Plywood and digital mockups boost efficiency
The task was to design and build a state-of-the-art, $150 million circuit courthouse for Howard County. Yet amid the project’s sophisticated requirements and planning processes, one rudimentary practice – the construction of a plywood model – helped team members improve the design and streamline construction.
“It was a really eye-opening experience for our team,” said Timothy Campbell, Project Executive with Clark Construction Group.
After the courthouse’s design was completed, Clark built full-size, plywood models of two key rooms – the largest courtroom planned for the building and a standard courtroom that would be repeated several times in the new courthouse. Then Clark arranged for more than 40 court staff – including judges, prosecutors, court reporters, bailiffs and others – to gather inside the models, replicate their typical trial activities and identify any issues they had with the designs.
The exercise “revealed things – functional issues for the staff – that a project team would probably never think of and design issues that the court staff probably wouldn’t appreciate if they were just looking at a rendering of the design,” Campbell said.
A great model – whether it is physical or digital – can avert a wealth of design and construction issues. Increasingly user-friendly technologies are enabling more companies and clients to use digital models while physical models are still enabling project teams to refine designs for facilities that must meet high-performance standards.
For the courthouse, the issues included optimizing sightlines among the judge, jury, lawyers and witnesses, adjusting the heights of desks and benches so that paperwork and evidence could be easily passed, and ensuring that bailiffs could easily move people (jurors, witnesses, defendants, etc.) in and out of the courtroom.
After collecting feedback from court staff, Clark renovated the models and repeated the exercise. The result, Campbell said, was that when the courthouse opened, staff reported that the courtrooms functioned as they hoped without any further revisions.
Physical models, Campbell said, “are still the recognized best practice for projects that have to support a lot of human interaction, such as courtrooms, operating rooms, laboratories and doctors’ offices.”
For other projects, 3D digital models, digital videos of designs and virtual reality models are powerful tools for identifying issues or missing design specifications, and communicating issues to clients and project partners, said Andrea Zabawa, Manager of Virtual Design and Construction for Clark Construction Group.
“Flying through a model on your computer is one thing,” she said. “Putting on a VR headset and physically being in the space gives you such a better sense of scale, how tight the space is and you catch a lot of things that might not notice just flying through a model. On one project, we realized there weren’t any access panels anywhere in the drawings and that wasn’t caught just by doing the model.”
Taking the time to complete models – both digital and physical – can produce efficiency gains, especially on projects that repeat elements. Zabawa pointed to the example of Reston Town Center NXT. Clark Construction did digital and physical mockups of the core bathrooms for two of the project’s office towers.
“As a result, we ended up writing nearly a dozen RFIs because we were missing dimensions and other information we needed to build out that space,” she said. “Doing virtual mockups ahead of physical mockups ahead of construction saved the team plenty of time and avoided a lot of headaches. Those towers are over 20 stories tall so those bathrooms are repeated 40 times. If you have an issue with one bathroom, you have an issue with 40.”
Increasingly, digital models are helping companies successfully resolve design issues with clients, such as the need to lower a ceiling to accommodate mechanical and electrical installations.
“People always want to have high ceilings and a feeling of open space, so they don’t want to hear a contractor say we need to take away an inch or two of ceiling height,” Zabawa said. “Having a 3D model and being able to put the end-user on the floor below the ceiling while you move it up and down helps them see the real impact of a change and often realize that the space still feels fine.”
Advances in technology are making it easier for companies to generate digital models and for clients to navigate them.
Penza Bailey Architects, a studio of Prime AE, has long used Revit to create 3D, black-and-white renderings for clients. However, a Revit add-on, Enscape, has enabled designers to quickly and easily generate very realistic models, said Leah Penza, Architect.
“It has been very helpful for both clients’ visualization and our own,” Penza said. “You get to see things beyond the black-and-white world of a rendering. It is easier to feel the scale of the space and the materiality of the design. If the client requests a change, you can change the model right away and they can see the impact.”
Models help clients assess conditions that can be challenging to fully understand in a rendering, such as the impact of sloped, dormer ceilings on the spaciousness of a room.
With current software, “you can even export a portion of a model and send it to your client,” Penza said. “They don’t need to own the program. They can just access it online and walk around the model on their own and take their time studying the space.”