Power-users rolling more and more data into digital design and construction models are finding that getting the right data, at the right level of detail, and presenting it well-purposed for the task at hand is the key to gaining value in implementations large and small.

There is a lot of experimentation and analysis about modeling going on today. Experts in technology implementation are taking the ever-expanding array of software and hardware and resolving best practices for implementing virtual design and construction tools.

It’s not rocket science, but it takes some careful thinking, discussion and management to accomplish effective model use,” says Martin Fischer, director of the Center for Integrated Facilities Engineering —CIFE—at Stanford, University in Palo Alto, Calif.

CIFE has been working since 1988 on building project integration modeling, a discipline it calls Virtual Design and Construction. Its approach takes a step back from the product-focused building information model ( BIM) to incorporate the organization of the project, as well as the processes of the design and construction team.

It is more than a matter of semantics, as construction managers take  BIMs into the real world and find themselves interfacing with many non-design influences on a project that also can be effectively incorporated into a model, like site logistics and temporary structures. These can quickly make the model much more than a store of building component information.

The Washington State Dept. of Transportation is now developing a very rich example as it creates a digital environment for two alternatives for the proposed Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement project in Seattle. One alternative would replace a three-mile-long, earthquake-damaged viaduct with an above ground replacement, and the other would take the traffic underground through a cut-and-cover tunnel.

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Images: Washington State DOT

WashDOT decided early to model the work area—basically downtown Seattle—deeply and extensively. It realized the difficulty of building public support and understanding of the alternatives, projected to have a midpoint cost in 2013 of up to $4.63 billion, and the challenges of designing and managing construction in a dense, urban environment.

WashDOT will build the project virtually in a unified model housed in an Oracle Spatial Database accessible to all disciplines. Among the first products, released Sept. 21, are two 4.5-minute “videos” of fly-throughs of the landscape with the two alternatives. “We use this video as a communication tool with the public and elected officials,” says Ron Paananen, project director for WashDOT.  “It’s all digitally based on mapping of the city. It looks like a photograph, it looks like the real thing, but it is also technically accurate from the drawings themselves. The dimensions are all there. It has been very effective.”

"It looks like the real thing...it�s been...effective." - Ron Paananen, Alaska Way Project Director

Paananen says there was grumbling at first about the $300,000 cost, but “that flack” was very brief. “Interestingly enough, it’s now posted on all the news media,” he says. The site had more than 32,000 hits in the first week on the WashDOT project site. A sampling of local media showed more than 31,000 hits during the same period.

But as effective as the “video” apparently is, it really is just the tip of a data iceberg that design-build contractor Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City, is building to house the project. “WashDOT is taking a leading-edge approach to ‘PIM’, or Program Information Management, by incorporating all relevant project content into a single relational database,” says PB’s chief technology officer, Doug Eberhard.

The animated fly-throughs, for instance, are based on the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) data and laser scans collected of structures on the route. Eberhard says the data will give users Web-based, integrated access to 2D and 3D CAD, GIS, raster design, geotechnical, environmental, construction, project controls and related document management links for the entire project and its various alternatives. The project is using parametric virtual design and construction tools from Autodesk, Bentley, ESRI, Oracle, Primavera, NavisWorks and Microsoft, as well as geotechnical software from gINT and RockWorks. Numerous systems and data locations are to be tied into a single secure portal.

Photo: Guy Lawrence/ENR
Rachel Arulraj, Parsons Brinckerhhoff�s geospatial services manager, shares ideas for the Alaska Way data portal with colleagues in visualization room in New York.

Rachel Arulraj, geospatial services manager in Parsons Brinckerhoff's Geotechnical and Tunneling Technical Resource Center, is developing the data management system. “We will keep [the software involved] in its proprietary formats, but make them visible, measurable and analyzable to everyone,” she says.

Designing the Database

Designing the database started with meetings with the disciplines of construction, engineering, environmental, geotechnical, real estate, transportation planning and utility to scope their data needs. They then were surveyed, based on the input from the first meetings, about access to which of 107 distinct data sets identified they would need—and also need to share with other disciplines. Individual needs were further defined across 11 “aspects,” including level of precision, frequency of update, resolution etc. to help Arulraj plan the software to create the database’s various user-specific interfaces.

Photos: Guy Lawrence/ENR
Arulrag starts with user surveys, paper and pen to develop organization charts and standards books (below) before developing software for Alaska Way.

The biggest challenge is working with multiple software products in different disciplines “and they don’t talk to each other,” Arulraj says. Multimedia and “vicinity models”, for instance, particularly useful for environmental experts and transportation planners, do not necessarily line up to CAD data, so she and her developers are writing their own application to line them up with the geospatial coordinates to which the CAD data is also referenced by.

Even power-modelers are still wrangling with issues about hardware, software, database design, content, standards, nomenclature, security and business issues. For some involved, that can make even talking about what they are up to an issue.

Owners are sensitive about early-process investments that the uninitiated often see as expensive, marketing frills, and many of the architects, engineers, fabricators and contractors who are building and using the models on their projects are careful to follow their clients’ cues. And they all are sensitive about being seen as devoting too much resource to experimental technology. Yet many say they see advantages to being in the lead.

The most successful efforts occur when business interests align, users say. When there is buy-in from the top, like modeling driven by departments of transportation, mega corporations like Disney and Intel, or the federal government...