How virtual design changes the way we work

Communication is required for good design, but does it need to always be in person? Virtual design is an option for coordinating building plans virtually

By Joel Martineau, Jim Marchese and James Mazza October 30, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • Identify opportunities to communicate virtually with the design team, clients and contractors.
  • Learn various technologies that can be used to collaborate.
  • Understand where virtual solutions can improve the design process.

Engineering design is the process by which we transform a set of requirements into an initial building concept, further develop it to comply with various criteria such as local regulations, life safety and engineering principles and finally erect a building. This requires the input of multiple participants — the client, design consultants and a contractor — across various stages of the project.

In the past, face-to-face meetings were always preferred as it was important to connect, sometimes literally flipping through sheet after sheet of construction documents to ensure everyone was on the same page. Communication is required for good design; but does it need to always be in person?

In this age of technology, we have the opportunity to share not only our ideas but explore potential solutions in myriad ways. Queue virtual design.

Virtual site

For a current project in Philadelphia, the Stantec team is converting 96 medical surgery rooms to acuity adaptable rooms. Because the hospital will remain open during this conversion, only six rooms can be offline at a time. This makes it difficult to design new shafts through the building to accommodate new systems. In addition, the plenum is full of existing systems that must be maintained.

To have a complete understanding of the limitations, the engineering and design team began to research reality capture technology to develop a better sense of what existed. The first step was to develop a list of requirements for the density of scans both above and below the ceiling and the delivery format for the scan files, in conjunction with the surveyor. The team then used Cintoo, a web-based point cloud management system to assist in viewing the massive scan files. The team invited all project members to the web platform, including the construction manager’s advanced coordination team and the client.

Cintoo simplifies the interpretation of point cloud data. It provides several options for viewing as well as measurement tools. The team can selectively export portions of the scan to bring small, lightweight parts into Autodesk Revit. Once the model is developed, the team can heat map it against the point scan to detect differences, ensuring the team achieve the level of accuracy necessary to document the existing conditions.

This platform has enabled Stantec to move forward with a complex project despite the design team never visiting the project site. This type of remote access has proved especially important during the current pandemic.

Virtual charette

An important step in the design process is to review the initial program provided by the client. The team is exploring various technologies to mimic design charettes in a virtual environment. The team uses Microsoft Teams to organize a large group meeting with the Stantec design team and client participants to outline the various “rules” for the spaces the team are designing, facilitated by a Stantec team member. The process is:

  • All attendees are separated into groups and assigned to various breakout group channels in Teams, each with a Stantec team member as the breakout facilitator. Each breakout group starts its own Teams meeting, allowing screen sharing and video conferencing.
  • To simulate the process of using “game pieces” and a “game board,” Stantec has developed custom space planning families in Revit, which are designed to be very conceptual in nature. Each breakout facilitator will use Revit to move the various game pieces around the game board, guided by feedback and decisions from the client, with participants viewing the process via Teams.
  • Once the required number of design options are complete, the facilitator will create a PDF of those options. All participants will then reconvene in the large group meeting, where the breakout facilitators will add their PDF to the large group whiteboard using the Microsoft Whiteboard as its canvas.
  • All participants of the large group meeting can then use the markup tools in Microsoft Whiteboard to vote on favorite design options.

Because this process uses Revit, the crew can begin to incorporate those design options into an early conceptual model. The team has also developed a custom tool to replace the conceptual space planning families with Revit room objects, seamlessly bringing the group from schematic design into design development and beyond. Virtual charettes have been pivotal in encouraging project teams to embrace innovative workflows and ensure the team are using technology to stay connected.

Virtual collaboration

Most projects involve a project team that is geographically distributed. Add external consultants, clients and the contractor and it becomes readily apparent: collaboration with multiple stakeholders can be a challenging task. Each stakeholder has its own internal systems to store project data, which results in silos of information. This is not truly collaborative.

To achieve collaboration in the purest sense of the word, the entire project team needs to access project data from the same environment. In a similar fashion to the virtual charrettes, Microsoft Teams provides a platform to share and contribute to the development of a project. When structuring data, consider the following:

  • Microsoft Teams is a platform for information such as a project directory. Locating as much content as possible on Microsoft Teams or other cloud platforms instead of internal systems will ensure all parties are referring to the most current documents and files
  • Clients are often best restricted to their own area to manage the data they have access to. Consider the use of private channels
  • Make use of the other tools integrated into Microsoft Teams such as Microsoft Planner. It is a powerful tool that allows you to easily assign tasks and due dates.

The team is also using Autodesk BIM 360 to enable internal and external partners access project data. This provides an environment for non-Revit users to review models, in both 2D and 3D and comment on drawings. This lessens the detachment of project managers that are not modeling from what is being constructed in the models and provides the flexibility to view it from anywhere at any time and on any device.

All of this is underpinned by Newforma, a project information management solution. It integrates with current file servers and project folder infrastructure as well as the applications mentioned above. It saves time, streamlines workflows, mitigates risk, improves responsiveness from external team members and increases accountability.

Adoption is often the most challenging obstacle to overcome when implementing new platforms on a project. Members must be consistently encouraged to post content in the correct location and reminded that specific file types have different sources of truth. This reinforcement will help team members to develop routines and habits that result in increased efficiency.

Virtual reality

As the project team collaborates and begins to flush out the various parameters of a project, a solution is developed. The medium of choice to do this is drawings, namely plans and elevations. As professionals in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, the team has been trained to interpret drawings.

However, clients may not be able to do this. This is a risk, as the team does not want to proceed with construction only to find out after something is built that it does not truly reflect what a client had in mind. This provides the opportunity to use virtual reality, where the design team provide computer-generated representations of the designs for clients to interact with. Two options exist:

  • Stereoscopic panoramas can be generated and shared via an online link. The client can then open this link in a web browser and view the design from a single vantage point, with the option to swivel their line of sight a full 360 degrees, as well as up and down. This experience can be further enhanced by providing links within the panorama that teleport the user to another location, so they can virtually travel through the building to visit multiple spaces.
  • When providing the option to view only from predetermined vantage points is not sufficient, the team provides virtual environments. The premise is the same as above, and allows users to virtually walk through the designs so that they can better explore the entire space. This allows users to choose their vantage points within a building and even ascend staircases.

For a more immersive experience, both options above can be enhanced by using VR headsets. In lieu of viewing designs on a monitor, users put on headsets that allow them to rotate their heads, mimicking real life, to view what is around them. Care should be taken to ensure that anyone with a headset on is situated in a clear space where there are no objects that serve as tripping hazards.

To make virtual exploration of designs a worthwhile experience, the following should be considered:

  • Scope: Provide small scenes for the client to explore, versus everything at once. This will improve the quality of the experience as the files associated with this will be smaller. Concentrate on focal points of the design, such as mechanical or electrical rooms, or corridor spaces where MEP systems tend to run in constricted spaces.
  • Content: Consider altering what the actual experience will be to ensure the purpose of exploration can be achieved. If you are exploring the access of equipment in the ceiling plenum, consider making the ceilings transparent so they provide the context of where the equipment is located, but make it easy to see in order to generate comments.

Remember the intent of using VR; determine what feedback you are trying to elicit from your client. If you are more concerned with getting their opinions about the size of a space, consider using a single material to display all content. Focusing the client’s attention on the desired task is important to achieving the desired result of confirming the design is satisfying their expectations.

Virtual coordination

As part of the design process, Stantec designers develop many of the building systems required, resulting in a virtual representation of the final project as a series of 3D models. One of the much-touted benefits of building information modeling is the potential to improve the design and coordination of building systems. Using tools such as Autodesk Navisworks to manage the clash detection process and produce a list of potential conflicts is great. However, the results of this exercise are then viewed as 2D representations of the conflicts and discussed at a separate coordination meeting.

Because communication is so important, the teams are taking coordination one step further by using InsiteVR, which allows team members to interact while being connected in a virtual 3D environment. Models can be viewed via VR headsets or on monitors. Attendees have access to mark-up tools, voice-to-text to capture comments and can even sketch alternative design options overlaid on top of the virtual environment. Other functionality includes the ability to interrogate the parameters of model objects and take measurements. To ensure everyone is on the same page, the person speaking can replicate his or her point of view to all attendees. Once the meeting is concluded, a formatted PDF of all the comments and markups is generated and emailed to the meeting organizer for distribution back to the team. To truly take advantage of this process, consider:

  • Organizing the project in a manner that considers your virtual meeting. If you would like to focus your discussion on a specific area or function, set up a view that isolates that information. You can load the view directly into the meeting in advance, so attendees do not waste watching you set up the virtual environment.
  • Treating this like any other project meeting. It is important that the entire design team attend, not just the team responsible for BIM and modeling. Schedule meetings on a regular, repeating schedule related to the deliverable schedule, so team members not only stay familiar with the tool but also have their models submitted for review.

InsiteVR brings all team members into the active production space, facilitating real-time discussion about potential conflicts and omissions. This distinction is important, as it combines the work done to setup and run clash detection before reviewing the results at a coordination meeting into one exercise, saving overall project time and increasing efficiency.

Artificial intelligence

As more design data moves into digitized forms, it becomes ripe for various applications of artificial intelligence. From apex systems such as Google Assistant and Alexa to the algorithms that power modern spam filters and Microsoft Excel’s flash fill, the past several years have seen several generalized artificial intelligence technologies surface within the industry.

In general, these are not specific to architecture, engineering and construction, but are characterized by automating repetitive or mundane tasks. For example, image classification is a relatively well-understood task within the machine learning world. Being able to search images for specific items automatically has been successfully applied in the construction industry to assist with site assessments and safety compliance.

Similarly, nonphysical chat-bots, such as those available on Microsoft Teams, help simplify work by assisting with searching through chat history or reserving meeting space. It’s expected that, as these bots and the natural language processing systems that underpin them improve, the team will be able to quickly sift through virtual design files for answers without needing to unroll a drawing set or open a PDF.

Author Bio: Joel Martineau is a senior business solutions analyst at Stantec. Jim Marchese is a senior business solutions analyst at Stantec. James Mazza is an application developer at Stantec.