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What Is Virtual Design and Construction?

BIM model of Norway's Randselva Bridge

Randselva Bridge is the world's longest bridge built entirely without drawings or PDFs, using virtual design and construction methods. Read more about it here.


  • Construction requires multi-disciplinary teams that traditionally don’t work together until construction begins and it’s time to hand off tasks to one another.
  • Virtual design and construction (VDC) moves planning and decision-making to the beginning of the construction process, when it’s easier to reduce risk, assess performance, and mitigate cost and schedule overruns.
  • In the simplest language, virtual design and construction means building the project once digitally and working out the big problems, then building it more efficiently in the physical world. 
  • Keep reading to dive deeper into the basics of virtual design and construction:
    • Why it's needed
    • What are the benefits of VDC
    • What is a VDC framework
    • Common VDC terms
    • VDC FAQs



Why does construction use virtual design and construction (VDC)?

Construction processes haven’t changed much in recent decades—paper documents are still commonplace. And far too many processes still rely on spreadsheets. According to the 2021 JB Knowledge ConTech Survey, 45% of project management workflows rely on spreadsheets. Excel is a powerful tool, but considering the complexity and dynamism of large construction projects, it’s also highly fallible.

The spreadsheet is only as good as its programming, and errors may not be caught until they become a problem. It’s difficult to limit users’ rights while still providing them with the access they need. And if erroneous information is entered into a spreadsheet, it can be hard to track down when it was entered, by whom, and why. 

Paper-based documents and spreadsheets aren’t just time-consuming to produce. They also slow down decision-making and planning. One single change—such as the type of materials used—can impact the project’s schedule, labor needs, equipment, and costs. Days can be lost capturing these changes and assessing their impact, not to mention how they’ll impact the expected performance of the asset. And if the construction phase of a project is already underway, labor productivity suffers as well. 

These problems even plague stakeholders that have graduated beyond using paper and Excel. Many are using point solutions, or software that is intended to perform a single function. While these systems are a step up from Excel and paper documents, if there are issues with integrations and interoperability, that can jeopardize data integrity, making planning and decision-making more difficult.

This is why it’s so important to plan as much as possible, as early as possible. But, out of eagerness to get the construction phase started quickly, time is often limited during the planning and design phases. As a result, projects move forward without critical decisions being made, and construction teams are forced to make changes and decisions as the project unfolds, at which point they have limited control over the ripple effects over those changes. Virtual design and construction was created in response to this issue.


Virtual design and construction overview

VDC was developed by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) in 2001. Since the late 1980s, CIFE has been dedicated to improving how the AEC industry organizes, conceptualizes, and executes design and construction. Even before the creation of the CIFE, a Stanford professor had identified that the decisions made early in the construction process have an impact on the overall project costs. CIFE has been at the forefront of addressing construction’s productivity problem, and VDC is among its most prominent innovations. 

With VDC, planning and construction occurs digitally before ground is broken in the real world. The diverse teams of owners, designers, contractors, and subcontractors involved in a project collaborate in a virtual environment, where they can evaluate various options for consequential decisions and processes, such as materials and sequencing, up front.

Essentially, projects are built twice. But instead of wasting time, it saves it. We’ve all heard the idiom,  “measure twice, cut once.” VDC takes that concept and applies to the entire construction process, not just carpentry work. 


A framework for VDC

The most straightforward, understandable framework to understand this process comes from the Building Construction Authority of Singapore: 

Source: Building and Construction Authority of Singapore

Construction teams create virtualized construction models and timelines to translate concepts, expectations, and performance goals into the most effective plan possible. They use detailed 3D models to develop a digital twin of an asset and rehearse construction sequencing before and during the building phase. These VDC models:


  • Focus on the asset, the teams that will define, design, construct and operate it, and the process they will follow

  • Are integrated so that data is shareable, and can capture dependencies to relevant models when a user makes a change

  • Can ​​predict aspects of project performance, and show how it related to project performance objectives

  • Are flexible and interactive, so all project stakeholders can glean the information they need


To create these models, construction teams use product and process modeling tools, organizational visualization software, and online collaboration tools. With these technologies, project teams can generate photo-realistic representations of built spaces to improve communication between stakeholders.BIM model of a highway interchange

Design teams can combine models of multiple building components, such as structure, architectural details, and fire suppression systems, to perform clash detection and analyze constructability. They can also coordinate the various trades involved in a project and evaluate site logistics and sequencing to determine the most efficient approach to the construction phase. 

Here’s how one leading construction firm, Mortenson Construction, is using VDC to solve design problems and deliver better service to their clients:



Common VDC terms

As you explore VDC, you may come across a number of common terms:


Building Information Modeling (BIM)

BIM is often used interchangeably with VDC, which is incorrect (more on that later). BIM is the process through which 3D models are generated. Many VDC teams use BIM software to create 3D models of the asset being used for construction. Innovative construction firms are using BIM to eliminate drawings completely from the construction process, such as in the case of the Randselva Bridge in Norway


Common Data Environment (CDE)

A common data environment is the single source of truth for all project data. Models, contracts, reports, and estimates, and more are all hosted in cloud-based software that can be accessed by users from anywhere. Using a CDE is essential to removing data silos and preventing the productivity losses that occur when construction teams have to hunt down information buried in emails or paper files. 



Computer-aided Design (CAD)

Computer-aided design is the use of software to generate, modify, or analyze designs. CAD emerged in the late 1950s and, over the years, has eliminated the need to create manual drawings. It can be used to create 2D or 3D models. Whereas VDC processes may not always incorporate BIM, CAD is an essential component of generating VDC models. 


Industry Foundation Classes (IFC)

Industry foundation classes are CAD data exchange file formats that are used to facilitate interoperability between the disparate systems used in the construction process. Developed by buildingSMART, IFC is an open standard that promotes vendor agnostic capabilities across a variety of construction technologies. 


Benefits of virtual design and construction 

By front-loading important decisions at the beginning of the process, VDC offers wide-ranging benefits throughout the construction lifecycle.  


Improved Worker And End User Safety

Designers are often tasked with making considerations for worker and end user safety in the design process. But it’s difficult to prevent accidents when you can’t predict potential hazards. The realism and level of detail offered by VDC models enables design teams to forecast hazards more accurately. With that information, they can reduce or eliminate those potential hazards. And since VDC models are intended to be used by multi-disciplinary teams, contractors can provide input on safety issues and use the information provided by the model to train and prepare their teams for hazards that can’t be mitigated in the design process. 


Communication With Non-Technical Specialists

There are many stakeholders who need to understand design and construction intent, but who don’t have the technical know-how to interpret technical drawings and documents. VDC enables governmental leaders, executives without a technical background, and members of the general public to gain an understanding of what a project entails with easy-to-interpret images and animations. 


Reduced Risk

Mitigating risk is a constant uphill battle in construction. Identifying project hazards, such as miscalculations, conflicts, and financial errors is often based on prior experience and risk management expertise. While experience and expertise are invaluable, every construction project is different, and they can’t always be used to understand the precise risk factors for the project at hand. VDC empowers construction teams to accurately foresee the potential risks of each project to minimize surprises and keep schedules and timelines on track.


Mortenson was able to reduce schedules by 32 days on average using VDC. Source: Mortenson, The Importance Of Virtual Design & Construction


Sustainability Planning

As the construction sector tackles sustainability, VDC can enable project teams to assess energy efficiency, carbon emissions, environmental impacts, and more. For example, tackling embodied carbon—the greenhouse gasses emitted in the construction process—is increasingly coming into focus.

As renewable energy sources and onsite energy storage become more popular, VDC can be used to assess different energy scenarios and plan for grid flexibility. Using innovative materials can also reduce embodied carbon, but it’s important to consider how they impact cost, labor, and equipment needs, which can be done to higher levels of accuracy with VDC.

One of the best ways to reduce embodied carbon is through adaptive reuse. In one scenario, the U.S. Department of Energy found that adaptive reuse reduced embodied carbon by 33%. However, it can be costly to retrofit existing buildings. With VDC, considerations for adaptive reuse can be incorporated in the initial construction phase of a project and reduce the amount of work needed to repurpose buildings in the future.

Construction teams can run simulations to determine how adding or removing walls will impact airflow and occupant comfort, decide whether to include space for future wiring or cabling, or plan for scaling up electric vehicle charging capabilities in the future. 


Virtual design and construction FAQs


What's the Difference between VDC and BIM?

BIM and VDC are commonly confused with one another. However, there are distinct differences between the two. VDC may incorporate BIM, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.

Whereas VDC is focused on planning the best approach to deliver a construction project, including, scheduling, cost, and risk management, BIM is more focused on creating a digital model of a physical asset. Higher levels of BIM can incorporate scheduling, cost, and project lifecycle information, but they still don’t encompass the people and processes involved in a project. VDC does.


What Is a VDC Team?

While VDC brings together multidisciplinary stakeholders, the makeup of VDC teams vary. Some companies have a single internal VDC specialist who is in charge of generating VDC models and coordinating the various disciplines involved in a project. Others have an entire VDC team. And others still outsource VDC functions to external consultants. 


How Are Companies Using Virtual Design and Construction?

AEC firms use VDC in a number of ways. Stanford researchers say it’s most valuable as a tool for complex projects like infrastructure and multi-building projects, like corporate campuses. But, since all construction projects involve a complex web of multidisciplinary teams, it can be used wherever construction teams see fit. VDC isn’t just useful for traditional construction approaches; it’s also an excellent tool for lean construction methodologies and prefabrication.


VDC addresses construction’s biggest challenges

As the construction sector looks beyond outmoded, disjointed traditional processes, VDC can help project teams collaborate earlier and more effectively. By incorporating the processes, people, and the product into integrated models, AEC firms can address common sources of risk before they lead to costly, time-consuming rework. And tackling big problems like sustainability, safety, and transparency is much easier when all stakeholders have access to interactive visualizations of the project at hand. 

For many construction teams, understanding BIM is an entryway to embracing VDC. To learn more about BIM, watch this free 30-minute course on BIM basics

About the Author

Rachel is the Content Marketing Manager for Trimble Construction. She's written for finance, SaaS, manufacturing, telecom, and healthcare companies for 16 years. Writing about construction is her favorite gig yet.

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