A Cut Above: Sundt’s VDC Experience Drives Results for California Clients

 |  Building, Innovation
sundt vdc engineer howdy atkinson holding a 3d laser scanner
Senior Virtual Construction Engineer Howard Atkinson stands with a 3D Laser Scanner at the Modern-Sundt Oroville Hospital Expansion. The new five-story tower will double the square footage of the current hospital and is projected to add nearly 700 new jobs when completed in 2022.

Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) has seen rapid growth across our industry in the last decade. With contractors everywhere racing to build up their VDC capabilities, there’s constant talk about new technology. Drones that can scan buildings for heat loss, 4D scheduling (time being the fourth dimension, in case you’re wrinkling your brow), using VR goggles to walk through a life-size virtual design model—all of these innovations just scream “cool.”

Still, the cool factor for our employee-owners is saving clients time and money. In uncertain economic times when owners are under pressure to maximize every dollar, there is no substitute for having an experienced, field-proven team of VDC professionals.

Measure Twice, Cut Once, and Back-Check with a Laser Scanner

The in-house VDC team that serves Sundt’s Building Group, California District is used to people calling their number. With involvement in business development, preconstruction, construction and quality control, the team touches all stages of each California Building project. Senior Virtual Construction Engineer Howard “Howdy” Atkinson and his team are known for their hands-on approach when it comes to both planning and checking for quality.

“We do BIM (Building Information Modeling) shop drawings all the way up to owner-furnished equipment, and then we back-check all of our work,” said Howdy. “The reason is that we’ve seen what can happen when a mistake goes unchecked. We’d rather avoid major cost overruns and delays by catching problems before they become bigger issues.”

Senior Project Superintendent Shane Henry using BIM box
Senior Project Superintendent Shane Henry using his “BIM Box” out in the field, equipped with Wi-Fi and centrally located on the third floor of what will be the new Oroville Hospital tower.

This exact scenario happened earlier this year with a misplaced support steel for owner furnished equipment that, without a back-checking process, could have impacted trade scopes down the line. “We do clash detection, but here there was no clash. The 3-D scan overlaid on the 3D shop drawing model showed that the support steel was in the right column bay, but just a couple of feet off. Through this process, we avoided a schedule delay,” said Howdy. “No one would have realized it until the owner furnished boom for the exam rooms were being installed.

A “paper-free” work zone—framer (left), electrician (center) and Senior Project Superintendent Shane Henry (right) pre-plan using 3D drawings on iPads. All pipe for this electrical room was prefabricated based on BIM shop drawings.

Basically, we would have needed to rework above ceiling systems and the medical air system to make it work and that would have caused a delay.”

With VDC’s help, the project team was able to communicate quickly and address the situation instead of “falling into” a change order. “Mistakes are inevitable,” said Howdy, “Any honest builder will own up to that. What matters is when and how you handle them, and whether you’re actively working to mitigate risks.”

“The Tools are Cool” but Experience Wins the Day

The higher level of project involvement from Howdy and his team stems from their level of expertise. “All of these people have at least 10 years in the industry, much of which is field experience,” said Howdy. “When someone understands how these elements are built in real life, they can tell whether or not they’re constructible in a digital environment.”

The same concept applies to understanding the real benefit of certain technologies. Take drones as an example. “I wasn’t fully sold on drones until all of the different applications began proving their worth,” said Howdy. “It was a quick shift from ‘this takes pretty pictures’ to a whole new option for safer, faster inspections at heights, capturing as-builts within hours instead of days, and expediting cut-and-fill workflows for site work.”

3d modeling of paradise valley estates job site
The Ridge at Paradise Valley Estates project kicked off with earth work on an 80-acre, sloped lot. Sundt’s California VDC team provided the site civil crew a faster cut-and-fill analysis by combining topographic surveying data from a total station and a drone.

Whether via drones, laser scanners, total stations, 3D take-offs or a combination of several technologies, the California VDC team’s work is creating a much bigger picture than just digital models on a screen. It’s building a process that gives project stakeholders confidence. Better-informed decisions keep schedules on track, and lead to a higher-quality end product.

According to Howdy, VDC is really about breaking down silos of information, including within the owner-architect-contractor relationship, with subcontractors, and among project teams themselves. “We want people to get the most out of this new technology—not the other way around. They count on us to find answers quickly. That’s a responsibility we take on with great pride.”