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  • Writer's pictureHighline Steel Systems


Updated: Jun 8, 2018

One chance to build in the field, limitless chances to build virtually in a computer

Today's construction projects depend on a high level of collaboration between the design team, owner and project construction team. Having the right information at the right time is critical to resolving design and coordination issues before they become costly and unnecessary changes in construction.

Virtual design and construction (VDC) simulates the real-world building process allowing users to build virtually before building actually. A fully designed integrated and operationally tested prototype of a completed asset allows for better decisions regarding the design, systems and construction flow of a project. This efficient approach saves time and money, and eliminates waste and rework in the building process. A contractor gets one chance to build in the field, but limitless chances to build virtually in a computer.

A Holistic Look at a Building

VDC uses a virtual model for visualizations, logistics planning, constructability analysis, clash detection and more. These visualizations allow project teams to communicate design intent in 3-D, rather than a flat 2-D plan. Not only can real-time walkthroughs and simulations realistically convey the look and feel of a new facility, but they can also resolve coordination issues with complex mechanical, electrical, plumbing and structural systems. Michael Gustafson, PE, industry strategy manager-structural engineering and fabrication at Autodesk Inc.'s Atlanta office, says the industry is at a new era of connected design, construction and building operation. He feels this is being driven by the digitization and connectivity between people, places and things, also referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). "This new era will magnify the benefits of virtual building design for construction and create additional value for owners, designers, manufacturers and builders."

Some of the benefits his team sees building virtually include:

  • Streamlined information exchange between project teams through cloud-based, single-source of truth 3-D models.

  • Better risk management due to better documented and constructible designs.

  • Increased productivity due to enhanced collaboration.

Virtual Metal Construction

Ken Grothman, senior VDC engineer at Gilbane Building Co., Phoenix, sees the models of his metal trade partners as having the highest level of development. "This is due to most of their manufacturing processes involving computer-aided manufacturing," he adds. "This is great because we know that nothing has been missed or overlooked

Where VDC can help is bringing the rest of the team into the same 3-D space and looking at where this highly designed metal system clashes with certain architectural details or systems. From there we can begin to collaboratively work toward a solution that is the best fit for everyone on the team."

Gilbane's senior VDC manager Alexis Carver agrees that VDC enables an entire project team to have real-time access to the building information. "Our VDC engineers no longer work independently to extract the model data into a 2-D plan view for the team's use. Instead, we have superintendents and trade foreman using the model daily on their computers and on-site with tablets to QA/QC everything from foundations to framing throughout construction."

Gustafson feels the metal construction industry is uniquely positioned to benefit from VDC in two main ways. He says the structural steel and other steel manufacturing sectors have been using model-driven fabrication processes for over two decades. "As the rest of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry started adopting building information modeling (BIM) upstream in design and more recently downstream in construction, the steel industry is well-equipped to collaborate with other stakeholders in a digital environment to a much greater level," he says.

Second, he contends that steel manufacturers are really specialty contractors that add a lot of value for the project team when involved early in the project. "This value is magnified with the use of VDC when moving from 2-D to virtual 3-D workflows," he says. "It will be even further magnified as project teams collaborate more and more in the cloud in a much more connected way. This is because the availability of manufacturing knowledge upstream in design, powered by cloud computing and connected teams, will have a big impact on how projects are optimized and delivered on-site. Benefits some of our customers have seen include much faster project schedules, improved return on investment and fewer change orders."

Productivity and Clash

VDC aids all forms of construction because it enables various members of the project team, from steel fabricator to structural engineer, to collaboratively work from the same model. "This workflow creates a better design with less rework needed because teams are able to address and work through issues before installation," says Josh Allison, manager of virtual construction at PCL Construction Enterprises Inc., Denver. "As the need for rework lessens, the risk is also reduced. Nowadays, most construction teams are modeling their projects. With the use of robotic total stations, teams are able to pull the data from these models directly into the total stations, which makes for a more accurate and quicker install."

VDC boosts real productivity gains and a better end result with fewer issues in the field. Via VDC coordination, a building's framing can be installed prior to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (to include all framed-out penetrations. "This can help eliminate rework if the framing has been removed during the MEP installation and additional framing that maybe required, for example adding a fire-rated horizontal chase because a duct is running parallel above a rated wall," says Steve Ausborn, BIM project manager, ClarkDietrich Engineering Services, West Chester, Ohio. "If the framing is installed prior with the opening it will allow them to frame areas that would be rather difficult if all of the duct and piping was in place."

VDC provides clash detection in metal construction. Clash detection solves the conflicts that may not be seen until installation has already begun. "Going through and placing all the critical framing such as king studs for corners and openings (doors and windows) that would typically extend to the bottom of the deck will show the MEP and fire protection during coordination where they need to try to avoid," Ausborn says.

Clash detection helps eliminate rework and additional framing if it's coordinated correctly. "If you have a fully coordinated project, you should be able to frame ahead of all of the other trades using floor plans and framed wall elevations (panel drawings) also generated from the coordinated model," Ausborn says. "The MEP trades are producing their shop drawings and fabricating from the coordinated model, so framing should be able to do the same. Going in and framing a complete floor with no MEP obstructions should decrease the time needed and improve the project schedule."

VDC's point layout systems use robotic total stations to improve accuracy in the field by taking points set directly in the coordinated model and locating them on-site. It also allows an easier alternative for laying out complex geometries. Users can capture and verify existing conditions and relay them back to the coordination team who can then make the adjustments to the model to help with other trades coordination.

VDC Software

There are many VDC software packages available. They are not all the same and don't apply the same benefits to everyone. Grothman says Gilbane uses Navisworks, Revit, BIM 360 Glue and for laser scanning: Faro Scene. For its more specific tasks it uses AutoCad, Inventor, Rhino/Grasshopper and Unreal Engine. Ausborn says ClarkDietrich Engineering Services uses Autodesk Revit as its main platform with an add-on from Strucsoft called MWF (Metal Wood Framer). "We also use an add-on in Autocad Architecture called COINS," he adds.

Gustafson believes users of technology should first think about their company's capabilities and level of expertise with technology. "If you are moving from a 2-D to a 3-D BIM workflow, you want to be thinking about how engineers and fabricators better share and combine model information to improve the design and manufacturing process," he says. "If you are already using BIM but want to better connect to the ecosystem of design and construction, you should start thinking about data not as 3-D model based but project based. You should start thinking about software being cloud-connected, not desktop connected. You should also think about software that is open and customizable so that you can tailor it for your business needs."

To get started with VDC software, companies should first think about what type of services they provide. Structural steel fabricators should use virtual building design for construction solutions that help them connect with structural engineers to better collaborate and bid on projects in a dynamic environment. They should use software that delivers more accurate fabricated products and connects project data to the field to help reduce waste.

While the metal construction industry is seeing more and more VDC usage to help contractors and trades plan and execute more effectively on job sites, it is still not taking full advantage of its technology gains. "As such, the industry is ripe for innovation and disruption as it begins to see the benefits of adopting [it] and better connecting to the new virtual collaboration ecosystem that is driving modern building design and construction," Gustafson says.

While Grothman acknowledges VDC is a relatively new addition to the construction industry, he predicts, "As far as I can tell it won't be going away any time soon."

"As 3-D modeling continues to become an industry standard the need for VDC will continue to grow," he adds. "3-D modeling makes it easier to iterate system designs and VDC helps shorten the loop of design-feedback-revisions by creating a digital forum that lets changes take days versus the typical weeks.

To explore ways to better work with steel building contractors so they can better serve you during this unpredictable period, contact Highline Steel Systems.

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About Highline: At Highline Steel Systems and, our goal is for our clients to be well-informed before partnering with us or participating in any of our firm’s services. We hope your experience will be better once you know who we are, have more realistic ideals and goals about working with us, as well as understand what we are focused on doing for you and our community. We are focused on providing the best possible services and products in and around structural steel supply & fabrication services, steel erection services, structural steel provision, pre-engineered metal buildings, architectural metals, ornamental metals, tilt-wall erection, steel management, building components, detailing & engineering, as well as estimating and everything that goes into making your steel building projects a reality. If you need any questions answered or any expert advice, please give us a call at (800) 317-5814 or email us at


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