Artwork by Eddy Rojas

“I’m Frank, your project manager. Welcome to our design center,” Frank Gomez said as he shook Ali Haddad’s hand warmly. A charismatic man in his 40s, Frank was a founder of the engineering firm in charge of the design, construction and operation of Amadeus Towers, the future home of Sapientia Financial.

As CEO of Sapientia, I had partaken of these design meetings for the last three months, but Ali was new at the table. A rising star with a creative and inquisitive mind, his perspective would only improve our design plans.

ENR Construction Science Fiction Contest“Of course I’ll join in,” Ali had said when I extended the invitation. “After all, we provide financial and insurance services for so many contractors. I’d like to know more about the construction business.” He smiled and added with a wink, “Besides, it would be nice to see what the buzz is all about regarding the latest real-time concurrent design process.”

As we entered Suite B of Frank’s offices, Ali and I found seats at one of the individual workstations set around the dual-visualization system. Each workstation had a touchscreen on a slanted surface.

“Ali, please place the palm of your hand on the touchscreen until the screen changes from red to green,” said Frank. “That will indicate a successful acquisition of your biometric signature.”

Frank then went on to introduce the rest of the team. Each member sat at his or her respective workstation, with Frank at his post in the center like a maestro in a symphony orchestra about to direct the others, set the tempo and shape the outcome of the experience.

“As a construction manager,” Frank explained, turning to Ali, “I coordinate the design process, execute the final design in the field and hand over the facility to our operators. We have discovered over the years that merging the positions of construction manager and design coordinator brings significant benefits during both the design and the construction phases of a project.” After a short pause, he continued, “Today, we are focusing on the design of your meeting rooms.”

Frank then looked at Susan and said, “Suzy, would you mind showing the design alternatives you have been contemplating for the meeting rooms?”

Susan, an experienced architect with a knack for finding creative solutions to elusive problems, used her touchscreen to render a 3D photorealistic depiction of her conceptual designs on the main holographic display. She first showed the entire building and then rotated the display to uncover and zoom into the conference-room area.

I smiled to myself, recalling the days when I was a little girl going to the movies with my dad and wearing those goofy 3D glasses. No more glasses now. 3D had transformed into a much more intuitive experience.

Susan had three alternatives for the meeting rooms. The first one included six identical rooms with a capacity for up to 20 people each. The second had two small rooms, two midsize rooms, and two large rooms. Finally, the third option showcased a modular, reconfigurable approach where one could have as many as 12 small rooms or as few as two very large rooms, with a variety of combinations based upon 10-person capacity modules.

She demonstrated how a variety of finishes and furnishings could significantly change the aesthetics and function of the rooms. Susan was well-versed on the visualization system, flying from one scene to the next and managing both the holographic display and the visualization wall with exquisite dexterity. She really knew how to integrate these two displays to make her point.

John, our structural engineer—and a man of few words—began looking at the options on his touchscreen. After a couple of minutes of tinkering with different configurations, he said, “I think we can use the same structural system regardless of the alternative selected.”

John then proceeded to input new parameters on his structural design module, his modifications appearing on the visualization display in quick flashes. “Yes,” he announced with a nod.

A fully designed structural system appeared. We could see concrete footings, columns, beams, and sheer walls on the holographic display and their cross sections with reinforcement details on the visualization wall.

“Not so fast,” replied Amy, our mechanical designer. As an architectural engineer, she was very much cognizant of how mechanical systems interacted with the other building systems. Her eyes moved from the display to her workstation. “From a mechanical perspective, the optimal solution for each alternative is different,” she said. “Let me see what I can do.”

Then, she began looking at different options generated by her mechanical design module. “Yes,” she said, “We have three different options. For alternatives one and two, where we have fixed rooms, we can pretty much do it for the same cost. However, the reconfigurable option would cost 10% more.”

Nancy, our electrical consultant, then intervened, “I get a similar result. But the reconfigurable alternative is only 5% more expensive.”

“Suzy,” said Frank, “I would imagine that the architectural costs associated with the reconfigurable option are also higher, right?”

“Yes,” replied Suzy, “I am getting 20% higher costs.”

Okay, folks,” said Frank, “let’s put all of this together.” All three alternatives were loaded with fully designed architectural, structural, mechanical, and electrical systems. The 3D displays of each configuration appeared.

Ali noticed a new dashboard on the visualization wall depicting information for each alternative regarding construction costs, life-cycle costs, project duration, energy consumption and carbon footprint, among other parameters.

“So, Frank,” Ali inquired, “can you tell me where you’re getting this information?”

Frank smiled. “Sure. Our design and construction planning processes are very much automated these days. Every time we make a decision regarding a particular space—as we have done here—our system automatically generates work packages by trades and requests real-time bids from pre-qualified specialty contractors.”

He continued, “Contractors, in turn, develop a bill of materials and link with their suppliers requesting real-time quotes. They also apply their own production rates, mark-ups and contingencies. What we see is their final, real-time bid. Our system takes on all those bids and adds in our own contingency factors for each contractor depending on the history we have with them.”

“For example, a contractor with the tendency for excessive change-order requests or who does not finish on time or who interferes with the job of other trades gets penalized with a larger contingency," Frank said. “So, we do not select the lowest bid for each work package, but the lowest modified bid."

“That’s what you’re seeing,” Frank said, pointing to the graphs and illustrations on the visualization wall. “By the way,” he added, "we could lock in these bids at any moment, but their values will continue to fluctuate on a daily basis until we do so. Therefore, some uncertainty still remains.”

Ali reflected for a few moments and then replied, “But what about the life-cycle costs and carbon footprint values?”

“Yes,” said Frank. “We use models and simulations to estimate these values. Nonetheless, the results are quite accurate since they’re calibrated based on sensory data from current structures.”

“You see, Ali, in the past, the only data we had about the performance of actual structures under a variety of situations was from laboratory experiments,” Frank continued. “But for the last 20 years, building codes have required all new construction to be fully instrumented with an array of sensors that give us a deeper understanding of the actual behavior of buildings rather than of the behavior we expect based on our design assumptions. With this knowledge in hand, we can design our latest models and simulations.”

I looked at Ali. “Any thoughts about these options?”

He bent his head for a moment, his eyes darting from one data point to the next. Finally, with a nod, he looked at me.

“I think we need to consider a fourth alternative," Ali said. "Some of our meetings are of a very sensitive nature where privacy is paramount.”

He looked around the room for a moment, then offered his idea. “Reconfigurable spaces are great for our own internal meetings. But a leak regarding the potential acquisition of a competitor by one of our clients could derail the whole deal,” he pointed out. “Our clients may not feel comfortable meeting in rooms with removable walls and less than ideal acoustical separation.”

“What if we leave three fixed rooms for 20 people each and then provide reconfigurable space for the other half of the area?” Suzy asked.

“That sounds like a good compromise to me,” I replied, “please do so.”

Everyone began working on their models, and within a few minutes we had a complete final design for the meeting rooms.  Our final option was only 8% more expensive than the fixed-room configurations, a fair price to pay for more flexible space.

As we were leaving our meeting, I looked at Ali and asked, “Ali, what are your impressions of this real-time concurrent design process?”

“I like it,” said Ali, with a twinkle in his eye. “I wish we could have the same confidence when we design our exotic—I mean innovative—financial products.”



Eddy Rojas is Director of the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he oversees academic programs in architectural engineering, construction engineering and construction management. Dr. Rojas holds advanced degrees in civil engineering and economics and is a registered Professional Engineer in Michigan. Throughout his academic career, he has led numerous research studies in modeling, simulation and visualization of construction engineering and management processes, construction economics and engineering education. Results of his research have been documented and disseminated in more than 85 publications.

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