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Virtual design reality for Europe’s construction industry


The large number of parties that must collaborate on construction projects presents difficulties in communicating building design information, but DIVERCITY’s design-simulation software utilising virtual reality technology promises significant cost reductions to Europe’s construction industry.

Construction has become an information-intensive industry, with the excessive number of documents during construction projects resulting in processing errors when data is not properly managed. Under current approaches to information management, there are significant barriers to communication between all the stakeholders involved (e.g. clients, professional teams, contractors, local authorities, residents, workers). Recent research by industry specialists suggests that these barriers of communication, networking, integration and information sharing pose the major challenges for the industry over the next ten years.

A toolkit for construction

The IST programme-funded DIVERCITY project seeks to address these challenges with the development of a toolkit comprising six software applications that allows users to collaboratively and interactively visualise and simulate aspects of a project during briefing, design and scheduling. These include: client briefing, acoustics, lighting, thermal and constructability simulations, and site analysis. These applications can be used independently, or simultaneously, as part of a stand-alone activity, or integrated collaborative process throughout the project lifecycle, thereby empowering clients and integrating stakeholder activities within a collaborative workspace.

As the Client Briefing work package leader Rob Aspin, a Senior Research Fellow in the University of Salford’s Future Workspaces Research Centre (FWRC), explains, clear communication from the onset of a project is key to successful construction, but also one of the biggest obstacles. "Research has shown that the client briefing stage of the project lifecycle is vitally important to get right as it has a dramatic effect on the whole of the construction lifecycle. However, clients and potential users of the building often find it difficult to portray their requirements for a new facility to the design team," says Aspin, adding: "DIVERCITY aims to ease this difficulty by developing a virtual design workspace that enables clients, users and the design team to communicate their ideas to each other in a more understandable format."

The workspace contains a set of tools that allow the development of a graphical building program, describing the semantics of the proposed building. This model, Aspin explains, allows the client and designer to consider the spatial needs and relationships, and define them in a manner that makes them more accessible to the later stages in the design process.

An added dimension to design

From the structured building program spatial layouts are developed. These represent conceptual sketches of the building form, developed in a 3D-modelling environment. "Because these models are developed from the building program, analysis of the matching between clients’ requirements and the conceptual design is possible, providing designers with quantitative measures that aid in refining the initial design," he says. After the layout has sufficient detail the user is able to export the ’space layout’ file to a CAD application to enable the design to be taken further.

Current construction project information is already captured in 2D CAD drawings - along with text documents - and shared electronically, but problems arise when the volume of documents and drawings and their versions increases. DIVERCITY’s integrated approach involves a project information board that requires information used by all stakeholders to be entered only once, and its 3D interactive visualisation applications means much of the project information can be presented in a visual format rather than text. Users can thus visualise the most appropriate configuration of spaces within a building or site, and explore ’what-if’ simulations of the acoustic, thermal, and lighting properties in a 3D environment to make time and cost savings when the project reaches the ’real’ site. During the construction stages of the project the DIVERCITY toolkit further supports users by supporting site planning and construction sequence planning and tracking through 3D interactive visual tools that graphically communicate the site configuration and building program.

Currently the DIVERCITY platform is comprised of six modules supported by an extensible integration and collaboration framework that can be used to bind additional services within the DIVERCITY workspace.

The client briefing, commonly referred to as Pre-CAD, and Site Planning modules, developed by the University of Salford’s Future Workspaces Research Centre are being used to support further EU funded research activities within projects such as INTELCITIES that aim to expand the range of functionalities to encompass urban planning tasks. The simulator modules for design review activities such as the acoustic and thermal simulators developed by consortium member CSTB and the lighting simulator developed by consortium member CSSI now present stable tools, with the acoustic simulator again being extended to support the demands of urban planning within the FP6 IST project, INTELCITIES. The 4D Modelling tools, entitled Visual Project Chronology, developed by project member VTT are currently being applied to support ongoing national research programmes.

DIVERCITY applications are currently available for use on a consultancy basis and to support ongoing research activity in both EU and national programmes that seek to extend the range and scope of the applications into wider domains such as urban planning. With Europe’s construction industry accounting for 11 per cent of the region’s GDP comprising 2.4 million companies (83 per cent of which are SMEs) employing 8.8 million people directly and 26 million indirectly in Europe alone, the project sees significant potential for these systems to support better collaboration and achieve greater client satisfaction.

Rob Aspin
Position Developer
Centre for Virtual Environments
University of Salford
University Road
Salford M5 4WT
United Kingdom
Tel: +44-161-2952932
Fax: +44-161-2952925

Tara Morris | IST Results
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