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April 18, 2017
Virtual construction & technology, Lean Construction

When writing about visualization, it would be easy to start listing off all the ways that virtual construction has improved project visualization - from sales, to estimating, to supporting design teams, to the way we install work in the field. We have provided some ground-breaking visuals to our clients and project teams. But to understand the gains we have made in these areas and the vision for where we still want to go, it’s important to understand that processes within our company have changed and continue to evolve to help our clients and teams gain maximum benefit from the technology.

In the beginning

When I started working at Pepper in 2010, BIM was first starting to take off in our industry. Considerable focus was placed on the “I” in BIM: the Information. While the industry didn’t quite know what to do with the “I” yet, everyone knew that it was supposed to be the most important part.

At first, our industry primarily used the 3D models for MEP coordination. We wondered if the models didn’t have any information in them, if we were really doing BIM. While we were on board with utilizing the technology, there were concerns about liability, who owned the model and risks associated with the contractor modeling anything ourselves. And we weren’t alone; architects were also hesitant to share their design models with us.

In fact, at the time, the prevailing thought was that I would never really model anything. I would just work with models that our trade partners created. Our short-sighted view questioned: What would we even model? How would we use it? What would be the value?

Fast-forward to 2017, and I’m excited to say that we’ve long broken through these barriers. The “I” in BIM has infinite value, and there are plenty of blog posts we could do on just the subject of “I,” but we also see the value of a 3D model by itself.

As our project teams become more familiar with what we can provide, the possibilities continue to expand.

Focus on value

As the technology evolves, we must keep our focus on what adds value to our clients and our projects teams. In simple terms, any visual we provide has two jobs:

  1. Enable more informed and collaborative decision making
  2. Enhance communication of an agreed-upon plan to project stakeholders
We should also consider the benefits from the visual versus the time spent to generate it. Some of the benefits we look for include the following:
  1. Cost and schedule savings by reducing time to make decisions and solve problems
  2. Improved client understanding of the project
  3. Improved project safety
  4. Improved project quality
To provide more clients with these benefits, we explore tools and workflows that reduce the amount of time and cost it takes to create the visuals. For example, we’ve recently invested in a software that allows us to generate virtual reality experiences in a fraction of the time that it used to take.

These tools aren’t just an addition to our projects. When they are truly integrated and strategically planned, only then do our teams and clients receive the maximum benefit.

Visualization today

When it comes to improving project visualization, through virtual design and construction, we’ve come a long way.

Validating operational performance

Doctors were struggling to visualize the space and the functionality of the equipment with the physical mockup. This resulted in the project being put on hold while decisions were being made. Our project team suggested a virtual mock-up to allow the end users to see the actual equipment in a virtual environment. After reviewing the virtual mockup and making changes in the model in real-time, the doctors and nurses better understood the space and approved the design and equipment layout in one day. Click here to read the full story.

Physical and virtual mockup

Envisioning the space

A client wanted to gain a better understanding of materials and architectural aesthetics in the new lobby of their corporate headquarters. Since size and uniqueness of the space were not conducive to constructing a physical mockup, the team developed a virtual mockup of the entire space. It was a more cost-effective solution and resulted in affirmation that the space would meet the client’s needs with the look they intended. 

2D versus 3D

Communicating our assumptions during preconstruction

Often we provide our clients with budgets for buildings that are still conceptual in nature. Before BIM, we provided a narrative of what our budget represents, along with a few accompanying sketches. Now, we are shifting toward providing a 3D model that illustrates what our assumptions mean - not to dictate the design but to help our clients better understand what the numbers represent. It allows the design and budget to be developed more closely in tandem.

Assumptions with BIM

Communicating the site logistics plan

For years, the image below has represented a somewhat industry-standard logistics plan. It’s a site plan that was generated by the civil engineer and marked up by the project superintendent. 

Now we use a highly visual 3D logistics plan to more effectively communicate our plan to project stakeholders who may not be accustomed to reading construction drawings. This format also allows our project teams to better communicate the plan internally and to our trade partners. The image below depicts a site with three significant active projects going on concurrently.

2D versus 3D logistics

Communicating the schedule

We also take our project schedule and integrate it with the 3D model. Doing this takes what is considered an unreadable document for most outside of the construction industry, and turns it into a dynamic and highly visual representation of the project schedule. Click here to view the video of the entire sequence for the image on the right.

Gantt chart vs 4D schedule

Maximizing productivity and reducing waste with self-perform

Our self-perform group generates 3D models for exterior framing and concrete for estimating. The models are then used to precut and prefabricate materials, when possible, and serve as installation drawings in the field. The visual tells our tradesmen in the field which pre-cut studs to use in each location, which reduces material waste and increases our productivity in the field.

Self perform prefabrication

Envisioning the possibilities

The examples above are just a few of the ways virtual construction has changed how we plan and manage our projects. Since I started working at Pepper, we’ve used 3D models to facilitate collaborative quality coordination meetings, develop energy models and inform the development of project specific safety plans. We have been involved in developing virtual reality simulations before they were prevalent, tested hand-held laser scanners and tried out a laser scanning cart for quick and iterative real-time visuals of our project sites.

We are now starting to look at ways to use technology to solve industry-wide problems, like underground utility coordination, and are beginning to work with peer companies to research ways we can use virtual and augmented reality to better prepare the tradesmen in our industry to work more safely on our jobsites.

As new technologies develop, we will continue to look for the value they bring and find ways to leverage them across our industry.

About the Author


Mike Alder, CM-BIMDirector of Virtual Construction, Indiana

Mike Alder has utilized virtual construction technology on more than $1.7 billion in construction in a variety of markets, including healthcare, higher education, industrial, commercial and retail. He is a frequent speaker at industry events, including Autodesk University, the CFTA Conference and Lean Construction Institute. He was one of Purdue University’s first computer graphics technology graduates with a focus in Building Information Modeling. Mike was honored among four alumni with the Early Career Award from Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which recognized individuals’ efforts to harness the power of their degree to positively impact their chosen profession, as well as how today’s technology will improve the world tomorrow. Mike holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University Polytechnic Institute, formerly the College of Technology.