You‘ll know about intelligent 3D programs, but they’re old hat now. The leading firms are using software that can model an entire scheme from planning application to demolition. Stephen Kennett looks at how it works and, overleaf, how it has transformed a Foster + Partners office

Earlier this year the company behind the 4D construction simulation software Synchro changed tack. For five years it had offered its product as a service. Now it was time to sell it. “The market started to realise the difference between buying food and buying fishing gear,” says Tom Dengenis, Synchro’s chief executive.

“It was a convergence of two things,” Dengenis continues. “The product had reached the end of its development programme and the construction industry was calling out for software tools rather than services.” In the past six months the company has sold more than 100 licences, a briskness of trade that reflects the growing take-up of 4D software.

Synchro is just one of the packages available that allows users to introduce a fourth dimension into their designs: time. While in the past contractors and clients have relied on printed programmes that show the phases of construction in sequence, and have read these in conjunction with 2D and 3D CAD drawings, 4D software allows the building to be frozen at any point in the process, and lets you see what’s happening in 3D. Users of Synchro, and other 4D packages such as D-studio or Navis Works’ Jetstream, can even “fly” into different parts of the building.

Cost consultant EC Harris first used 4D two years ago in dispute resolution. “It was a simple way to explain to lay people such as lawyers how the project had gone wrong,” says senior planning manager Phil Hoskins.

But then Hoskins saw its potential for use at the beginning of a project to stop them going wrong at all. Currently EC Harris is using it on 20 schemes.

Construction manager Mace is one of the first companies to take 4D software in-house, and uses it not just on major schemes but on smaller projects, too. According to company director Rob Owen, it’s a good tool at all stages of a project. “At the planning stage it is useful to highlight how the building and its construction will impact on locals, at the preconstruction stage to evaluate the best construction options and during the actual construction to keep track of the programme.”

The process of creating the model is relatively straightforward. With packages such as Synchro the user first imports the construction schedule – which is created in dedicated project management software such as Microsoft Office Project, Primavera or Asta – followed by the 3D CAD file. It’s then simply a task of labelling the objects in the CAD model to correspond with the activities in the programme. This in itself is good for identifying if anything has been omitted.

A lot of firms say they can’t afford to do it. My answer to that is you can’t afford not to do it

Rob Owen, Mace

The next step is to add the activities that are happening on site at any specific time. From a library, elements such as cranes, scaffolding and piling rigs can be added to the picture. With these in place you can tell at a glance if there are any clashes or under-used site areas, and where activities can start sooner or be put back.

Owen says you can adjust the complexity of the model to suit your needs. “How much detail you model really depends on the nature of the project,” he says. “A data centre is effectively a box full of pipes and cables, so you would model the M&E fit-out in a lot of detail. The structure, on the other hand, might not require so much.”

On screen, the programme is shown in its traditional format, and by selecting a time and date on the programme, a 3D visualisation is generated of the construction and the activities taking place on site at that time. The activities are colour-coded, along with access points and vehicle routes.

According to Owen, 4D simulation is becoming more common among major players but if there is one drawback it is that it is still not mainstream. “At a recent conference we did a quick hand count and of the 20 major contractors there, only three were doing it. A lot say they can’t get sign off for the software and that they can’t afford to do it. My answer to that is you can’t afford not to do it.”

But it’s not just at the construction phase that 4D can shine. In the future it’s likely that the model will be handed over to the client for maintenance. “The FM team will be able to use it to find out, for example, the specification of the windows, who made them and who installed them,” Owen says.

Ultimately it will also be used for the building’s demolition. “If you know how the building went up, you know how it can be taken down,” says Owen. “We’ve come across a number of projects recently that we’ve had to demolish and it was only at site inspection that we realised they’d used post-tensioned concrete frames, which need to be taken down in a different way to conventional concrete frames. With this sort of resource, there wouldn’t be any second guessing.”

4D model of More London
The 4D model of More London Plot 7 was developed using D-studio’s xD Virtual Builder, which allowed important issues of health, safety, access and logistics to be planned.