan, Chair of Department of Civil Engineering, Wentworth Institute of Technology: Well, the new building is our first standalone academic building in a generation.
Myers: It’s a four-story lab and science academic building for Wentworth Institute of Technology. Wentworth is the local engineering, architecture, polytech institute in downtown Boston.
Duggan: The faculty here in the program have been intimately involved with the design of the space. This building gives us a chance to design space for not only what we anticipate our current graduates will need but also a generation of graduates.
Myers: We gave a kind of holistic vision to Wentworth. We said, “Look, we’re going to make all of our subcontractors draw in [Autodesk] Revit.” Drawing in Revit means that they’re drawing in the same software that the designers are so we can exchange models back and forth. Knowing that, though, we knew that we were going to be able to do a very, very intensive VR turnover to the owner at various life-cycle stages.
We used VR to sit with the higher-up dignitaries and you get their buy-in for the visuals of the building. The building is going to be this tall. Well, what does “this tall” actually mean? It’s going to be this tall, and then we can walk you down the street and show you really, truly what the height is.
Kevin Cooke, Senior Project Executive, Gilbane Building Company: This project is about 10 months into construction. We drove our first pile last August. We have approximately five months left to complete. As accelerated as it is, [the project] begged for the highest level of prefabrication as well as design technology.
Myers: Prefab is everything to us. In order to do prefab properly, you have to have a 3D model because you have to give your contractors the operational surety and the dimensional surety that what they’re going to prefabricate is not going to be disassembled on the job site and put in stick wide. They have to be able to say, “Yes, okay, I see it. This is great. This is exactly what I need,” so all of those tools that we’re using, including VR, are used to get the buy-in from not just the owner, not just the architect, but also our subs who are going to be taking an enormous amount of risk building assemblies ahead of time in a warehouse, putting them on a truck, and then bringing them here.
Michael Harris, Project Manager, Gilbane Building Company: On this project, we had two major prefab components, the first being the prefabricated penthouse. That’s where all our air-handling equipment and how we cool the building and exchange air in the building, exhaust the building. Then all of the plumbing, piping, and mechanical piping, all those came in prefab racks, about 20 feet long.
There were a couple unique challenges with this building. One, we’re in a very tight urban site, so some of the sizing that we would benefit in the prefab, we had to determine what could fit on trucks, fit in the neighborhood, and then get in the building—because we have limited access, both on the front and the back of the building.
Paul Fitzgerald, Plumbing Foreman, TG Gallagher: It’s probably my guys up there. They probably know that I’m giving an interview, so they’re making some noise. In a lab situation, it probably quadruples the amount of piping that you have to put in on the job: Water, drainage, gases, because of that increased amount of work, it creates more prefabrication that has to be done.
What’s changed with the business is the pace of the job, and prefab kind of matches that pace. I would say in terms of man power, it probably allows you to do the job in a third of the time that it would take compared to normal construction.
Cooke: The penthouse up at the top of this building was actually fabricated offsite in nine sections and brought and put together in a weekend. Something like that in the old days would have taken over a month to assemble.
Myers: So because this is such a high-performing building, we actually have to ensure that if we’re going to prefabricate all of this mechanical ahead of time, that when we bring in all the casework, everything’s going to line up perfectly—because we’re not going to get another shot at this. The schedule doesn’t have the time in it to get another shot at it. We had to throw those extra layers of quality assurance, quality control, and so we used all the tools available, including VR. It’s one thing to fly through the building in [Autodesk] Navisworks and check that everything is above the ceiling, not below the ceiling. It’s another thing to actually go through like you’re a person and turn your head around and look at things and use your controllers to touch things and get into the wall where the fume hood is.
Duggan: I think oftentimes when you’re teaching, you look at what resources are available to you, and you adapt to that. Our curriculum depends and relies on co-op. It depends and relies on students getting some fundamental knowledge and then going out and getting some real-life world experience.
Shannon Sturtz, Construction Management Student, Wentworth Institute of Technology: The learning living lab is an opportunity for Wentworth students to come out of the classroom and see what they’ve been learning in the classroom in a real-life situation. I’ll be sitting in a class and then my professor will be like, “Oh, look outside. They’re putting piles in right now.” We’ll turn around, and we’ll see exactly what we were just talking about on the board, and it will be right on the job site. I walk past it every day.
Duggan: When we see this building go up, every element of our curriculum is on display.
Obie Rankin, Project Engineer, Gilbane Building Company: I live, breathe construction. I graduated from Wentworth in 2014. Now, I’m on the campus working on their new academic building. This project in itself has so many rewards to it: having the living learning environment with all the students and having them come through with the program, having the interns that we have on this project go through multiple rotations, teaching them different things.
Duggan: This is a profession; this is an industry. You’re a part of it and hopefully contributing to that; you’re part of a lasting legacy. This building will be around for 100 years, and we’ve all had some part in the making of it.
Myers: My greatest reward for my work is being able to actually partially change the industry that I work in. We are helping drive the industry to new heights, and not everybody in every industry gets a chance to do that. It’s just every day is different, and it’s a great experience.