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Recent changes in the AEC industry – like technological advances, more complex facilities, increased collaboration, earlier involvement of contractors and trade partners, and more offsite prefabrication – are having a ripple effect throughout the healthcare design and construction world. 

One of the more notable ramifications is the role and value of virtual design and construction (VDC), which is dramatically evolving to meet these new needs and opportunities. Consequently, VDC professionals are becoming far more important and strategic contributors to hospital projects’ overall planning, innovation, and outcomes.

Adding Value from Beginning to End

One of the most notable changes is the timing, continuity, and duration of VDC team involvement. “Previously, VDC professionals were not necessarily viewed as integral members of a project team,” said Brett Edmondson, vice president with JE Dunn Construction, “but that has changed dramatically in today’s environment.” Hospital project teams are consistently leveraging VDC professionals as early as the pursuit stage and continuing throughout the entire project lifecycle. And unlike the early days of VDC, teams are now leveraging their expertise for far more than periodic coordination of certain components and clash detection. “The earlier VDC is involved, the faster we can creatively address challenges and prevent issues from materializing in the field, and the smarter we can be with our schedule, budget, and logistics plans,” advised Edmondson.

Similarly, VDC team members are no longer waiting for construction documents to be released to get engaged. Their early involvement is especially critical for projects using design-assist delivery since they facilitate early collaboration and ensure coordination with each trade partner, helping bridge the gaps in understanding between each party – design, construction, and trade partners. “As complex as these facilities are becoming, I couldn’t imagine leading any hospital project, especially a design-assist project, without a strong VDC lead on the team from day one,” said Jeff Wherry, healthcare senior project manager with JE Dunn. “Early involvement is imperative, and the value they contribute is tremendous.”

Projects incorporating significant levels of offsite prefabrication also benefit from early and consistent VDC leadership. “VDC paves the way for better prefabrication planning and execution by helping identify which parts of a job make sense to prefab and enhancing the overall schedule,” said Edmondson. These types of projects require coordinating with the end in mind. Rather than just coordinating all the aspects of a component – like exterior skin, underground electrical duct banks, patient room bathrooms, headwalls, footwalls, sinkwalls and multi-trade MEP racks for patient rooms and corridors - so they fit well together, VDC professionals must also think about the full lifecycle of a component, including how it is built in the warehouse, stored, transported, and installed on the jobsite.

Optimizing Technological Advances

Technology changes are also influencing VDC’s evolution. For example, the ability to collaborate through cloud-based file-sharing is dramatically improving alignment and collaboration. “Having everyone working on the same platform, and therefore, the same page at the beginning of the project, makes for much less of a transition from design to construction,” said Edmondson. “The phases and partners are more seamlessly integrated, and the overall process of sharing and updating files and models is much more efficient.”

Combined with mobile devices, this accessibility allows team members to leverage VDC’s models much more frequently on the jobsite and in meetings. “The ability to use augmented reality allows us to compare what is being built in the field to the model, easily and in real time,” pointed out Wherry. “The additional layers of quality control resulting from these advances in technology are invaluable for ensuring high-quality results.”  

Leveraging VDC’s tools to better visualize countless aspects of the project is further contributing to the function’s overall contributions. “4D schedules – tying the 3D model to the project schedule – are having a major impact on our projects,” said Edmondson. “For example, we are reviewing 4D steel models in installation meetings to visually illustrate logistics, install and erection sequencing, constraints and critical milestones for the new 12-story, 300-bed Women’s & Children’s Hospital at University Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.”

Today’s Skills for Success

As the role of VDC evolves, so does the necessary skill set. Today’s VDC professionals must have more than just technical skills and healthcare construction means and methods knowledge. Because of their significant role in collaboration and coordination, they must also have excellent people skills, including communication and facilitation capabilities, plus the ability to bring out the best from diverse teams. “A good VDC leader doesn’t have to have all the answers, but they do need to empower team members to speak up and understand how to pull the best solutions and plans from each person,” said Kara Oravetz, healthcare senior project engineer with JE Dunn. With the growing need to accelerate project schedules, they must also be adept at quickly gaining buy-in and accountability from all parties.

“How a VDC leader thinks is also an important asset,” observed Wherry. “First of all, they need to be systems thinkers, realizing how each piece of a project or structure could impact another at any point in time. And they also need to be creative thinkers who can empathize with a team’s struggles and help find innovative solutions to those challenges,” he said.

Strong VDC leaders also know how to align with the project team’s goals, challenges and overall “operations mindset.” No two projects are the same, and the best VDC leaders strategically and intentionally identify ways to integrate themselves into the team and provide value.

Looking Ahead

VDC’s importance and value will certainly continue growing, and the role will also continue changing. “I think it will become more common to have VDC working on the hospital’s campus alongside the team, instead of working in the models remotely from a company office,” said Edmondson.

The industry will also see more opportunities to utilize virtual solutions. For example, “Two-dimensional plans and schedules are gradually going to be replaced with more 3- and 4-D versions,” added Wherry. He also anticipates tools like virtual mockups will be used more often, in lieu of physical mockups, helping the team with visualization as well as improved cost-control.

While no one can predict exactly what the future holds, an openness to adapt along with the technology and the business needs will be a critical success factor for everyone involved. “As hospitals grow more complex and schedules accelerate, the ability to work more collaboratively, proactively, and efficiently is an absolute must,” shared Oravetz. “The future is brightest for those of us willing to embrace these changes every step of the way.”    

Article originally ran in the July/August issue of Medical Construction and Design magazine.