Breaking Ground and Barriers with Virtual Design and Construction

An Interview with Russ Tamblyn, CDM Smith's Director of VDC

October 03, 2016

Virtual design and construction—or VDC—is making its way through the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) industry as a transformative approach to designing, building, and even operating and maintaining facilities. Russ Tamblyn, CDM Smith’s Director of VDC, explains the value of VDC and how it will change the way we work and interact with each other.

Teams using the VDC approach on projects have the advantage of being able to resolve issues immediately because they have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips and can immediately manipulate their 3D model to adjust for design and construction changes. 

What is Virtual Design and Construction or VDC?
VDC is a smarter way to approach infrastructure projects. We use integrated building information modeling (BIM) models to guide the whole life cycle of a project and track actual progress against expected results. The digital assets developed during the planning, design, building and construction of the project can then be carried into operation to make sure the infrastructure assets are performing efficiently and effectively.

How does VDC improve the design and construction process?
On some of the more complex design-build projects, anywhere between 25 to 30 different models can be developed by various parties throughout the life cycle of the project; yet we don’t fully leverage them. The VDC approach takes the data from these models, combines them into one dynamic model that evolves throughout each phase of the project. By combining input from the engineers’ designs to construction staff tracking constructability issues or sub-contractors who’ve modeled their contract work, we will create an accurate digital version of the actual structures and systems to be built. Each team member will have a mutual understanding of the current state of the project and can make better informed decisions.

Why is this significant for our industry?
Project teams in the AEC industry strive for efficiency and accuracy and currently rely on traditional processes to accomplish these criticalities. We’ve been content with the approach of building in extra time on a project to redesign if something unexpected comes up, but VDC gives us the opportunity to be predictive rather than reactive. We will start each project with a VDC Execution Plan which will communicate the 3D model uses to all stakeholders. This feeds downstream uses such as mixed reality tools like the Microsoft HoloLens to identify clashes and tweak our design to best fit the needs of the project.

Another benefit is the enhanced collaboration. Teams using the VDC approach on projects have the advantage of being able to resolve issues immediately because they have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips and can immediately manipulate their 3D model to adjust for design and construction changes. Making on-the-spot decisions will contribute to a more seamless project delivery and of course, a very happy client.

Where do we start?
VDC can seem complex, but it’s all about incremental change and understanding that some aspects of working in a digital environment will require cultural shifts within your team. You’re not going to have a big breakthrough overnight and especially if you don’t have the necessary tools at your disposal or enough discipline to wholeheartedly execute major tasks. Having a VDC execution plan is a good start, but following through with it and holding project teams accountable will ensure future success. We also need to have the right resources in place to support the process.

This doesn’t mean go hire 100+ VDC staff to get the work done. It’s just a matter of educating, training and supporting team members throughout the process. Providing access to the hardware and software tools and empowering team members to embrace new processes will make the VDC approach workable and efficient, not an additional burden.

Any final advice? We are using the VDC approach on many of our projects today. As a design example, we are using 3D models to produce contract drawings and perform design reviews on our projects. On the construction side, we are using 3D models to coordinate work with trade contractors and perform quality assurance/quality control verification of a survey layout before work it is installed in the field. Our challenge is to plan properly, documenting our plan versus what actually happens, then engaging our external partners to adopt these new processes when they add mutual benefit to a project.

We should all have an open mind and always shoot for continuous improvement. VDC is about using our digital capital to its fullest potential on our projects. This requires that we always strive to find a better way to do something: to capture data, to monitor performance or even identify potential issues before they happen on our projects.

Russ recommends these VDC resources:

US Army Corps of Engineers – CAD/BIM Technology Center:

Associated General Contractors of America – BIM Education Program:  

BIMFORUM – The US Chapter of buildingSMART International:

Russ Tamblyn, CM-BIM joined CDM Smith in June 2016 as the Director of Virtual Design and Construction. With more than 25 years implementing building information modeling (BIM) and VDC within the engineering and construction industries, he has mastered best practices that deliver value and drive efficiency throughout the life cycle of a project.