Coordinating communication and simultaneous action on complex, multiphase projects that involve hundreds of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) players can be a challenge. To succeed, everyone needs access to current data to understand the project and make thousands of critical design and engineering decisions per week. They need to manage cost and schedule overruns by forestalling onsite changes and ensuring the accuracy of onsite construction. And they need all documentation to stay in step with the as-built as work progresses.
Achieving all this under normal circumstances is difficult at best. Achieving it while everyone is also forced to work remotely adds a whole new spin on the problem.
The Real Estate and Facilities team at Microsoft is in the midst of a large-scale campus modernization at the company’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters. The project involves five architectural firms and scores of engineers and contractors working together to design and build 17 new structures on a 72-acre site.
Because the team employs data-driven building information modeling (BIM) and cloud collaboration, it has been able to keep everyone aligned and moving forward on this large project despite stay-at-home mandates.
BIM can be used on every phase from concepts to in-field construction, and it accurately reflects the project’s whole story in almost real-time.
The consolidated BIM model for Microsoft’s Redmond project has grown to roughly 3.8 terabytes since work began in 2018. This repository includes design data, engineering data, contractor data, geocoordinates data, drone imagery data and much more. More than 1,700 models cover design, structural engineering, building systems, prefabrication modules, site layout, landscaping and more.
Using computers and advanced software, Microsoft’s teams can mine all this data over the cloud to produce dashboards, spreadsheets, schedules, 3-D models, specifications, snapshots, 3-D images — whatever is needed to understand the project at any time.
Most importantly, when someone updates a model or its source data, all other related models are updated across the cloud because they all pull from the same source of information.
Even though the work teams are physically separated and suppliers span the globe, they can work from the same 3-D models as if they were together in the same room.
Models can be opened in the cloud to view a project’s parts all at once to see how everything interacts, or to zero in on a particular system, product choice or installation challenge. Built-in parameters alert the team to problems, such as clashes where two elements are trying to occupy the same space.
Using Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed-reality headset that merges real and virtual images, allows the project partners to “walk through” and interact with spaces together at various scales. This helps them assess problems and discuss solutions on the spot. A source document’s owner can change a variable in the model, and everyone can see the immediate effect of the change.
Pulling the same background data into spreadsheets or SQL on Azure and then presenting it in Microsoft’s Power BI data-visualization tool helps everyone with cash flow and schedule analysis. Cost and schedule overruns can be easily pre-empted in the cloud.
These same BIM and cloud technologies also improve the efforts and success of crews in the field. For example, requests for information (RFIs) are common during construction. With BIM, nothing can be put into a model if the team can’t answer what it is, where it goes or how much is needed, which immediately averts the three most common kinds of RFIs.
Moreover, by also building in all interdependencies, BIM software can expose errors that would have led to issues in the field. This provides greater certainty about the real-world outcomes, better execution, and lower risk of cost and schedule overruns.
Each element in a model can be associated with a process chart or work breakdown structure for use on site. For example, the model can guide crews in how to install a piece of pipe in a particularly tricky location. BIM-based quantity take-offs also accurately predict materials requirements, eliminating the need for delivering 5% to 15% overage to the jobsite.
Another way BIM helps manage a large project is in matching the documents with the as-builts. Two-way field verification of the models and their real-world settings alerts the team to in-field discrepancies or changes. They can either be dealt with immediately on site, or models can be adjusted to reflect the final location. This increases quality, reduces the risk of errors that delay the project and provides an as-built that could be referred to as a “truth-built.”
Despite not being on site for months, the huge team has been able to work closely together across firms and stay on task for this megaproject using BIM in the cloud. While other large AEC projects may not be this complex, these are just some of the ways this technology might allow everyone to work on it from home and remotely, which is likely to remain an option for many months to come.
Rob Towne is senior director of real estate with Microsoft.