Construction is a complex business characterized by multiple interdependent processes, contributions from experts in different fields, and evolving demands from project owners. Achieving a successful outcome requires excellence all the way from the design phase to on-site execution. Getting it right means money in the bank and a solid reference that brings in more projects down the line. Getting it wrong can mean making a loss, or even going out of business entirely…
Against this risky background and with so many actors involved, communication is of fundamental importance. This is a given. But whereas communication is about sharing separate plans in order to stay on the same page, collaboration is about actually creating the plan together right from the start.
So how should this collaboration between project participants begin?
As with so much of the modern construction process – or any modern business for that matter – the answer lies in the use of data. In the construction business, creating a data-accurate 3D model that all the project participants can work from and contribute towards is a sure way to bridge the gap between design intent and constructability.
Let’s take a look at the data-based construction process from the point of view of the structural designer, who plays a key role in collaboration from the outset of a project.
In construction, collaboration is more than communication
Structural designers are often the first participants in the construction process to tell the architect if a plan can be executed safely and within budget. There may be a lot of back and forth between the two as plans are adjusted and recalculations are done in order to create something that both parties are satisfied with. Collaboration starts here.
Performing calculations and analysis with automated tools help architects and engineers make faster collaborative decisions. Doing calculations manually may mean waiting another day – or longer. This communication is much more straightforward if the calculations are easily visible for review and validation. Spreadsheets are not ideal – the data is easier to understand when visualized as a 3D model.
Once both parties are satisfied that the numbers would result in a constructible outcome, it’s up to the structural engineer to communicate the plan to the material fabricators and on-site contractors.
When the fabricator and contractor receive a clear and accurate model, their jobs are more straightforward. They need to make fewer queries for the structural designer to clarify issues – saving both parties time – and the work goes more smoothly in the factory and on-site.
Collaborating around a data-accurate 3D model this early in the process has far reaching benefits all the way down the chain.
For instance, accurate calculations and analysis enable the structural engineer to present different options to customers, including alternatives for construction materials, labor-related costs, and the environmental impact of different choices. 3D models also allow late change requests to be accommodated more easily into the structural design process, so they do not cause confusion in the detailing phase, in the factor, or on site.
The benefits of data-driven collaboration are also evident in creating drawings, material lists and other documentation.
After the structural engineer has performed the calculations and analysis, the next step is to create any documents needed for executing the project. When this data is drawn from a 3D model, it passes seamlessly between engineers, technicians and the people involved in creating the deliverables. All changes are tracked too, so it’s possible to retrace steps should that be necessary.
Opportunity more than threat
With the benefits of collaboration around a 3D model so widespread across the construction chain, why then are some participants – including structural engineers – still reluctant to share data?
It’s a competitive industry, and collaboration is viewed by some as a threat to their position. Sharing knowledge – including key calculations and analysis – may be seen as giving away a competitive advantage. But this is an old-fashioned view, as the benefits of collaborating around a 3D model far outweigh any potential drawbacks.
This is particularly evident in the structural designer’s work. By allowing collaborative access to the 3D model at the core of their calculations and analysis, multiple other functions can work in tandem to save time and money. This frees up the structural designer to focus more on tasks that increase a building’s safety, or that allow it to be constructed more profitably and sustainably.
Structural designers want to produce great work, but are often under pressure to do things faster and cheaper. The key to solving this dilemma is to embrace the power of data and to collaborate around a 3D model with the other stakeholders – right from the start of a project. This is a proven way to increase design quality and personal productivity, while simultaneously keeping costs under control.