Virtual design and construction (VDC) is gaining momentum in the construction industry. Commercial electrical contractors are hearing it much more frequently, but it is often confused with building information modeling (BIM).

Project managers, estimators, electricians and safety personnel all use VDC and BIM at Miller Electric to finish jobs on time and within budget. With so much confusion around differences between the terms, an explanation is in order.

What is virtual design and construction (VDC)?

A difficult definition to pin down, VDC is often misunderstood most by the first word in its name – virtual. It’s helpful to think of VDC as three separate components – virtual, design and construction – that work together to form an approach to construction management.

“When people see that word, they think VDC is a form of digital software,” says Bryan Horton, Miller Electric BIM Manager. “Although information technology will almost certainly be used, VDC like BIM, is a process and a way of working that involves the management of integrated multidisciplinary performance models. It’s a way of designing an ideal strategy for a given project that incorporates the right people and technology.”

The virtual aspect of VDC involves creating a digital twin of a construction project, whether that be from a 3D model created in BIM, a digital schedule that ties into the project, or a laser scan of a project that is then tied to a model, virtually.

The design facet of VDC refers to the use of technology by designers and architects to create a model of the project.

Finally, the third part of VDC, construction, takes the virtual and design components and brings them to life in the physical, tangible world.

The three components aren’t linear, but cyclical. It’s better to view VDC as encapsulating the lifecycle of a project since it’s less of an order, and more of an approach to construction. Pre-construction can be performed in the design phase. Designers are involved in the creation of the digital twin during the virtual phase.

Miller Electric’s BIM and VDC staff improve project outcomes by coordinating and pre-planning electrical layouts, collaborating with project managers to design projects most efficiently, and working with owners, general contractors and other trades to ensure all building system models are collision-free prior to construction.

While BIM and VDC tend to be viewed as analogous terms, they are definitely distinct.

Virtual design and construction need not necessarily involve building information modeling, and BIM can be undertaken without it being considered part of VDC. BIM is a much more specific process than VDC, but both are methods of planning and managing projects collaboratively.

Architects, engineers and contractors use VDC models to visualize and plan a range of things, including:

  • Building designs
  • Processes
  • RFI submittals
  • Checklists, issues, daily logs
  • Visual tracking and incorporation of schedules into models
  • Budget and cost control
  • More accurate estimating

VDC is most valuable for its ability to allow companies to analyze construction plans collaboratively from start to finish before even breaking ground on a project.

“VDC is really for everyone involved in a construction project since it relies on interpersonal interaction,” says Horton. “It requires a high degree of commitment, regularity and responsibility on the part of all participants in the construction process – from investors and designers to contractors. The benefit of it being that way is that it allows for continual improvement of the working method on any given project.”

It's also very helpful in creating efficiencies during estimation, with change orders and when purchasing materials.

“Estimating, change orders and purchasing materials all involve performing take offs on a set of construction plans to determine necessary quantities. Common items like conduit and wire are quantified at an estimator’s best calculation, but BIM allows actual quantities and distances to be pulled directly from a 3D model,” says Nathan Waldo, Project Manager for Miller Electric. “This is a much more accurate way of determining sizes and distances of conduit and wire runs.”

Knowing those variables allows project managers to pre-purchase the correct amount of materials and formulate more accurate estimates.

“The conduit and wire lengths produced within a model and combined into BIM software are essential to getting a jump, not only on commodity procurement, but also on coordination studies,” says Charlie Grave, Senior Project Manager for Miller Electric. “Those allow us to ensure we have properly-rated equipment well ahead of release. Hyperlinked drawing sets are kept updated and prove pivotal in keeping the latest information at Field leaders’ fingertips as changes roll into a project.”

Adapting to change quickly can mean the difference between projects that hit the mark and those that don’t.

“In today’s fast-paced construction environment, a majority of larger jobs are awarded based on incomplete designs,” says Waldo. “This causes many new drawing issuances to be required throughout the project. One way BIM is particularly valuable is in its ability to be used to identify non-electrical changes that affect electrical installations already in place.

“For instance, if a wall is shifted slightly but no electrical items were added or subtracted, a BIM model would reveal any potential conflicts with the electrical work being installed in that area. That insight would either initiate a change order or electrical rework or a proactive relocation of future electrical work.

“As a result, we’re able to avoid future conflicts, which saves the customer time and money.”

What is building information modeling (BIM)?

While VDC and BIM are often used interchangeably, BIM is actually a part of VDC methodology, yet doesn’t have to be involved for VDC to be used. The two terms are related, but differ in their purpose.

BIM technology creates a digital representation of a physical building. VDC technology uses 3D BIM models and other information to digitally plan out all aspects of a construction project – from estimating costs to scheduling and risk management. VDC is therefore bigger in its scope and broader in the purpose for which it’s used.

Safety and Efficiency Benefits Through BIM

Still, BIM should not be overlooked for its ability to create efficiencies and improve safety on projects of all types.

“BIM helps Miller Electric reduce rework and revisions, and therefore helps us plan our work and work our plan to do our work once,” says Scott Love, Miller Electric Safety Director. “Rework is positively correlated with recordable job site injuries, likely because when pushed by schedule delays, workers may try to work too quickly and as a result skimp on safety measures.

“BIM also enables the use of prefab, which we know reduces recordable injuries by reducing material handling, slips and falls, and brings the benefits of working in a controlled environment.

“So, in a very real way, BIM and VDC help contribute to a safer work environment.”

Design issues can be easily communicated to project teams or customers through the use of a BIM collaboration tool. Any construction project brings together people from different companies who specialize in various disciplines, who all have to use technology to deliver a finished project to a customer.

Teams need production processes to define workflows and resources required to achieve project outcomes.

BIM generates virtual information and metrics teams can use to aid decision-making so that multiple groups can carry out design work simultaneously. That all ladders up to time and expense efficiencies that result in desirable outcomes.

BIM is particularly helpful for detecting clashes, tracking issues, submitting RFIs and assigning issues in software systems.  

Is VDC right for my project?

VDC is applicable for any project of any size as it’s collaborative, interactive approach creates efficiencies at any scale and scope.

“VDC and BIM are being used across the board on projects,” says Horton. “At Miller Electric, they’re both part of what we all do every day to finish projects on time, within budget and to our customers’ exact specifications.”

Want to create more efficiencies on your next project? Contact Miller Electric today to start a conversation about your needs.