Building a Single Source of Truth: The Power of Virtual Design & Construction

By Aaron Ball, Director of Virtual Design & Construction

The construction industry is not exactly at the leading-edge of technology adoption.

While there are slow signs of improvement, one recent study showed that the vast majority of construction firms still invest 1% or less in IT and technology systems, far below the ~10% investment levels of other major industries.

It’s not altogether surprising that the industry productivity gains of construction lag behind as well. While construction accounts for 13% of global GDP, industry productivity has grown just 1% over the past 20 years. This stagnation is even more stark when compared to the 2.8 % growth for the world economy, and 3.6% growth in manufacturing productivity over the same period.

While all of this is far from breaking news, it is worth restating the significant consequences. Lagging productivity, combined with skilled labor shortages and unpredictable materials costs, leads to subpar project performance on average. In their June 2020 Report, McKinsey reaffirmed their 2016 finding that 80% of building projects come in over budget and take 20% longer than planned.

One of the most fundamental challenges that construction still faces is continuous access to trusted data, accessible across the project life cycle. The barrier to high quality, consistent sources of operational information continues to be the biggest drain on productivity in the building industry today. Some have even estimated that misinformation and associated rework can cause as much of 70% of measured productivity loss in a typical building project.

One way the industry is responding to this challenge to improve data integrity is the adoption of Virtual Design and Construction (VDC). While many assume that VDC is merely integration of 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM) into a project, in practice it is much more than a new bolted-on set of technology tools.

VDC is an entirely different approach to design and construction – a multidisciplinary, integrated approach to managing building projects that is enabled by recent advances in technology. In essence, it is a practice that coalesces the previously fragmented people, product, and processes involved in designing, planning, and delivering a project. VDC helps to weave these resources together around a common set of data and analytics throughout the project lifecycle.

The result is projects delivered with fewer surprises, less field re-work, improved jobsite safety, more transparency to all stakeholders, with greatly reduced risk to cost and schedule.

At Katerra, our commitment to Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) is driven by many factors, chief among them is the tremendous impact VDC can have on efficiency and alignment—both at the project level and on the construction industry as a whole. As a vertically-integrated and technology-led company, we were founded to help address two of the biggest issues contributing to construction’s lagging performance: outdated, fragmented project delivery process and a significant lack of technology adoption.

Below are a few of the benefits we are already seeing as a result of VDC implementation.

“While VDC-driven CAD, BIM, and 4D Modeling help set a project up for success, it is the collaborative use of this information by cross-functional teams across every part of our project process that delivers results.”

Predictable Outcomes

One of the most powerful advantages VDC offers is increased visibility to how a building will come together in the field. Early collaboration and shared visibility between design, engineering, and construction teams helps identify potential issues early in the process, in a virtual state, before any ground has been broken. This clash detection helps validate the constructability of a design and dramatically decrease costly change orders and rework. Mitigating costly downstream changes is critical to long-term transformation of an industry where an estimated 30% of the work performed by construction companies is actually rework. VDC provides essential, pre-construction insights into how the building can be safely constructed, delivering safer worksites, and fewer risks to labor in the field.

Use of VDC on multifamily project Alexan Highlands allowed earlier detection of errors and omissions in the plans, enabling the project team to get out ahead and mitigate any problems before construction began. This early identification and mitigation supported on-schedule and under budget delivery.

Holistic Collaboration

The transparency of VDC relies upon the creation of a single, comprehensive source of truth. Katerra’s single-source of truth is a BIM model that represents the inputs of countless data points and the collaboration of broad cross-functional teams and stakeholders.

The 3D BIM is enhanced by a “4D” model that folds the variable of time into the equation, allowing us to model sequencing, labor, materials, and duration to help plan and manage the jobsite with greater precision. This source of truth provides a common reference point for the entire project team. In our projects, VDC is not confined to the office, or technology suite. We take VDC into the field, training our field teams to use technology and putting BIM boxes in the hands of those who will build the project. A fully realized VDC practice allows all team members to visualize each step of the project.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

The biggest game-changing benefit of VDC is that of powering a seismic shift from fragmented information and siloed communication to a new open and collaborative process of data-driven decision-making. Construction projects rely on massive amounts of data, traditionally in the form of cumbersome, paper-based processes. It’s estimated that typically only 5% of this data is ever accessed and used, with each stakeholder in a project creating their own set of data. VDC allows for easier access to a shared set of data for all project stakeholders.

While VDC-driven CAD, BIM, and 4D Modeling help set a project up for success, it is the collaborative use of this information by cross-functional teams across every part of our project process that delivers results. At Katerra we have the advantage of having easy access to all disciplines within our integrated, turnkey projects, but we also invest in VDC in more traditional projects where we are the general contractor, because it helps us create a referenceable source of truth across project partners and stakeholders and it delivers projects more efficiently, cost-effectively, and safely.

On the Catalyst project, a 150,000 sq. ft. mass timber turnkey commercial project, daily use of an agile scrum process and Kanban board tightly aligned expectations and communication in real-time across the entire team. Access to the 4D model streamlined scheduling and communication by having shared visual representation of the exact work needed in any given week, a big improvement over a typical printed Gantt chart. Using this VDC-led process the team was able to seamlessly orchestrate 806 crane picks and complete the structural frame and façade construction in only 16 weeks, a 30% savings over typical schedules.

Prefabricated Ribbed Panel Install – Onsite at Catalyst

Conclusion

Despite the clear benefits, adoption of VDC practices is understandably a phased process that takes time and persistent commitment. Transforming project management and delivery in this way comes with a learning curve, and is sometimes impeded by traditional construction norms, mistrust of technology, and the investment it takes to train teams and implement new ways of working.  

At Katerra, we’ve seen first-hand the positive impact of technology integration on our projects. VDC, and the BIM single-source of truth sets a foundation of trusted data and integration–but it is only a first step. The exciting part comes next as we use this data for applications such as design automation, real-time estimation, and optimization of building assembly. It is this untapped potential that fuels our ambition to keep driving technology integration across projects of all types, as well as to engage with like-minded partners across the industry in helping transform the way we build.

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