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Creating A Safer, Smarter Building Site With Virtual Construction

Virtual Construction

To reduce the hours that their staff and subcontractors have to spend on-site and the number of people who have to fly around the country to visit projects, contractors are turning to virtual construction tools at increasing rates. Tools like Building Information Modeling, which allows contractors to share detailed, 3D models of a project from anywhere in the world, are gaining popularity in an industry notoriously known for being slow to adopt technology.

But for some firms, BIM tools and the benefits they bring to a project have been a priority for years.

“Everyone in the industry knows that delivering a job on time and under budget is always an end goal in every project, and this can be accomplished with virtual construction,” said James Holt, BIM manager at Clune Construction. “It’s ultimately all about making a project better, and virtual construction is a multifaceted way to improve performance and keep all stakeholders informed and on track.”

Clune has been operating its own in-house virtual group for more than a decade. The firm hopes that this new increased focus on virtual design proves to be a watershed moment that leads owners, developers and contractors to embrace this technology. Bisnow spoke with Holt and his colleagues Clune BIM coordinator Joe Glynn and Vice President and MEP coordinator Joe Zobel about the benefits of virtual construction beyond the coronavirus pandemic and the role these tools will play in the future of the industry. 

Bisnow: What inspired you to create an in-house virtual group? 

Holt: Clune began its own in-house virtual construction department to further our vision of being a thought leader in the construction industry. We started off by using slow 3D laser scanners and stumbling through different processes. Through persistence came some core operating procedures we were able to utilize to grow and implement new techniques. When we first started in virtual construction, we were simply collecting point clouds and generating simple models. Over time, we started discovering new ways to use our technology.

For example, we started using 3D laser scanners to generate floor surveys. This led us to realize that we had infinite options at our fingertips. We have since gone on to generate full Revit models of spaces. We then started to tie the schedule to the model, which enabled the project team to review everything in a clean video graphic. We even have had clients walk spaces with augmented reality goggles to verify the layout met their expectations.

This enabled even more conversation about what we could change before a subcontractor even set foot on the job site. This is exactly what we look for in a tool as a contractor, because it helps save our clients time and money.

Bisnow: Has the demand for virtual construction changed since the pandemic? 

Holt: I don’t believe the demand changed in terms of volume, but the pandemic has placed a renewed focus on the importance of virtual technology. Obviously right now people are doing everything they can to avoid in-person contact, but they still need a clear picture of how a project is progressing. Virtual construction tools bring people together from across the world, virtually, and let them see everything in 3D — what’s already been done to their project and what’s next. 

Glynn: Pre-pandemic, the benefits of virtual construction weren’t as obvious to people in the industry. But now, there’s been a switch in what people are prioritizing. The benefits have always been there, people are just finally noticing them. 

Bisnow: Beyond keeping people from having to visit a site in-person, what are the benefits of virtual construction? 

Holt: First and foremost, it's increased communication. One of the biggest issues on construction sites is the excess time spent re-explaining and clarifying things over and over. Virtual construction presents stakeholders with a clear picture of what is happening and all the key details they need, right in front of them, so they can have discussions about the project right away. 

Zobel: Labor is extremely expensive, so using virtual construction tools to help put a detailed plan in place before workers even step foot on-site can save a tremendous amount of time and money. 

Holt: Virtual construction tools help construction teams better project schedules and costs, which can help them stick to those schedules. Also, beyond keeping people off-site during the pandemic, there are other ways virtual construction can help boost construction safety. We can look at a virtual projection of a project with our internal safety team and identify risks in the field and come up with a plan to help keep workers safe before the work even begins. 

Bisnow: What role do you see virtual construction playing in the future of the industry? 

Holt: While virtual construction is deeply rooted in some parts of the industry, it is going to be a little while before it catches on across the board. However, it is making its way into new facets of commercial real estate. For example, virtual construction also allows us to more effectively transfer information to facility management teams. Instead of giving them dozens of binders with building information, we can hand over a virtual walkthrough that could feature all the key equipment in the building with links to maintenance manuals. 

We’re also seeing many different types of virtual reality tools that are coming onto the market. For example, people can wear augmented reality headsets that allow them to see the current environment around them while overlaying a 3D image of what could be there in the future. This way, they can see where the walls will be installed, where fixtures will be put up, all before a brick has been laid. 

No construction team is perfect, and virtual construction tools can serve as another quality control layer to the construction process. It’s something concrete that we can show to clients to prove that everything we are working on and installing in the field has a purpose and will lead to a better finished product. 

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Clune Construction. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.