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Managing the Model: What is a “model”?

Mark Scacco on February 21, 2015 - in Articles, Column

Got a minute? I have a question for you: What is a “model”? No, I don’t mean the attractive people we see in ads and movies. And no, I don’t mean a scale replica of an SR-70 Blackbird, Godzilla or the Santa Maria, although these are a bit closer to the concept I’m driving at.

Even when we constrain the question to our infrastructure industry, the answer still varies widely, depending on who you ask, so it’s understandable if this seems like a trick question. I have another question for you: Why should you care about models?

Before you answer, let’s address the first question.

From Isolated to Integrated

From the clay mortarboard sketches of antiquity to today’s most-advanced computer simulations, the professionals tasked with designing and constructing the built world of human civilizations have been modeling for millennia. Some models were based solely on empirical observations and others on mathematical principles, and all now are typically a combination of both.

During the years, these models have grown in sophistication, complexity and utility. Unfortunately, most of this growth has happened in isolation. The data in our handmade-scale architectural building models, CAD drawings of an overpass, population growth and movement simulations, and storm-sewer conveyance spreadsheets, all are a type of model and exist “siloed” from other models.

Based on the groundwork laid during the last several decades, all this began to change a few years ago. Now, ready or not, we are on the precipice of a revolution of convergence among a wide range of infrastructure modeling. Three-dimensional laser scans now feed real-world existing conditions into our proposed BIM models, preventing conflicts and costly change orders. Embedded stress/strain sensors alert bridge maintenance crews in real time to invisible problems and ward off catastrophe, and 4-D modeling allows contractors (and the public) to see and plan for and around the stages of construction months before the first shovel is turned.

Our CAD drawings have evolved into Building Information Modeling, our maps into Geographic Information Systems, and our schedules into 4-D and 5-D Construction Modeling. The future of infrastructure lifecycle management is here.

Caring and Sharing

This should make the answer to my second question a little more obvious: Why should you care about models? You’re busy, have too much to track as it is, and frankly, you have better things to be concerned about. The answer is fairly straightforward and consists of three parts: 1) Approval, 2) Design and Construction, and 3) Economics. All of which form an inescapable triad of the reality of modern infrastructure projects.

Every project needs approval to move forward. Such approval comes from a variety of public and private sources, and a project never gets off the ground without it.

Visualization models let the public know what a new building will look like, and hydraulics models let city officials know the size and cost of new sewers. BIM models let building owners gauge the costs of construction and the ongoing effort to manage the facility. Traffic models let us know how a new shopping mall or subdivision will impact local travel times.

Models have always been part of the approval process, and new advances allow us to prepare and present models that are more accessible to decision makers and the general public outside the profession. Without approval, nothing gets built. Models help obtain that approval.

The Sweet Spot

Design, construction and maintenance usually require a balancing act between functionality and Economics. The design “sweet spot” is where the infrastructure component fulfills its intended purpose without breaking the bank to build and maintain. Using conventional design and construction techniques, our industry has settled into a fairly predictable groove; we know how much something will cost to build, how long it will take to build, and what the ongoing maintenance and management costs will be.

But the status quo is being challenged on a number of fronts. Limited public funds, a tremendous backlog of infrastructure components in desperate need of repair or upgrade, and sustainability and environmental concerns demand improvement from our designs and construction techniques. The emergence of “big data,” advanced and ubiquitous sensors, nearly unlimited cloud computing and storage resources, and Internet-enabled real-time collaboration among all stakeholders converge to give us the modeling tools needed to find this sweet spot between a great design and reasonable construction and maintenance costs.

Answers for All

For all the technical “wow factor” associated with advanced infrastructure modeling, the models are not an end in themselves—they are tools.

Is it your job to manage the twin responsibilities of interfacing with external entities while making sure your internal processes are as profitable as possible? Are you tasked with business-development activities? Is it your responsibility to review designs for constructability? As part of a planning committee, do you evaluate proposals for the development of your community? Are you a facilities manager, a transportation expert, or do you operate and maintain our utility infrastructure?

To each of you, models should be indispensable, profit-generating tools. Used efficiently, modeling and collaboration tools let us examine multiple design alternatives in a fraction of the time previously required, reducing costs and increasing profit. They allow us to visualize and convey the design and construction intent to stakeholders, helping to win new business and gain project approval. 4-D models let us sequence the construction to avoid conflicts in the field as well as the expense associated with change orders and legal action. Connected models facilitate collaboration and communication among your internal team as well as with outside consultants, contractors and facility owners. CAD, BIM, GIS, GPS, RFID, NFC, LiDAR, 4-D/5-D Simulation and 3-D Visualization—this is not just a list of buzzwords. This is the new business language of today’s infrastructure profession.

So what is a model, and why should you care? The answer is the same for both questions: Models are the tools of the infrastructure professional.

Author’s Note: This is my first column for Informed Infrastructure, and I am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with you. My intention is to talk with you in this new language about infrastructure-modeling technology and the business practices that are important to you. I hope to provide a perspective that combines the technical “nuts and bolts” of infrastructure modeling with the reality of the business of designing, building and managing these projects.


About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is a 25-year veteran of AEC technology and design consulting. He is an AEC Industry Consultant with Scacco LLC and can be reached via email at [email protected]

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