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Virtual Design and Construction

An Owner’s Perspective

By Robert Malczyk

In the 1990s, 3D modelling was introduced as a design tool that enabled architects to better visualize their projects and perhaps more importantly, to convey their ideas to clients and the public. The software has become so sophisticated that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether an image is a photograph of a completed building, or simply a rendering of one that is proposed. It is not difficult to understand why this photo-realistic capability of modelling software has been so seductive for architects, but it is time to explore the real value it can provide.

It is only recently that 3D modelling has advanced to the point where we can explore the process of construction. The software not only enables design teams to identify and resolve potential conflicts or ‘clashes’ between elements of the building designed by different disciplines but, by adding the fourth dimension of time, enables us to visualize the sequence of construction. This ability to analyze and optimize alternative approaches, has the potential to further improve the efficiency and economy of construction.

While engaging key members of the project team (including the general contractor and major subtrades) early in the design stage comes at added cost, the conventional wisdom is that these costs are more than offset by reduced construction time and fewer changes on site. As a theory, this seems reasonable but, despite the claims of software manufacturers and specialist 3D modellers, it does not typically result in ‘real world’ savings for the client.  My recent experience as a developer has given me insight into why this is so.

Lessons from the ON5 Project

ON5 is an 840m², 4-storey commercial/industrial infill project located on a 7.6m wide infill lot in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. The zero-lot line condition and prescriptive zoning requirements already made this a challenging site to develop; to which was added our objective to achieve Passive House performance.

The team we assembled, including Hemsworth Architecture, Naikoon Contracting and myself as structural engineer, had been working together on 1 Lonsdale Avenue, a small commercial infill building in North Vancouver (see SABMag 72, Fall 2021) so we were able to benefit from the lessons learned on that project.

3D Software and the Design Process

Over my career as a structural engineer, I have used numerous 3D software packages, including ArchiCAD, cadwork, Revit and Rhino. Most timber engineers have settled on cadwork, which is now powerful enough to produce 3D models to shop drawing quality. Yet the question among designers remains, ‘At what stage should we start creating models at this level of detail, and who should take responsibility for their accuracy?’ Standard industry practice is to have the contractor prepare the shop drawings and take on that responsibility.

With ON5, we began to create these models even before we initiated an integrated design process. Working with the architect, we figured out some of the more complicated details, such as the scissor stairs that were required to make the program work. Then, for pricing purposes, Naikoon Contracting created the first Revit model to determine material quantities. In what has become common practice, we continued to use cadwork until we completed the IFC (issued for construction) drawing set, after which everything was discarded.

Robert Malczyk is a Structural Engineer and Principal at Timber Engineering Inc. in Vancouver BC