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Can You Envision It?

December 17, 2018 by Robert Koehler and Matt McGregor in Wisconsin School News

Educational leaders can benefit greatly from the myriad of technological tools that are now available to design, planning, and construction professionals. These innovations are redefining processes, deliverables, and communication. So, whether you're renovating, repurposing, or starting a new construction project, consider these technologies and how they might best serve you.

Experience It As You Design It
Have you ever completed a project and didn't like the way aspects of it looked? Virtual reality allows you to "experience" the space by stepping into your design and experiencing how variables like materials, lighting, and volume of space will interact. You can place an assortment of objects into the space to get a sense of what reality will be like. For example, you'll be able to get a sense of the line of sight from the front office or envision how various seating arrangements for differing numbers of students would work with the needed equipment in a classroom. However, that's not all that's available.

With augmented reality (AR), or what some call mixed reality, you can overlay a digital model with real-world information. AR combines the vision for the project with the current reality, providing a highly accurate view of what the future could be. You can visualize various elements, such as where a wall is supposed to be installed, as you traverse the construction site. Throughout the planning and design process, clients and their architectural team can see their designs come to life--albeit virtually--and quickly decide to make modifications or sizable overhauls to the plans. This reduces frustrations and rework while helping create more functional buildings. 

What's the Status?
However, the benefits of technology don't end with design. Digital plans and 3D content can be accessed on the construction site with tablets and smartphones to provide real-time information to make decisions. The advantages during construction include:

  • Ensuring the most current plans are being utilized;
  • Instantly sharing updates, including construction bulletins, photos, addendums, and scope changes; 
  • Regular access to 3D views in construction documents to communicate design intent, which increases communication effectiveness and ensures proper delivery for clients, subcontractors, and suppliers;
  • Digitally measuring items or sharing comments on specific recommendations directly on the plans; and
  • Performing punch lists with items tagged for action directly on the plans.

This technology also allows us to see advances in scheduling and inventory. Construction and project items can be equipped with QR or barcodes that relate to an object ID in the building information modeling (BIM) program. Items are scanned as they are added during construction, which automatically updates the BIM model to reflect development. Additionally, the noted use of various supplies can trigger additional purchases or the next stage of work for more efficient scheduling. Enhanced software now allows the end user to also benefit from BIM by tracking items such as warranties, maintenance items, invoices, system utilization, security, and room assignments. This data is beneficial to staff, so they can be informed on the school district's largest assets and significant expense points. The instant accessibility via mobile devices allows the maintenance department to make more timely and informed decisions. 

On the Job Site?
We're also seeing technology in the actual construction process. Applications of 3D printing in the construction industry are growing rapidly. These systems can offer small-scale models for review or presentation--or parts of objects for project installation. There are even attempts at 3D printing entire buildings through a concrete extrusion process. Prefabrication via 3D printing allows for more precise installation of elements and for them to be formed in large, integrated, and coordinated portions. These 3D elements can be precisely placed using "total stations" (highly accurate GPS or laser positioning). The benefits include enhanced accuracy, less manpower, reduced waste, and increased safety.

Additional use of technology on the job site may include automated brick systems. As the aging mason population retires, we anticipate seeing these systems becoming more mainstream in a field that already sees a shortage of available workers. Some systems can lay 3,000 bricks a day, contrasted with a construction worker's average of 500. With most systems, the conveyor belt, mortar pump, and robotic arm are controlled by a person who feeds bricks into a machine. A second worker then smooths over any surplus joint mortar.

Drones, quadcopters, and other unmanned aerial systems are increasingly being utilized in a variety of ways in the construction industry to produce timely information and very useful "drone's-eye views". Utilization includes surveying progress, reviewing site logistics and staging, and even conducting safety audits. Moreover, it is now possible to rapidly inspect remote or difficult to reach areas, such as rooftop equipment or conduct digital surveying utilizing special attachments like scanners, sensors, and lasers. Drones are being utilized to increase the safety of employees and protect the job site from theft or vandalism. With the ability to be quickly mobilized to examine the perimeter of the job site, identify the placement of equipment and vehicles, and check on individuals--the additional data provides better surveillance and more informed decisions.

Reap the Benefits
Awareness of how technology is being utilized in the design and construction industry is a good step as yo contemplate your next project. Look for how you would benefit from its application and be equipped to discuss options with your project team. Get the most out of emerging technologies and reap the benefits they provide for a smoother, better project. 

Robert Koehler, AIA is a project architect at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. and a member of NCARB (The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards). A 10-year veteran of the design and construction industry, Robert holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He can be reached at

Matt McGregor is a project manager with Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science in Construction, Matt has 10 years of experience in the construction profession, which includes time spent in the field as a project superintendent. Matt can be reached at 

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