Digital Building Lab is More than a Technology Think Tank

Written by Nadine M. Post for Republished with permission.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Charles M. Eastman, long considered a research guru for computer-based building design and construction, displays parental pride in his latest brainchild: Georgia Tech's Digital Building Laboratory. Unlike Eastman's past efforts, starting some 40 years ago, the fledgling DBL, created in 2009 to help improve building design and construction through the aid of digital tools, is a collaboration among academics and players in the buildings-sector food chain.

© 2011 Cheng and Teizer @ RAPIDS













“This is industry and academia together,” says Eastman, DBL's director and a professor of both architecture and computing at Georgia Tech, Atlanta. “To me, it is so obvious that we need each other,” he says.

Eastman's goal is to drive the buildings sector forward with technology by prioritizing research needs and developing digital tools that can be marketed. The lab also grapples with contemporary issues, such as building-team collaboration and product generation. There is a strong focus on topics such as building information modeling (BIM) and project delivery, including integrated project delivery (IPD).

“BIM and IPD are dramatically changing the workplace, and universities have to make changes,” says Eastman. “We have no [General Motors] to drive the industry forward, so we have to find a collaborative way.”

Digital design and fabrication is an area of concentration. Prototypes are made in a fabrication lab. Almost no building element, method or tool is off limits, from off-site fabrication with robotics to new building methods, such as mixing shop-based and field fabrication.

The lab's strong industry collaboration differentiates DBL from Eastman's earlier labs at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Georgia Tech, says Eastman. The lab's sole focus on buildings, rather than infrastructure, transportation or process plants, differentiates it from other research groups, such as the Center for Facilities Engineering and the Construction Industry Institute, he adds.

Contractors, fabricators, engineers, software developers and especially architects are sought as partners. “We have to figure out how to build value into business models of architects so their value contribution is known,” says Eastman.

Owners are included. At a May 24-25 DBL workshop called “Information Technology and Project Delivery: What Owners Need To Know,” attendees and speakers shared experiences about BIM, IPD, facilities management (FM) and lean construction methods.

William R. Seed, vice president of design and construction for Universal Health Services Inc., Philadelphia, said part of the problem is that few people know how to do IPD and follow lean construction practices. “No one understands the process; no one is prepared,” he said.

© 2011 Cheng and Teizer @ RAPIDS







“Every project we are involved with has some lean construction elements,” said Seed.

Fifteen of Universal's 150 current projects are contracted using an IPD multiparty agreement. This represents 75% of the dollar value of the nearly $1 billion worth of projects under way. “They are not all [IPD], but they are heading that way,” said Seed.

As far as BIM and FM goes, attendees said there is a giant disconnect because the software is incompatible; consequently, as-built BIMs gather dust. In addition, building operators are not at the table during design and construction meetings, so their model content needs are not taken into account by building teams.

In general, building teams are still getting their feet wet regarding BIM use, agreed attendees. Of late, disputes involving BIM center on the designer's standard of care, which is no longer clear or objective, said Gregg Bundschuh, a partner of Greyling Insurance Brokerage, Atlanta.

He cited one dispute, settled in arbitration, that involved a $250-million health-care project in the Midwest. The insurance company that described the dispute to Bundschuh would not provide any specifics or identify the parties involved.

As Bundschuh told it, the architect's deliverable for the project was a traditional set of 2D construction documents. The general contractor converted the drawings into a BIM and ran clash detection, identifying several thousand clashes. The contractor asked the architect to address the problems before the start of construction. The architect failed to do so in a material way, said Bundschuh.

The contractor submitted a claim in arbitration for delay and direct damage costs associated with the architect's failure to resolve clash issues in a timely manner. The arbitration panel awarded the contractor damages. “I understood that the award was based on the architect's failure to meet the ordinary standard of care for professional design services on a comparably sized project,” said Bundschuh.

Following the workshop, on May 25-26, the lab held a symposium to present ongoing research at Georgia Tech. One project, partly funded by constructor Skanska and the National Science Foundation, involves development of a BIM-derived, rule-based automated checking system for site safety planning before construction begins. “The goal is to test for potential safety violations before work is executed,” said Jochen Teizer, an assistant professor of engineering and Eastman's co-principal investigator on the research, which is an effort of Georgia Tech's DBL and its RAPIDS Laboratory.

The envisioned product would be similar to a clash detection tool. However, the safety tool would provide users with hazard locations, type of hazard resolution, installation schedule for protection, 3D visualizations and a time-lapse simulation of protection installation.

The research also includes fall protection. Following federal safety rules and guidelines, the safety-rule checking tool is able to identify automatically, for example, openings and temporary holes in slabs and walls, said Teizer. The tool then virtually “applies” the proper safety protection: cover, guard rail or safety net.

© 2011 Cheng and Teizer @ RAPIDS












The DBL—at on the web—has nine partners. Each has made a three-year commitment to provide to the university an annual contribution, which is tax deductible. To become a senior partner, a firm makes a $50,000 contribution. General partners give half that, and associates give $10,000. To date, software developer Tekla Corp. is the sole senior partner; Skanska is the sole general partner. The lab's four-person staff is bolstered by 19 associated faculty from the Georgia Tech colleges of architecture, where the lab resides, computing and engineering.

At the dawn of computer-aided building design, Eastman predicted advances would enable engineers to easily evaluate different structural schemes (ENR 10/11/84 p. 12).

That has happened and then some. But progress aside, Eastman believes there is still lots of room for digital-tool growth. “I think we are just at the beginning,” he says. “We have a long way ahead of us.”