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September 10, 2009

Virtual design helps light up Neiman Marcus

  • With 7,000 light fixtures to place, retail shrine makes big demands on builders.
    Swinerton Builders


    Clothing, accessories and jewelry from all parts of the world are quickly filling the shelves and racks at The Bravern’s Neiman Marcus store.

    As the visual teams arrange their goods in preparation for its grand opening, they are mindful of their presentation as the merchandise is showcased on each floor by the more than 7,000 light fixtures that are spread throughout the store.

    One would imagine that the amount of hours and people it would take to coordinate the placement of these fixtures would equal or surpass the amount of hours and people it would take to fill all the shelves and racks. But because of the use of virtual design and construction technology, time and staffing devoted to the light-fixture layout were cut in half.

    Lit like a museum

    Photo courtesy of Neiman Marcus
    Placement of the lighting fixtures at Neiman Marcus takes precedence over other building systems. This store, which opened in 2008, is in Canoga Park, Calif.

    The virtual design and construction team at Swinerton Builders needed to focus on ensuring that the mechanical, plumbing, electrical and fire sprinkler systems would all fit above the ceiling of the Neiman Marcus store’s three-story, 125,000-square-foot space.

    More important, the light fixtures that are recessed and hung from the drywall ceiling — they light up the store and merchandise — had a specific layout that needed to be maintained.

    Each light fixture type and location is designed to showcase the merchandise in the same way lights are used in a museum to showcase a piece of artwork. Each display shelf, rack and table is carefully placed throughout the store to ensure the merchandise is property lit.

    Using virtual design

    The project team decided early in the pre-planning efforts to use virtual design and construction as a tool to support the focus of coordinating the spatial constraints.

    Careful planning and coordination was done between several general contractors. Two-dimensional construction drawings were used in combination with as-built surveys of the building’s existing structural shell to create a three-dimensional computer model of the ceiling space.

    Each of the building system subcontractors was responsible for giving information specific to their work in order to accurately represent the above-ceiling space before construction began. The model allowed those looking at it a view from every corner, not just on paper or below the light fixture once built. It provided a quick, easy and safe way to examine the placement of each building system.

    The use of this technology made it easier for the project team, which was spread out from Seattle to Los Angeles, to communicate. Updates or changes were made immediately without any paperwork going back and forth. These pre-planning efforts began four months prior to any on-site work through weekly planning meetings with all parties.

    Resolving conflicts

    The process of compiling the information and building the model allowed the project team to identify areas where water lines, ductwork, light fixtures or ceiling and wall framing was in conflict.

    Based on the owner’s wishes, the lighting placement took precedence over the remaining fixtures in the ceiling. If there was ever a conflict between a light fixture and a run of ductwork, every option would be explored to relocate or redesign the run of ductwork so that the light could remain.

    For example, in the computer model there were areas above the ceiling where an 8-foot-wide, 2-foot-high run of ductwork was in conflict with a row of lights. The plumber and electrician were able to resolve the issue right then so the lights could keep shining in the location originally specified for them.

    These types of conflicts did not affect the construction schedule or cause the need for rework because they were caught in the computer model rather than sometime after parts of the construction were complete.

    Once lighting layout was approved and construction began, the light fixture placement was taken from the computer model and illustrated on the floor in its precise location so that all workers were aware of this placement and could proceed with their work around the illustrations.

    If there was any question about placement, the computer model illustrated a clear position for the building systems right away, saving time and allowing workers to continue with work in other areas until the issue was resolved.

    This process saved many hours in manpower and required less room for error during construction. Using this tool proved to be a huge time-saving factor and allowed for the construction of the lighting fixtures to remain on or ahead of schedule.

    As the lights shine bright on the vibrant colors, studded shoes, and sparkly jewels of Neiman Marcus, the possibilities posed by virtual design and construction technology shine even brighter.

    Aaron Rauckhorst is an assistant project manager for general contractor Swinerton Builders.

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