The Promise of 3D

By Chris Andrews, Autodesk | Published September 18, 2009

Figure 1. Architects using information-rich BIM models are able to show customers completed projects long before lighting is installed or paint is applied. Image courtesy of Tocci Building Companies.

For over two decades, 3D visualization technology has teased engineers, urban designers, architects and their customers by promising one day to put all of the asset information for vast geographic areas into a single digital environment that could be used to analyze, visualize, and simulate conditions in the real world. This concept has contributed to numerous fantastic hypothetical scenarios, many of which have found their way into Hollywood and computer games. Despite the unbelievable nature of Hollywood fiction, many of the ideas about 3D digital worlds that appear in the movies convey the same business drivers that are pushing major software companies such as Google Inc., Autodesk Inc., and Dassault Systems to attempt to make a practical form of this vision reality.

Engineers, designers, and end customers increasingly see the potential to have accurate project designs that use real world data from multiple sources and that can be used to portray projects in the context of real world locations. Construction and architecture companies are increasingly turning to technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and digital city modeling that combine 3D graphics with rich attribute information and geographic intelligence to provide the analysis, visualization, and simulation capability that meets their customers’ needs.

Infrastructure design professionals have had no 3D design tools built to their requirements, until the entrance of BIM.

Three dimensions

The third dimension has been an integral component in the planning and conceptual design of infrastructure construction and redevelopment projects for centuries. With wood, clay, foam, paper, and photo manipulation, designers attempt to give their cu

stomers a feel for the layout of new roads, railways, and building development. Modern designers create schematic and photorealistic renderings of proposed development that convey the look and feel of a proposal to the end customer, with a focus

on attempting to place the project in the context of the existing real world environment. The customer and designer iteratively review and alter concepts until they arrive at a version that appears to meet the need of the project while remaining within budget and feasibility constraints. The traditional review process may result in multiple versions of foam and wood block models or numerous digital image mockups and 2D plans to arrive at a shared view of what should be built.

Unfortunately, a process that sequentially structures separate concept, approval, and construction steps inherently carries the risk that inaccuracies or poorly communicated concepts early in the project lead to cascading and expensive change orders once they are discovered during detailed design and construction. In some projects, cascading change leads to budget-busting cost overruns or failure due to poor acceptance of the final result by critical stakeholders such as citizens, home buyers, or retail business owners.

Physical models, photo manipulation, and even many modern digital 3D graphic modeling tools lack intelligence beyond the models or graphics and have no quantitative link to real world data. Traditional techniques fail to provide output that feeds directly into the detailed engineering design process. Concepts are developed, are approved, and are then thrown over the fence into the engineering teams’ laps. In the traditional process, the construction and engineering teams inherit all of the risk of inaccuracies or inadequacies of the original concepts, while stakeholders have little say during conception and must live with the outcome.


3D digital modeling tools have hinted at the promise of information-rich, digital asset models that could allow interactive review of concepts in real time and produce input to the engineering design process. Customers want involvement in the entire project process, from concept to construction, in an environment that allows them to feel intuitively that the project is meeting their needs while producing supporting metrics and reports.

Unfortunately, the best graphics products on the market have typically been created for the film and game industries, which don’t require real world data input or analytics. These tools focused on high quality, processing intensive rendering rather than on real-time interaction, which is key for engaging customers. Infrastructure design professionals have had no 3D design tools built to their requirements, until the entrance of BIM.

BIM describes the technology and process for capturing digital information about a building throughout design, construction, and operation. BIM information typically contains 3D models of real world structures with attribution that allows identification, interaction, and calculation using the data and attributes associated with the model elements. BIM tools are now being used at a variety of project scales and at different phases of the project lifecycle. The key values of BIM to end customers resonate throughout projects of many different sizes:

  • Dynamic interactivity
  • Analytical output
  • Cost savings

Buildings and BIM: Crate and Barrel Retailer

The obvious application of BIM technologies is to the planning, design, and construction of buildings. Tocci Building Companies (, Woburn, Mass.) is a nearly ninety-year-old building construction contractor that prides itself on continued innovation in project-centric technologies and processes to improve their output for customers and to maintain their competitive edge. When reliable BIM-based software appeared on the market, the company quickly invested in BIM as the next likely standard in construction delivery, allowing Tocci to deliver value by eliminating cost overruns, inefficient project management and change orders.

In 2006, Tocci invested in developing a Virtual Design and Construction competency wherein the company would prescriptively explore and apply BIM technologies throughout the construction process. The company set standards for using BIM to test the concepts that they could detect clashes between overlapping layouts from different subcontractors before breaking ground and that they could derive detailed specifications for construction from intelligence-filled models. Tocci was so successful at demonstrating ROI (return on investment) to their customers for the overhead of the BIM effort that their customers asked them to expand their specialty and referred them to more customers for bigger and more diverse projects. As a result, Tocci has spun off a business unit, Q5 (, specifically to focus on Virtual Construction.

And at the end of the day, “BIM keeps us honest,” he says. Real data go into the models and real calculations come out.

Laura Handler, the Operating Manager of Q5, describes a workflow using BIM in which the Virtual Construction project manager has dramatically more control over the sequence of construction events, clashes, and changes before the project breaks ground than was ever possible in traditional workflows. Handler points to one project for retailer Crate and Barrel where the use of BIM to visualize and detect the unintended intersection of proposed underground plumbing with building footings saved the project an instant $25,000 in change orders. And that’s a small example.

Figure 2. RBF Consultants use high resolution renderings from products like Autodesk Navisworks to show customers how installed infrastructure will connect with above ground features. Image courtesy RBF Consultants.

BIM tools have also been useful for reporting accurate measurements of surface areas and proposed material quantities to better inform subcontractors. The same project that Handler referenced saved $155,000 in material cost reductions because more accurate reports allowed subcontractors to make price reductions based on better understanding of scope and materials requirements. In Handler’s words, “The technology demonstrates its value easily. The overall ROI of BIM on the Crate and Barrel project was six-to-one.”

Q5 is using BIM throughout the building project lifecycle. Customers can see visualizations of what a room or open space will look like, generated from a high precision model that includes materials and paint colors and that can be used to generate views from different angles upon request. See Figure 1 for a lighting scenario. Subcontractors can order detailed reports about the scope of their effort and the order in which they are going to have to work with other contractors. If in 10 years, terms like ‘Virtual Construction’ are no longer used, it will be because Tocci and a few others revolutionized the industry and Virtual Design and Construction became the status quo.

Civil Infrastructure: San Bernardino County, Calif.

Ron Moreno, Senior Associate at RBF Consulting (, thinks outside the

building. RBF is a mid-sized planning, environmental, and design construction services firm that is watching the traditional construction project process change from a sequential series of hand-offs to an iterative workflow that tightly couples their output to the output of other firms working on the same project. Moreno’s typical project, managing a team of engineers who are designing the layout and structure of utilities and drainage systems for a campus, typically starts at the exterior wall of a building and ends at the property boundary.

From a layperson’s perspective, it might appear that RBF’s project flow hasn’t changed. Cities and counties still require 2D electronic or plotted diagrams that feed into their permitting processes. These processes have predictable timelines that continue to guide the high level construction milestones on a project. In the past, an RBF team might receive an approval, complete a set of designs, turn the designs over to a program manager and then hear about change orders that might come back in weeks or months, often after construction had started and a problem with a design was found in the field.

A detailed look shows that 3D and BIM are changing Moreno’s work profoundly. Now, when one of RBF’s engineers completes or modifies a design in a product such as Autodesk Inc.’s AutoCAD Civil 3D, the designs are handed over weekly to the construction management company, who use Autodesk Navisworks to bring all of the subcontractors’ detailed designs together in one software project. In a weekly meeting, the management company leads all of the subcontractor teams through a clash-by-clash review of any issues that are discovered, allowing the participating teams to discuss and make corrections before any construction has been done.  When the next major set of permits is applied to a project for it to move forward, approved designs are stamped and the teams move to the next task on the project.

With the introduction of BIM into construction projects, the customer may actually be getting a product of more value than what they originally sought. One project that Moreno discussed is the new 10-acre juvenile detention center in San Bernardino County, Calif. The RFP stipulated that contractors needed to provide 3D models at the end of the project. Upon drilling into the customer’s actual need, the customer hoped to take 3D models of the as-is construction and move them into facility management software. Moreno’s team helped the prime contractor to educate the customer that intelligent 3D, in the form of BIM, was the best output to give the county the chance to migrate information from the construction project into facility management. Not only does the BIM effort allow the county to save costs detecting change and clashes early in the design process, but the use of BIM leads to information-rich models that more accurately reflect the final as-is state of the project. See Figure 2 for a 3D view of how installed infrastructure would look in a construction project. Although construction is not yet done, the county is eager to see how they can move information from BIM into facility management for ongoing operation of the new complex.

Urban Planning and Design

The urban design practice at HOK Group Inc. (, a global firm specializing in architectural and design services, works on a different stage in the planning and design process. The practice specializes in planning very large urban design and redevelopment projects that may range in size up to whole cities. Their customers are often interested in the same kinds of assets that are involved in architectural and civil infrastructure projects, if many more of them. Imagine the difficulty and risk in committing billions of dollars for construction of a twenty- or forty-square-kilometer project if there is little analytical intelligence to be gleaned from the concepts that are developed to sell the project to citizens and city executives.

Figure 3. HOK used Autodesk Revit Architecture to design this new port and harbor system in Bahrain. Models like this can be used to calculate massing volumes of buildings and approximate surface area of new roads. Image courtesy HOK Group Inc.

The typical urban design project follows a process that closely mirrors the traditional architecture process. Customers establish a set of guidelines for a project area and the urban design consultant uses those constraints to build large wood or foam models with accompanying photographic mockups and 2D plan maps and cartoon concepts. The customer and the consultant work back and forth over a series of meetings where the customer requests changes and the consultant executes changes away from the customer, returning with a new model or mockup. In some cases, the technical consulting staff and the customer may be countries apart, making data exchange more time consuming and expensive. Also, consultants build the urban plans and reports that determine the project’s future construction effort from their conceptual models. It is easy to fudge numbers that are eyeballed off of a wooden model and nearly impossible for a customer to verify.

Lee Miller, firm-wide CAD Manager at HOK, has literally written the book on a new form of urban design practice used by HOK project teams. Miller’s career focus on the use of 3D applications from Autodesk and other vendors led him to apply software in new ways and sequences to address the need for attractive conceptual design and analytical reporting that he felt HOK’s urban design customers were seeking. Fundamentally, he believed that customers wanted to participate more actively in the conceptual design process while receiving analytical output that could be verified against real-world data and the initial guidelines that contributed to the concepts that were developed.

HOK developed a process using Autodesk Revit Architecture that was applied to projects in countries as diverse as Russia, the U.S., and Bahrain. Although individual customers’ project guidelines change, the core workflow remains the same. In each case, as illustrated in Figure 3, BIM allowed HOK teams to interactively develop and compare concepts with customers, share information electronically with remote teams, and extract visualizations and calculations that could be recorded as critical decision points in a project. “Change is part of the process when using 3D design tools,” says Miller.  HOK’s customers now expect to contribute dynamically during the conceptual design process. And at the end of the day, “BIM keeps us honest,” he says. Real data go into the models and real calculations come out.

Competitive differentiation through BIM

Despite the existence of BIM concepts for twenty years or more and the availability on the market of BIM products and open standards for data interchange, the convergence of software capability with customer awareness of 3D and BIM seems to be on the verge of cracking open a whole new market for companies that can differentiate themselves competitively, not by their ability to create and render complex 3D models, but by their ability to alter their processes dramatically using information-rich modeling tools to involve their customers and achieve better accepted project results at lower risk to their customers and to themselves.

Once citizens and governments start to realize that information that they are paying for is being lost through outdated project management processes, those processes are sure to change.

Laura Handler, Ron Moreno, and Lee Miller recognize that a sea change is taking place.  The ability to engage multiple contractors interactively on the same project through real-time, information-rich 3D tools radically shifts the construction and design project lifecycle from reactive to proactive. RBF is investing heavily in 3D and BIM skills because they see the opportunity to take the lead on future projects, to manage other contractors and to improve service for their customers. Handler and Q5 have already seized that opportunity and Miller and HOK are using 3D and BIM to realize customer expectations better, starting at the very beginning of huge infrastructure projects.

Moreno also hears the awareness of the terminology and value of 3D increasing in his customer community. He expects that community stakeholders, such as citizens and services companies, will eventually demand more and more 3D information about urban infrastructure from cities and municipalities. Moreno states, “At some point, you should be able to go to a city and get reasonably correct BIM information for what is under a street or information that will be hooked up to a building. Some companies are doing things the way that they have always done it, but the output from traditional engineering processes is not an accurate representation of what was built, and information was lost or not captured in the process.” Once citizens and governments start to realize that information that they are paying for is being lost through outdated project management processes, those processes are sure to change.

Beyond BIM: The digital city

Still, BIM is only part of the story. With its roots in architecture and building construction, BIM does not fit all projects that need to model real world assets. A small bit of location information may be used in Revit, for example, to locate a project in the real world, and many engineering drawings may be tagged with GPS coordinates. But tagging and using a correct real world location are only the first steps toward interactively visualizing and simulating a project in the real world environment. BIM is being pushed into domains for which it was not designed. Even Miller, Revit champion at HOK, hopes that trends to use more geographic data for design projects, the increasing scale of projects, and the need for tools that can be used interactively by global teams will drive the software market to create a solution that fits the end-to-end asset lifecycle that will meet his customers’ needs from concept to construction to operation.

Google Earth, Autodesk LandXplorer, and Pixelactive CityScape are but three of many products that have come on the market recently that begin to provide the user with the ability to render projects within a 3D model of the real world environment. “Digital Cities” technologies are emerging that actually hold the promise of modeling large urban areas using a citywide information model. Academia and industry are actively proposing open formats to encapsulate large amounts of visual detail with informative content, such as the relatively new standard for city modeling, CityGML. Cities, national governments, and private entities have amassed many terabytes of geographic intelligence, from tree locations, to roadway details, to movements of vehicles and equipment. As 3D becomes more sophisticated, these end customers will drive technology providers and services companies to develop more and better capability to go beyond analytics and clash detection toward allowing customers and citizens to experience the change in the world around them before it becomes reality.