BitDepth 573 - April 24

Martin Fischer of Stanford U talks to local construction industry professionals about the virtual world of building models...
Virtual design meets local reality

Professor Martin Fischer engages an audience of construction industry professionals at UTT's Virtual Design Seminar. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

Virtual design is the business of consolidating all the elements of construction, from architect's vision through to foundation pour into a single digital model that becomes the reference point for an entire building project.
The centrepiece of virtual design is an attractive three dimensional rendering of the project that looks just like the 3D models that have become the vogue way of giving clients a preview of their building.
Anyone who has seen the interminably repeated government television segment on the UTT Tamana Campus has been wooed by the potential of a 3D model to explain the scale and dimension of a sophisticated building design.

In virtual design, those models, once a jumble of lines on paper, now include a surprising level of smarts.
A virtual design model, properly called a building information model (BIM), isn't a rendering of a draughtsman's sketch, it is the sketch.
Each digital line represents a real world bill of goods for materials, space occupied in construction and an unprecedented way of seeing a construction project both in simulated completion and stripped down to the many elements that make a building habitable.

Learning from Stanford U
At a seminar on the new technology two weeks ago, Martin Fischer, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Director of the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE), Stanford University, talked shop with a group of engineers, architects and draughtsmen at UTT's O'Meara Campus.
"Virtual design and construction is something we do every day, but we do it in our heads," Fischer said.
Fischer then cited projects went beyond the creative freedom of design in a forgiving virtual world, demanding almost inhuman accuracy, with machining tolerances calculated in thousandths of an inch and workflows scheduled into slices of time in busy environments.

Stanford started CIFE in 1988 and has emerged as a leading edge researcher and consulting resource in the growing business of building information modelling, a technology that has grown to embrace not just spatial information guiding the routing of pipes, ventilation and wiring through a structure (dubbed clash detection), but also cost measurement and time scheduling, which have added two additional "dimensions" to these information laden digital structures.
CIFE has measured significant drops in design and construction time reduced change orders and narrowed variations in cost on projects with use these models effectively.

On Fischer's invitation, the assembled professionals shared common issues in the construction industry, which included getting the right information at the right time, showing clients design options, accuracy of drawings as revisions mount and in the case of State projects, demonstrating the value of the project to the intended user, the public.

Hiccups at the virtual draughtboard
Many of these issues are being addressed by building information models according to current users of these new digital tools attending the seminar, but moving from scrolled paper to dissectable, rotating models hasn't been seamless.
According to Brian Lewis of acla:works, who hosted a joint presentation by the architectural, engineering, cost management and virtual design team on the UTT Tamana project, the real value of virtual design is in the common knowledge that the model brings to everyone involved in the project.

Engineers can see how the plumbing runs, architects can see how air-conditioning ducts will consume headroom and everyone can see how their part of the project fits (and doesn't fit) into the digitally rendered whole.
From Lewis' point of view, adopters of the technology can either start with a small project and try building information models in an environment with room for error or use the resources that a large project brings to the table to drive a thorough implementation of virtual design throughout the design and construction process.

Virtual design is very much a technology still in its early stages. Problems with file interchange and compatibility were at the top of the list of problems that users reported.
Participants at the Fischer seminar were either tentative new users or curious contemplators of the technology, but this adventurous group notably did not include many of the companies working in construction and architecture in Trinidad and Tobago today.
But that's hardly surprising when such a major shift hits a long established industry. Change is difficult to manage, but massive change in a business with long established traditions is always managed uphill.
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