Oversite: How Has Faster, Better, Cheaper Evolved for Infrastructure?
Product designers are accustomed to the typical innovation pressures of building things faster, better and cheaper. The computing industry, in particular, has been on a blistering pace of innovation, but it also has been blessed with the annual constant of Moore’s Law. Because developers can expect computing power to get faster and smaller, they can build that into the product roadmap. In the infrastructure space, work is project rather than product based, and although there have been efficiency improvements, there certainly aren’t any constants.
There’s no Moore’s Law in the built environment for many reasons, including the fact that there are too many dependencies and fluctuations. Moving targets include the cost of materials and labor, limited functionality and interoperability in software tools and sharing environments, and regulations that ensure consistency and safety but also constrain design.
Regardless of the lack of constants and the many constraints, the same pressures remain in the built environment for faster, better and cheaper. Although there’s pressure to improve all three in the delivery of every project, what these parameters mean has changed through the years, and the means to deliver has improved as technology advances.
Today’s faster delivery schedules are driven by several factors. In the transportation sector, there’s increased understanding of the economic effects that road and bridge closures inflict on cities and citizens, and we now have innovative means to slide bridges in or better phase maintenance (see “Rehabilitation with Minimal Interruption”). In buildings, the accelerated needs to address growing populations with increased density is being met with innovative assembly such as precast and prefabrication. In environmental or stormwater work, there are drivers to improve understanding and finish assessments quickly along with new sensing options for ongoing monitoring.
This pressure to move faster also is being met by a new cooperative project-delivery mechanism that‘s sometimes contractual and increasingly standard operating procedure. Sharing a building information model (BIM) among stakeholders, and regular meetings around this single point of truth, accelerates delivery by eliminating conflicts before they halt progress. The model also allows for easier sequencing of construction steps, with each contractor and subcontractor signing off and being held accountable for their deliverables.
More time is being spent in thoughtful design with the advent of BIM, particularly designing in context. Through detailed data capture of project details with laser scanning and modeling, designs are better tuned to site realities, because the captured model of conditions allows developers to measure and test designs while looking at a detailed site representation.
A new set of analysis and simulation tools allows for conceptual designs that can be tried and tested against different scenarios, such as energy efficiency, structural strength, the amount of cut and fill needed for earthwork, and more. The ability to design and simulate within the design environment seamlessly and quickly is the key to achieving advancements in performance-based design.
Prior workflows of separate simulation packages, or offline services, returned results based on one scenario and didn’t allow for continual tweaking against visible outcomes. Now designers can ensure better outcomes and present a virtual model to clients, so they can understand what has been considered and quickly see any suggested changes’ repercussions to cost, schedule and performance.
Cost control is greatly improved with a BIM workflow, as there’s more transparency. More-detailed construction planning and sequencing tools help wring out costs savings with the same efficiencies as lean and just-in-time manufacturing. This approach has taken full hold in manufacturing, with metrics that allow for constant fine tuning. The same approach now is possible in infrastructure with BIM.
Keeping costs inline with budget primarily is about time. With new tools allowing for sequencing and virtual construction, the timeline can be tuned to streamline schedules and deliver cost savings.
Today’s project timelines are accelerating, and designs are more complex, particularly in constrained urban environments. This parallel pressure of faster while more complex is being handled with tools that greatly improve awareness of the design environment as well as the components, sequence and performance of what’s designed. Being faster, better, cheaper now is much more measurable and achievable, and hopefully less painful.