March 27, 2003

Smoothing out the construction process

  • Team coordination starts with ‘Virtual Design and Construction’
    Stanford University


    Architects and contractors who work effectively with their clients often succeed in selling their services. However, they often do not coordinate so effectively with each other after they win the job.

    The Stanford Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) has developed project models and visualization methods and tools that architects, contractors and owners all have started to use to support design and construction. The quick story is that these new project visualization methods in some cases have dramatically helped coordination between contractors, designers, owners and community stakeholders.

    The big idea

    Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) is the use of multi-disciplinary performance models of design-construction projects — including the product (i.e., facilities), work processes, organization of the design-construction-operation team, and economic impact (i.e., model of both cost and value of capital investments) — in order to support business objectives of multiple stakeholders.

    VDC models typically include 3-D CAD models, project plans for the design-construction process, and models of the project organization and its relationship to the plan. Multiple stakeholders interact with each other and the models using computer-based visualization of the different aspects of the project design and plan.

    4-D animation models

    Photo courtesy of Stanford University
    The “iRoom” at Stanford allows a project team to present simultaneous visualizations of the product, process and organization.

    Projects can now have 4-D animations of the construction process, producing animated visualizations of the construction sequence that are far more accessible to all stakeholders than a roll of 2-D drawings and a Gantt chart on a wall.

    The 4-D model uses a 3-D model of the design and a related plan of the design and construction process. The process was used on the Experience Music Project, where the complex hull of the building skin was decomposed into construction zones. Ragip Akbas, a Stanford student, developed an automated method to create construction zones for EMP.

    The multiple stakeholders of a project rarely gain significant insight into issues by reviewing 2-D drawings or even 3-D models and Gantt charts. 4-D animations often help stakeholders understand how the project is to get built, from the excavation to the final finish details. They also facilitate contractor interactions on both design details and construction plans of mutual interest.

    The iRoom

    We find that simple technology can help present visual information to multiple project stakeholders. Teams present their models using a three-display “interactive room,” allowing a team to present simultaneous visualizations of the product, process and organization. Similarly, multi-screen format helps stakeholders understand the relationships among functional requirements, design and the many predicted behaviors of the project (e.g., predicted schedule, predicted cost, predicted energy use).

    The CIFE Interactive Room (iRoom) includes a standard commercial set of three movable touch-screen “smart board” displays, associated projectors and PCs.

    Measurable objectives

    The VDC process applies the performance-based engineering method to the design-construction process. As structural and HVAC engineers design for performance objectives, the VDC method uses a simple process for setting and managing against specific objectives. Stakeholders can:

    • Identify a small set of measurable objectives that they judge to be relevant to the project success (e.g., schedule performance, material delivery, information request and decision response latency, and explicit coordination planning).

    • Track and report performance of objectives weekly or bi-weekly.

    • Meet weekly, or at least bi-weekly, to review performance of all stakeholders, to set the objectives and implementation plan for the next one- to three-week period, and to intervene in the process as appropriate and possible.

    How to use VDC

    Although Stanford is developing new tools and methods, VDC methods are already well supported by commercial technology, and they are now inexpensive enough that they are in routine use by companies of all sizes.

    The first “rule” is to model early and often. Build integrated product-process-organization models as part of the bid process (most companies start applying the method at this stage because it leads to higher hit rates on their bids).

    4-D school
    The Stanford Center for Integrated Facility Engineering is holding a June 24-27 class on the principles of 4-D CAD, virtual design and construction. It will be taught by Stanford professors John Kunz and Martin Fischer. Class will be held at Stanford University. Cost is $2,595 per person. For more information, contact Teddie Guenzer at (650) 723-4945 or go online to

    Build models for the initial designer-contractor meetings to clarify who does what and when. Update models frequently during the design and construction process both to support identification and resolution of design conflicts and to support clear assignment of responsibility, schedule and level of effort for coordination.

    The second “rule” is to build visualizations that support multiple stakeholders, and to build computer-based models that support useful visualization.

    The owner can build and show models that clarify its design intent. The architect can build models that show how its designs relate to owner functional requirements and details that the contractor needs to understand to successfully realize the design. The contractor can build and show models that clarify its understanding of design details.

    One sure thing about designs is that they evolve as the project evolves from concept to commissioning. Another sure thing is that viewers like to customize views for their own purpose. Thus, we find that effective models are built in the computer, and they have the support of a small team to evolve them as the project progresses.

    The third “rule” is to get started with multi-perspective visualizations for multiple stakeholders. In business, successful early adopters gain significant competitive advantage. That is, successful early adopters get value from their early adoption, which can pay for their investments. Late adopters need to adopt new methods to stay in business, but their adoption is a cost, not a source of new revenue.

    John Kunz is executive director of the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering at Stanford University. He can be reached at

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