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Virtual Design and Construction



Digital tools have revolutionized the way AGC members plan, deliver and manage construction projects. However, implementing the right tools across the construction lifecycle and driving company-wide adoption remains a challenge for many firms.

A BIM model overlaid on an existing building. Photo courtesy of Barton Malow Co.

Matt Hedke and Alan Todd, senior virtual design and construction (VDC) managers from Barton Malow Co. of Southfield, Michigan, a member of AGC of Michigan and Chicagoland AGC, discuss how to approach training, integration and software selection to stick the landing and drive success across an organization.

Q: Why do you think it’s taken as long as it has for construction to adopt technological advances?

Todd: Technology is expensive. Research and development to determine if a specific technology is worthwhile requires a significant investment. Also, implementation across a large organization is time-consuming and requires an organizational culture that embraces change. There’s a fear the new tool or process will bring less productivity, and to many the learning curve is intimidating.

Hedke: We do not build widgets. We can look for opportunities to challenge our processes and inject technology into our current means and methods to change how we are doing things and to make inefficient processes better. Change is hard and technology tends to be scary to people.

Q: What do you anticipate will happen to a contracting company that doesn’t step up its technological game?

Todd: Companies need to self-reflect and look at their relevance, now and five years from now. If you do not embrace technology, you will be left behind. Companies that choose not to invest and adopt will find it difficult to coordinate with team members and meet owner expectations as the technology landscape evolves.

Q: How do you decide what technology to try?

Todd: We have an Applied Technology Community, comprised of folks from our VDC team and superintendents, project managers and engineers, and other folks in the field living the projects. During our meetings, we evaluate technologies on the market and ways we might implement the technology or at least decide where to invest dollars and time. We start small and try to fail early. Or we find success immediately and roll it out on more projects.

Hedke: We have built a framework around evaluating software. We make a list of software we are considering and what value we think it will bring; how it is going to solve challenges. We then pilot in a small group and then take it to the next level with workflow and process documentation, training and support.

Q: How do you introduce new technology?

Hedke: We show project teams or VDC team members the new technology and how it will bring value. We look for opportunities to partner with the field team, or others, to pilot and test new technology, both software and hardware. VDC typically sends team members out to help the field team make the transition. Additionally, we are just a phone call away. The training and support piece is instrumental to adoption and future success.

We have received a huge investment from our senior leadership. They see the value in VDC and the need to embrace it. They are pushing from the top down, and we are pushing from the bottom up, sandwiching the organization in between. It gives us the chance to evaluate new software and vet it to make sure there is value. It has allowed us to build a culture that embraces technology versus avoiding it.

Q: How do you convince technology-averse individuals outside of your VDC team to adopt a new digital tool or workflow that might initially seem foreign to them?

Hedke: We’ve seen a ton of success through establishing and building trust-based relationships. It’s critical for our VDC team to understand challenges or pain points and identify opportunities to insert technology to solve those struggles. It’s not one and done. We stay engaged with the project team and support it until team members become comfortable.

Todd: Relationships are critical. Everybody has their own hot buttons. Trying to convince a group of folks to use a tool will not work. Doing so will not address an individual’s reasons for not using the tool. A lot of our field-based personnel have done the same thing for a long time and been successful at it, so you have to be convincing to make that change. It takes one-on-one partnering.

Want to hear more? Catch Matt Hedke and Alan Todd on AGC of America’s podcast, the Constructor Cast:

The podcast is also available on the Apple Podcast store and Google Play.

Q: How do you recruit VDC team members?

Todd: You cannot go to school and get a degree in virtual design and construction. We have individuals from a lot of different backgrounds, which brings a ton of value to our teaming arrangements and innovation process. I came from the architecture field and Matt from the self-perform side. We think about technology and the way we do business differently. A lot of good ideas come out of that type of diversity.

Q: What technologies should construction firms employ now?

Todd: Building information modeling (BIM), as a model for construction workflow coordination. If folks are not doing that now, they are behind in doing clash detection and prevention, 3D constructability, and providing real-time feedback as architects and engineers are designing a facility.

Hedke: I agree about BIM coordination, because you can build the project virtually before we put a shovel in the ground. This allows us to build civil surface for site balancing and excavation, and concrete models with every part and piece including, anchor bolts, embeds and so on. Then we can begin to plan, build, sequence and coordinate the project virtually.

Todd: Another technology, 360-degree cameras take panoramic photos to document the current jobsite environment. You hold the camera above your head, and it captures everything around you, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, structural, and other building elements that may eventually get concealed with finish material.

Hedke: Project dashboards also drive better communication and collaboration. Smaller companies trying to balance the right use of technology can create these dashboards for project team members to view all project information. These dashboards can contain contract documents, safety information, status of requests for information and submittals, and much more. They can be customized to fit your needs. It’s a fairly simple way to start to increase collaboration and communication.

Q: How do VDC technologies support successful projects?

Todd: VDC tools and processes help us communicate and collaborate more effectively, and it makes us more transparent in the way we share information and hold each other accountable. As technology evolves, we want to make sure we are using the right tools to bring maximum benefit to our projects.

One of AGC of America’s key focus areas for the foreseeable future is its Future Focus initiative. This initiative is premised on the fact that the commercial construction industry is on the brink of some very profound changes. The point is to track those changes and develop programming and educational materials to help member firms profit from them.

As part of this initiative, the association is sharing information about some of the new technologies and techniques that are transforming the construction industry via articles like this, webinars, in-seat meetings and on-site demonstrations. The association is also exploring how member firms are harnessing these new technologies and these new techniques to their benefit. And the association is also cataloging these transformative technologies and providing information about where firms can learn more about them.

AGC of America is also putting a special focus on the future as it develops new educational programs, schedules presentations at the Annual Convention and other in-person meetings, crafts new on-line courses and maps out its schedule of webinars. The association is also looking for member firms with experience — both positive and negative — in adopting new technologies and new techniques.

AGC officials say their objective is simple: They don’t want their members to become the construction industry equivalents of taxicabs in an Uber world. The new content, new classes and new connections focusing on how the industry is changing are all designed to help firms not only weather this transition but benefit from it. For the past 100 years, AGC of America has helped member firms cope with change. It is not about to stop now.

Q: How does VDC contribute to safety performance on your jobsites?

Todd: We use several tools, with more emerging on to the market that we are starting to test. One is robotics. We are partnering with Construction Robotics (Victor, New York) on trialing a semi-automated mason (SAM), a brick-laying robot. Another useful safety tool is drones. For example, instead of putting someone in an unsafe position, we’ll use a drone for performing a quality inspection on an exterior envelope. Sending a drone avoids putting a person at risk. We’re also looking at exoskeletons from suitX (Berkeley, California), which makes a leg, shoulder and back exoskeleton. We want to avoid injury from lifting things that are too heavy and reducing fatigue from working in awkward positions for long periods of time. An exoskeleton can bring a lot of value, and safety is always No. 1. In closing, it’s a fun time to be in construction. There’s a ton of opportunities and technologies entering the market that will challenge us and others to be better. It’s critical we embrace it.