By the time the public sees the results of a $1 billion expansion project at San Diego International Airport, around mid-2013, the contractors will have already seen the finished product many times over, starting well before placement of the first construction beam.
Deploying computer technology that’s created vivid 3-D worlds in Hollywood films like “Avatar,” airport builders are using the latest offerings in building information modeling, also known in the industry as BIM, to give planners virtual interactive tours of what the new airport terminal will look like.
It’s part of a growing nationwide trend that’s slowly putting those rolled-up paper blueprints on the endangered list.
“For years, this kind of stuff was done on light tables,” said Dan McGuckin, a local project director with Turner Construction Co., which is spearheading the airport renovation.
“You’re able to show your client exactly what everything is going to look like as of now, or how it’s going to look if he asks for changes right now.”
The airport’s architects and designers, including architectural firm HNTB, used a combination of Autodesk Inc. software programs, Revit Architecture and Navisworks, which helped nail down issues like how wall colors will match carpeting, or how many light fixtures are needed to illuminate spaces not sufficiently brightened by sunlight.
Avoiding Costly Delays
More importantly, the technology gives contractors the chance to make changes quickly in real time — and more crucially, head off potential problems before they create costly delays.
“One thing that is just a little off can be huge — it could mean thousands of dollars,” said Shawn Rosenberger, a locally based vice president and general manager with Turner.
Since planning began last year, software from San Rafael-based Autodesk has allowed Turner and its partners on the project — Flatiron Corp. and PCL Construction Services Inc. — to incorporate all planning elements into one interactive program that offers 360-degree views of every nook and cranny at the airport — from heating and cooling ducts, to the underground baggage-handling system to proposed security lanes and passenger gates.
When a problem is discovered and a fix is agreed on, the plan is updated in real time and all builders, including subcontractors, can access the latest version on their office computer systems, as well as mobile devices at construction sites.
Increasingly, the industry is using such systems for “clash deterrence” — averting on-site problems that arise, for instance, from measurement errors or miscommunication — and cracking down on waste.
“If you do have to make a change, you don’t have to wait several weeks for everyone to agree on how to fix it,” said Rosenberger. “You’re able to see the problem in real time and get the right pieces ordered and ready right away.”
BIM Catching On
The use of building information modeling and related technologies has recently seen a dramatic rise within the construction industry. According to a 2009 report by data publisher McGraw Hill Construction, nearly half the industry firms surveyed — 48 percent — were using some form of BIM, up from 28 percent in 2007.
New York-based Turner, which has 140 San Diego employees, recently reported that it has used BIM technology on more than 180 ongoing and completed projects nationwide. Among the most prominent was its work on the new Yankee Stadium, which opened last year in New York and serves as the home of the New York Yankees baseball team.
McGuckin said San Diego airport officials included use of the technology in its original project specifications, before contractors were hired. This is the first time he knows of that a BIM process was deployed from start to finish on one of Turner’s large-scale airport projects.
“It’s helped us to communicate our design to stakeholders in an easy-to-understand 3-D format,” said Katie Jones, spokeswoman for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which oversees Lindbergh Field.
“It’s been essential in coordinating the work of all the disciplines working on the building — structural, glass, piping, electrical — and will save us time and money by identifying and solving problems ahead of time,” Jones said.
“It’s an integral part of the design-build process, it’s proving to be the way of the future, and it’s something we plan to use again when appropriate,” she added.
In addition to aiding construction, the 3-D blueprint will be accessible to airport officials for years to come, to guide other expansion and improvement projects, Rosenberger noted.
Under way is a 470,000-square-foot expansion, including construction of a three-story, 10-gate addition to Terminal 2, containing a ticket lobby, airline check-in counters and security screening lanes. There will also be a new baggage-handling system, concourse seating and concessions, along with 1.5 million square feet of new taxiway and jet parking areas.
Improvements are geared to attaining silver certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
Leaders of Autodesk, which has been in business for 28 years, say Hollywood has been making steady use of its 3-D modeling technology during the past decade, with director James Cameron’s groundbreaking “Avatar” among the most prominent examples.
A New Dimension
Autodesk Senior Vice President Jay Bhatt noted that the construction industry has been much slower to change its basic planning methods, though adaption of 3-D has been accelerating in the past three years.
Much of that activity is tied to the complexities of constructing energy-efficient buildings. Building owners are looking to lower operating costs, and construction firms are also dealing with a difficult climate that demands keeping expenses down.
For some, taking 20 percent of the waste out of the building process can mean the difference between making or losing money on a project. “The contractor knows he’s facing these macroeconomic issues, and his margins are already very small,” Bhatt said.
Depending on features and other factors, Autodesk software ranges in price from around $2,870 to $11,340, plus subscription fees.
Bhatt said while computer-assisted drawing has been around for several years, the company attempted to hone its construction technology so that it works similar to an Excel spreadsheet — where changes made to one cell are instantly applied to the rest of the document.
One result is that everyone in the building process is working from one up-to-date playbook.
“The big thing is having no surprises,” said Autodesk spokesman Paul Sullivan. “What people really want is predictability.”