Why it’s time for the built environment to embrace 3D

In the third of our series of articles on data management and governance, digital expert Dale Sinclair argues that our attachment to 2D scaled drawings is an unseen barrier to innovation in the built environment.

Through the use of data-rich 3D models, the design review process is becoming increasingly resilient and efficient, allowing built environment professionals to find solutions to pressing issues such as reaching net zero carbon, and to harness new technologies such offsite manufacturing.

Yet, industry has been slow to adapt from traditional ways of working. It is still commonplace for the information contained in 3D BIM models to be pushed into traditional 2D drawing formats at every stage, crippling design process efficacy. Our continuing use of drawings has become a barrier to innovation, and it must be overcome.

In recent years, project teams have been leveraging web browsers and virtual reality to engage with 3D models in more intuitive and informative ways, transforming the design review process. Yet these tools are often framed as a gimmick rather than business-as-usual. AECOM is committed to changing that through our work and driving the industry to embrace 3D – this article explores why it is vitally important.

For the most part, scaled drawings are outdated. Here’s why.

Before examining the benefits of reviewing designs solely within 3D models, it’s important to acknowledge that people have genuine reasons for wanting to produce 2D scaled drawings. For example, some architects simply prefer drawings as their artform; sketching will forever remain a tool for unlocking the ideas in an architect’s mind. Other professionals may not yet have access to, or the skills to use, the latest generation of design tools.

A huge barrier however is simply habit. Change is challenging – it is human nature to ‘stick with the devil we know.’ As an architect, I spent much of my life working intuitively in 2D and understand the shift in mindset needed to both adapt and upskill. Working with what you know is perceived as risk-free. It’s safe.

Except it isn’t. Not anymore. The safety of reviewing designs in traditional 2D formats is now just an illusion, primarily because it’s woefully inefficient and creates significant waste. A 3D model is alive with data but from the moment the information is extracted from the model, it is static, lifeless and out-of-date. Insisting on traditional 2D deliverables just because it is a comforting connection to the past is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Moreover, design reviews focused on information in traditional 2D formats do not reveal the true nature of the design; they only present part of the picture.

Powering up the data within 3D models

It is far better for the design team, contractors and supply chain to work exclusively within the 3D model and associated databases. For project teams to truly reap the benefits however, a robust digital strategy must be in place to ensure that the BIM models are populated with data. This is because the design process is transformed when teams work within a data-rich 3D environment.

For example, objects containing manufacturer information can be linked to cost and carbon with product information revealed in an instant, speeding up analysis; or room data sheet information can be absorbed into spaces. More importantly, by connecting and cleaning the data a wealth of information can be created for use beyond the design team, either for analytical purposes by the product and cost managers or for commercial purposes by letting agents or the suppliers.

Powering up the data within 3D models in this way helps us to innovate in the areas that matter most. By looking beyond COBie, the design and construction industry can make headway towards the widespread adoption of digital twins – the intelligent digital replica of a physical asset. Project teams can focus on delivering whole life solutions centred on circular economy thinking. Smart buildings – where the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors create data lakes that help close the energy performance gap – will be integral to this as we move towards a net zero built environment.

Furthermore, a shift towards designing within data-rich 3D models will allow built environment professionals to fully capitalise on the offsite manufacturing revolution. In the future, building components and modules will be assembled in fully automated factories operating round the clock and not on construction sites with the human hand. Traditional 2D formats will have no place at this table.

Our way forward

So, how do we affect change and encourage design reviews with the 3D environment? Aside from addressing behavioural change, the lack of skills and access to technology is a fundamental barrier that we want to overcome.

At AECOM, our global design team has already matured the use of federated models (where all the component elements of a design – architecture, engineering, cost, etc. – are brought together) and the Common Data Environment (CDE) process over the last decade to improve coordination and collaboration on projects. However, these environments are difficult to navigate for those not using them day-in, day-out. In response, we have developed a client-facing digital design review platform with an intuitive user interface that allows clients to navigate effortlessly through the virtual building. Data on products, finishes and other aspects can be revealed in a few clicks.

We see this as the future of the client interface. The end game is the ability to make design decisions in real-time with minimal iterations.

It’s also important to mention that 2D information can still be produced – just differently. A 2D view from the model is an entirely different proposition to a scaled drawing. Using the 3D model eliminates the inefficiencies of drawings whilst enabling the 3D model and its data to be powered up for new purposes and the achievement of better outcomes.

The time is now

As an industry, we are all being asked by public and private bodies to do more with less, especially in light of the strain that coronavirus has placed on spending. Embracing 3D and powering up the data within the models is the way to embed efficiencies and deliver smarter, faster and greener.

The tools exist to do it but for this to happen a radical change in mindset and behaviour is needed. It’s up to the people within the design and construction industry to embrace a data-centric way of working. Better outcomes await those that do.

This is the third in a series of articles on data management and governance authored by AECOM’s data science and digital experts. To read the others, please click here and here, or visit our Innovation & Digital hub here.