The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to improvise as the sudden shift to remote working disrupted “business as usual” for a lot of employees. At Stellar, we had emergency plans in place to allow for an easy shift to remote work — and it was so successful that the company adopted a full-time work-from-home model for the majority of its workforce.
With restrictions easing and vaccines more readily available, we’re slowly returning to some sense of normalcy. And while there are plenty of things we won’t miss about pandemic life, there are tools and strategies that flourished over the past year that yielded more efficient, predictable and accurate project results for our clients. Let’s look at a few that are here to stay:
1. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) for design teams
Designing complex, multi-layered building plans and schematics in 3D requires massive computing power. Before 2020, Stellar designers had to rely on large desk-based workstation systems tied to the office network. Working remotely involved using a less-than-ideal remote access interface, which wasn’t effective for graphic work due to quality, performance and latency issues.
With the permanent work-from-home model, we transitioned to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), allowing designers to easily access the necessary graphical computing power from anywhere via the cloud. Now, those powerful yet cumbersome workstations don’t have to be located in an employee’s home; they can securely access all the enterprise design tools they need from a home computer. This solution also enables virtual collaboration with cross-country co-workers, outside partners and subcontractors — meaning design work can now truly be conducted from anywhere that has internet access.
2. Harnessing big data and business intelligence
Each design-build project consists of countless decisions that yield mountains of data. If used correctly, this data could realize significant value in a project’s budget and timeline. We began utilizing this sort of data analytics before the pandemic, but the value of the predictability it offers is especially magnified during this time of uncertainty.
All the data sets from Stellar projects — past, present and future — are stored securely in an enterprise data warehouse. This massive database serves as a central depository for all information on any given project, including design, construction, financial and personnel data points. With Power BI, the business analytics service by Microsoft, we can view interactive graphical reports that break down the data into actionable insights. The machine learning technology analyzes historical trends in order to provide real-time projections and greater predictability on future projects. Data from the building model is exported to Power BI, enabling users to “slice and dice” troves of data easily.
These big data and analytics tools will continue to transform the ways in which buildings are designed and constructed to embrace new trends in the years to come.
3. Virtual walkthroughs and 360° documentation
While “Zoom fatigue” is certainly real, video conferencing was crucial to managing many of our projects in 2020. In particular, it allowed for real-time virtual walkthroughs in which Stellar team members and owners could inspect projects together despite being quarantined miles apart.
For example, we were preparing to build one steam system and modify another at a food processing facility. Normally, we would send engineers and designers to survey the current conditions in person and identify how to tie into the existing infrastructure; however, the facility didn’t allow outside visitors due to COVID precautions at the time.
Therefore, we employed OpenSpace, an AI-powered platform that helps construction teams track the progress of building projects by capturing 360-degree photos of construction sites. We had one person walk the space wearing a hard-hat-mounted camera, which uploaded the images to create a 3D model of the entire space (think Street View in Google Maps but in a facility or on a job site). This 3D model was then shared with the project team.
These cameras are also useful as a pre-construction investigation tool. If renovating an existing space, for example, we can conduct a walkthrough with a 360-degree camera to document current conditions. This allows our teams to reference the space later as well as share the 3D model with those who couldn’t make it to the physical job site. This comprehensive capturing of existing conditions enables us to provide more accurate evaluations and proposals.
This cutting-edge technology was a game changer during the height of the pandemic, but it’s an approach that’s here to stay, particularly for site walkthroughs where in-person travel is not possible or practical.
4. Animated virtual mockups
With travel to job sites restricted throughout the height of the pandemic, we relied on virtual mockups to communicate clearly with subcontractors and to ensure consistency of installation quality for various building elements.
These animated Revit or SketchUp models simulate step-by-step installation instructions for a given item. For example, here’s a virtual mockup for the installation of a refrigeration rooftop unit:
Unlike their static, physical counterparts, virtual mockups allow users to study and manipulate the design interactively. They offer access to consistent visual information for both design and construction teams.
According to one academic researcher, virtual mockup imposes better building practices by allowing design teams — in conjunction with construction teams — to design and study the building envelope system at greater depth earlier in the design process, which:
- Allows the design team to study their building envelope three-dimensionally (3D detailing) and include 3D detailing, where practical, and determine relevant details.
- Promotes better communication through visual representation, not relying on physical representation (physical mockups), and creates feedback structure with design, fabrication and construction teams.
- Emphasizes integration of the project team, exchange of ideas and building information.
- Allows the design team to understand levels of design flexibility throughout the design process.
While virtual mockups were especially useful during a time of social distancing, they will continue to play a valuable role in future projects beyond the pandemic. Our growing library of these animated models will only improve quality control and minimize ambiguity for new employees and distant subcontractors.
5. Collaborating smarter with Procore
While we utilized Procore before the pandemic, the construction management software’s value truly crystalized over the past year. The cloud-centric platform streamlines project management processes and allows job site crews to quickly communicate with each other, and with designers, remotely. Procore also enables clients to receive periodic progress updates and access drawings and other project information via a smartphone, tablet or computer any time they choose.
Procore played a big part in enhancing communication when our teams couldn’t all be in the same place together, but its numerous advantages will continue to benefit our clients’ projects beyond the COVID era.
That could be said about all of the tools and methods listed above. The pandemic forced businesses to think on their feet and innovate quickly, but now many of those solutions are here to stay. The challenges of 2020 taught lessons, but the question now is what will we do with them?