A Picture is Worth 1000 Uses

3D and Visualization

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’; but a 3D model speaks volumes.  The value of three dimensions cannot be understated in the construction universe. We are visually oriented creatures.  As human beings our psychology demands the third dimension.  When we don’t have the information typically lacking in 2D drawings, we fill in the blanks.

The process of “filling in the blanks” causes the greatest problem associated with construction communication.  If you allow a varied audience with differing backgrounds, experience levels and ideas to “fill in the blanks” the communication gap grows exponentially.  3D models and visualization aids are filling in this gap.   While the 3rd dimension may not resolve every communication issue, it is an enormous step in the right direction.

Various practices of 3D visualization technology have emerged in the construction industry and continue to evolve.  While only a few can be discussed here, the range of possibilities is dependent only on creativity of the manager.

4D Scheduling - Site Logistics & Installation Planning
We think and work in 3 dimensions, yet plan and communicate our construction activities and phasing in 2 dimensions.  More often than not the unforeseen remaining dimension yields critical information.  Historically, issues housed in the 3rd dimension are discovered in the field, where the issue’s costs increase dramatically and affect both schedule and quality. 

3D visualization of schedule and phasing concepts has proven to be a valuable source of planning information and preemptive issue resolution.  Take for instance a relatively complex foundation system with various elevations and steps.  Instead of asking the superintendent to color a 2D drawing showing the installation sequence; one quick look at the entire system in 3D can provide more information and better sequencing than days pouring through drawing details.  A good superintendent armed with a simple 3D drawing can very quickly sequence a schedule that best suits the project needs.

This does not always mean that the sequencing need be accomplished in a 4D schedule with parts, pieces and activities.  In reality, the superintendent armed with 3D information has already completed the 4D element.  However, the communication of sequencing and planning efforts is always better communicated in a 3D visualization of the planned activities.  Ultimately the best way to communicate schedule is to do so in a manner where activities have substance and quantities. 

A construction schedule is the legal communication of the element of time duration of a project.  Successful projects manage the legal schedule very rigidly.  However, communication difficulties occur with complex relationships and vague activity naming conventions.  Unfortunately, adding activities means adding complexity and complexity causes clarity issues, not to mention a 20+ page document. 

Take for instance a schedule showing all of the activities of a concrete structure installation.  It is often the case that several activities are taking place on several levels at one time.

A good schedule could have hundreds of activities occurring at one time.  A high quality 4D schedule can demonstrate the same activities but in a method where the schedule can quickly and easily be analyzed for manpower and material needs.  The 4D schedule can also be quickly analyzed for manpower and material leveling needs over time improving time management, decreasing excess materials and manpower and lowering overall cost.  While the analysis can take place in two dimensions with a detailed schedule, ultimately the analysis is significantly easier, more effective and more accurate with a 3D time sequenced analysis.

3D Spatial Coordination
3D Spatial Coordination and communication are synonymous. Whether it is for exterior skin, MEPS system or finishes the power of 3D coordination bridges the expensive field communication gap.

The construction industry insinuates that 3D spatial coordination is the low-hanging fruit of BIM. While it may be the lowest hanging it is certainly the most financially rewarding. Case studies and publications would have you believe that coordination is commonplace; however the contrary is most often the case. It is not happening near as much as publications and case studies would have you believe. Of all possible BIM activities coordination should be paramount to the project and the first to be adopted by designers and contractors. Scanning technologies should be an integral part to the overall coordination process as well.

3D laser scanning has advanced to the point of financial viability for even small projects. The picture is an example of a small mechanical room 350 SF by 20’ that was scanned using the LIDAR technology. An addition to the building required new equipment to be added to an already constricted mechanical space. Without as-builts of the room, undertaking a 3D laser scan was the best financial option for a 3D feasibility study of the additional components.

The scan created an impeccable as-built model that could then be supplemented by the addition of subcontractor models. Early 3D modeling and scanning coordinated the constricted area with the new equipment, communicating the best equipment for the space and providing the owner the best possible outcome without expensive field coordination and rework. 

Below is an image of the complete 3D scan and an image with the new equipment added. To construct a model by hand would have taken each contractor days to accomplish. The scan required 2 man hours and modeling took another 8. This 10 hour process communicated to the entire team the necessary information to spatially coordinate the space effectively.

Whether the project is $20K or $500M, new construction or a remodel, 3D spatial coordination and scanning technology has become a required element in the coordination process. It is the low hanging apple that you need to pick. 

3D Virtual Mock-Ups
A great alternative to modeling an entire building is micro modeling a portion of it; moving from Macro BIM to Micro BIM. Typical floor plans refer to details for the micro portions of a project- but 2D details are often difficult to visualize in 3D. Bringing together 2D details into a 3D model paints the entire picture. The model can then be dissected and discussed within the design-construction team. Below is a 3D detail created from two 2D details of an exterior skin component.  The key to successful communication of complex systems is to provide for the 3rd dimension.

In addition to creating 3D details, mock-ups of complex systems such as skin should be built virtually before installed physically. Since most buildings are unique, the mock-up has been historically used to understand project complexity and material interaction and perfect the means and methods of how systems come together. In today’s market mock-ups are required to pass rigorous visual and physical inspections - so design and installation need to be right the first time. Below is a mock-up used prior to construction to analyze framing, support, skin systems and clashes before field installation. The mockup aided the design of the details that were used for the exterior skin of the project and translated into fewer delays, RFI’s and change orders.

The basic underlying principle of all visual models and renderings is simple communication of an idea.  Methods and models may change over time but the basic principle remains the same.  High quality, understandable and effective communication should be the goal.  We are visual creatures and our communication should be in a format that best suits our needs.