When Murphy McMillan, principal at LMS Investment Management, and his team wanted an early walkthrough of the Birmingham Building Trades Tower that they are restoring in the Five Points South neighborhood, they toured the facility, virtually.
Instead of an in-person visit, McMillan says the team donned specialized headsets that gave them the sensation of walking through finished apartment units, with every detail in place, from the light fixtures to the flooring.
“We thought it was great,” says McMillan, who is overseeing the 12-story restoration project that is set for completion in 2022. “We were able to get a sense of proportions, finishes, colors, everything. We thought [virtual reality] was a killer idea, and it really turned out to be helpful.”
Robins & Morton, the contractor on the project, organized the walkthrough and is one of a growing number of construction companies that have turned to virtual reality (VR) to enhance their planning and building processes.
McMillan says that unlike traditional architectural drawings on paper, VR technology made it easier for him to envision how the apartment units will actually look once completed.
“Having the virtual reality was a great way to help me understand exactly what we are doing, to see it with my own eyes and feel comfortable with it,” McMillan says.
VR is hardly new. The technology has been around for a couple of decades. But the applications for VR are expanding all the time across industries, and the construction industry is no exception.
Robins & Morton is now using virtual reality for construction site walkthroughs, training and more.
Virtual reality uses powerful computer modeling and simulation to create a 3D environment, so that participants wearing specialized headgear get the sensation that they are standing, moving and interacting within that environment.
The images that VR technology generates can be so realistic that — beyond gaming and entertainment — VR today is being used to train pilots, design aircraft and even plan surgeries and train medical students.
“We’ve been using virtual reality off and on for probably a decade at this point, but not to the level we’re using it now,” says Steve Moore, manager of innovation at Robins & Morton.
In the past, he says, Robins & Morton relied on a simple, plug-and-play, consumer-ready version of VR technology. But today, they are using more advanced computers that can present far more realistic simulations and images.
In fact, Robins & Morton has its own innovation lab where Moore experiments with new technologies and processes.
“Now we’re going for much higher fidelity, more powerful hardware and even custom development and software,” he says. “It’s to the point where if you walk up to an electrical outlet on the wall, you’ll see the smudge marks or imperfections. This gives a hyper-realistic experience.”
For Robins & Morton, the benefits of VR technology are many. The technology, for example, helps managers and supervisors collaborate remotely, as well as conduct virtual walkthroughs with trade partners.
“We have multiple VR headsets that we can plug in, and we can all go on a walk in a building together and look at all the pipes and the electrical and see how it all fits together as though we’re walking in a real building,” Moore says.
The technology also enhances their clients’ ability to envision architectural plans, Moore says.
“When you’re looking at two-dimensional drawings, it’s like looking at a picture on the wall,” Moore explains.
But with VR technology, says Moore, the experience of looking at renderings is more like physically stepping into a picture, and thus, taking the guesswork out of building an image in one’s mind of what a space will eventually look like.
VR technology also makes creating mockups easier and faster, Moore says.
“One of the beautiful things about building in a virtual world is that it’s a whole lot faster than building in the physical world. So, when it comes to building, testing and iterating, we’re able to do that over a shorter span of time,” Moore says. “For example, when we talk about mockups for a building. It takes a long time to get ahold of a lot of the materials. Even getting ahold of a specific tile or certain floor finishing is a big process. VR allows us to just skip through all that because we can render it virtually a whole lot faster.”
Another advantage of virtual reality is that it lets Robins & Morton obtain feedback from clients earlier in the construction process, he says, which reduces rework. And reducing rework saves money and helps keep a construction project on schedule, Moore says.
“Virtual reality takes all the guesswork out of building that image in your mind. It brings everyone on the same page and gives us feedback from the client a lot faster, but also better feedback from the client because they can fully understand the vision,” Moore says.
In the case of the Birmingham Building Trades Towers, McMillan says the VR technology helped his team spot potential problems right away.
“We saw that the showerheads in the bathrooms were very low and, with virtual reality, we could actually go into the shower and stand there and look at the height of the shower heads. So, we were able to identify that immediately and make that change before construction started,” McMillan says.
Moore says, “Clients are able to give us feedback that we’ve never gotten before, and that dramatically reduces our rework. It also helps us to order all the correct materials the first time.”
Early feedback from clients is especially important when it comes to more complex endeavors like hospital construction projects.
In Roanoke, Virginia, Robins & Morton is part of the construction team for a more than $300 million, 500,000-square-foot expansion of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. The expansion, which is set for completion in 2025, will include a new 10-floor cardiac patient tower and a renovated emergency department.
For the project, Robins & Morton created “hyper-realistic” VR mockups that could immerse visitors into true-to-life hospital spaces.
“Virtual reality has really been a game changer,” says Marguerite Underwood, senior director of the Carilion Clinic’s Cardiovascular Institute. “That’s because typically in a project like this, you have the department leaders come together and pore over drawings with the architect, the design teams and the equipment vendors, and you come up with a plan and then go back to the boots-on-the-ground staff and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ But they can’t conceptualize that.”
She says Robins & Morton’s VR technology has allowed medical staffers to see how the spaces will flow and function in real life.
“What’s wonderful about virtual reality is that we can see the rooms, the actual equipment, and the beds, furniture and everything, exactly the way it will be in the tower, down to the color of the room,” Underwood says.
“We were able to bring, for example, our physicians, scrub techs and all of the staff in to get their feedback, and any feedback they gave us was taken into consideration and changed accordingly if appropriate,” she says.
“Our nurses, for example, were able to go through and say, ‘That bedside monitor is too high. We won’t be able to see it. It needs to be a little lower or move it to the right,’ and ‘This showerhead is too low.’ So the staff are truly a part of the design team and VR allows them to be part of the decision-making process, and it gets buy in. It’s great for employee engagement,” Underwood says.
Charlotte Tyson, vice president of hospital operations at Carilion, says she was pleasantly surprised by the technology as well.
“I really view the VR technology as a great, cost effective and timely approach to gathering input from the end users,” Tyson says. “When it’s incorporated early in the design phase, it allows for changes and enhancements to be made that are critical to workflow, patient satisfaction, staff satisfaction, patient safety, and, ultimately, a more positive patient experience.”
But besides assisting clients, VR technology in the construction industry is useful for training construction workers, too, Moore says. For example, Robins & Morton’s safety department uses virtual reality in their safety training program.
“We’ve actually built our first virtual reality safety application for fall protection training,” says Moore. “We’re able to put our workers in seemingly perilous situations virtually while they’re learning to think without actually facing these dangers.”
Moore says the big takeaway is to never be afraid to try and test new technologies.
“When it comes to VR, this has already been a very big win with proven benefits.”
Gail Allyn Short and Cary Norton are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.
This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama.