Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

Virtual Design and Construction: Visualizing and Designing a Better Building

The Chrysalis Amphitheatre, Columbia, MarylandVirtual simulation has been a popular training tool for decades in industries ranging from aeronautics to medicine. Now, architects, engineers, and construction companies are venturing into the virtual world to improve the process of designing and completing building projects.

Virtual design and construction (VDC) systems allow the parties collaborating on a project to simulate the entire construction process in a 3D environment before beginning actual work at the physical job site. Some contractors are even using sophisticated virtual reality applications as part of their VDC processes.

Among its many benefits, VDC facilitates communication and cooperation between the participating stakeholders in a project right from the start, according to Tom Zahner, chief operating officer of SMACNA company A. Zahner Co., Kansas City, Missouri, an architectural metalwork company considered to be a pioneer in VDC.

He says that VDC helps develop trust between partners and gets them invested in seeing the project as a whole is successful, not just delivering on their individual areas of responsibility. Zahner authored the SMACNA white paper Virtual Design and Construction Practice: Benefits, Challenges, and Proven Strategies for AEC Teams and serves as chair of SMACNA’s Architectural Sheet Metal Council Steering Committee.

“You are collaborating instead of coordinating,” Zahner says. “Because this is a collaborative modeling effort, all the smart people are sitting at the table at the same time seeing the issues. It is getting people in touch with issues immediately.”

The Chrysalis in Symphony Woods. Image courtesy A. Zahner Co.The Zahner team used VDC to create The Chrysalis Amphitheatre at Merriweather Park located in Symphony Woods in Columbia, Maryland. The Chrysalis is a multi-purpose performance center designed by Marc Fornes with Living Design Lab. Zahner manufactured and installed the exterior structure and skin system.

The Chrysalis is made of tubular steel knitted together to form a structure that houses a performance stage. Completed in the spring of 2017, its name references the transitionary stage of a butterfly; its form resembles the enormous roots of the cypress tree, supporting an array of performances and events.

Using VDC, sheet metal and HVAC contractors can achieve greater efficiencies and enhanced quality controls throughout the life of their project—touching everything from budgeting to procuring materials to scheduling.

The VDC Process: Communicating and Prefabricating
VDC starts with building information modeling (BIM), where all partners on a project participate in creating a digital model of the facility. The participants then interact on a virtual project site to simulate the construction process.

Chrysalis final model. Image courtesy A. Zahner Co. “VDC is associated with prefabrication,” says Kyle Watson, Zahner’s VDC technical lead. “You are also doing the coordinating, the planning ahead of time with the model provided to us—taking digital files from all the stakeholders and making sure what we want to do with them, so it meets all our deadlines on time and on budget.”

The collaborators work together to achieve a specific level of development (LOD) for their model, which measures its reliability. A higher LOD indicates the participants have a greater degree of confidence in how different systems within the project will work with each other.

That includes parts such as supports and connections necessary for coordination between the different systems in the project. If the LOD is high enough, the partners can identify potential problem spots in the project and work to address them before they start construction.

“We build all the checks, all the quality control and fabrication details, so we are doing everything with a pretty high degree of accuracy,” Watson says. “It saves a lot time.”

The final 3D model offers a foundation and reference point for all decisions throughout the project. Minnesota-based SMACNA sheet metal contractor MG McGrath Inc. has used VDC on hundreds of projects since the early 2000s.

Chrysalis-Press-Release-image_250x188Around the company, the final model is referred to as “the single source of truth” for a project, according to Mike McGrath, the company’s president and a former member of SMACNA’s Architectural Sheet Metal Council Steering Committee. “Everything is generated from that model,” he says.

Benefits of VDC: Collaboration, Clarity, Purpose
In addition to fostering a greater sense of collaboration and common purpose among the contractors working on a construction project, Tom Zahner cites improved communication as one of VDC’s primary benefits. Because the parties are all using a shared platform, it offers greater clarity between the participants. The growth of cloud-based computing has further streamlined information-sharing between collaborators.

VDC also enables contractors to plan out their timelines and budgets for projects with a greater degree of precision, according to McGrath. Those improvements trickle down to smaller tasks on projects, such as measuring dimensions in the field, he says.

CHR1 Model_250x120Arguably the biggest plus for VDC is the ability to identify problems on the front end of a project before work is actually done on it. “We see the challenges that we may not see on a (two-dimensional) drawing,” McGrath says.

Ultimately, that reduces the risks associated with a project, according to Zahner. In turn, he says, that yields lower costs and shorter durations. “Change orders become obsolete,” Zahner remarks.

“The things you can do with 3D modeling are so powerful,” Watson says. “If you can get people to agree on everything, you can fly on a project.” 

zahner_Tom Zahner_VDC 250x163In terms of potential pitfalls, McGrath warns that maximizing the value of VDC requires “100 percent buy-in from all stakeholders.” That can be difficult, especially when the contractors on any given project tend to come from a variety of trades.

On the other hand, McGrath notes that VDC software systems have become more affordable in the last 10 years. They also offer better customization capabilities now, he says, which makes VDC even more effective.

So, look for the use of VDC to become even more widespread on construction projects in the near future, says Zahner. “It greatly enhances your ability to define and engineer the right product for both you and the customer.”

Learn more about MG McGrath’s work.