Embarking on a new healthcare construction project or retrofitting an existing facility is, in a word, complex. There’s simply no room for error. And yet, thanks to new trends in healthcare—the shift to outpatient services, an aging population in need of greater care, limited funding, etc.—project owners are issuing new demands to contractors and designers. In order to meet their shareholder and patient requirements, they’re asking that projects be completed faster, that retrofits be finished while buildings are still operational, that staff be consulted on design decisions, and that patients continue to experience a consistent quality of care despite ongoing construction. It’s complex, remember?

Luckily, there’s a solution to alleviate some of these challenges: technology.

It goes without saying that communication, documentation, proper training, and education are all essential in constructing a quality healthcare building. Those are mainstays of the construction industry and will continue to be for many years. And while the “what” isn’t changing, the “how” is. What was once done on paper or sticky notes is now done via cloud collaboration tools and iPads on the job site. And where once project teams were dispersed and disconnected, they’re now using Lean principles, such as collocation and pull planning, to ensure that project teams are connected and working toward delivering a project that’s on time and on budget.  It’s an interesting transformation and one that has allowed us to engage the workforce in new ways while helping to simplify processes, streamline collaboration, and increase efficiencies and cost savings.

One of the biggest benefits of increased collaboration and communication is that it allows firms to simplify their processes and, ideally, take (some of) the complexity out of the day-to-day management of a project. This is critical, because simplification also opens the door for technological transformation. When teams are optimized, they’re more likely to test and implement new technologies, such as virtual reality tools, drones, and so on. It’s important to identify how these technologies can be implemented in the right way to help firms build smarter. Here are a few worth considering.

The benefits of building information modeling (BIM) and 3-D modeling have been discussed extensively in recent years, and for good reason. These models are the crux of technology and innovation within the construction industry. Why? Because they enable new ways of approaching the “how” referenced earlier.

BIM allows contractors, subcontractors, designers, and architects to collaborate from the start, building a singular model that acts as the guiding light for a project. Through that singular model, clashes can be detected before a project even breaks ground, designs can be simulated for efficiency, materials can be sourced and tested, and progress can be communicated at all stages of the project. In addition, long after the construction process is completed, BIM plans can be turned over to facilities for ongoing building maintenance and future expansions.

Virtual reality
Today, it’s possible for any project team member to explore the BIM model that the designers, contractors, and engineers are using. While these models aren’t exactly user friendly without some industry expertise, new technologies are helping to simplify things. Users can essentially walk through and experience a building—see what it’s like to stand in an entryway, check out the paint colors, or “touch” a surface—with virtual reality tools.

There are currently two types of virtual reality technologies that are being beta tested on Suffolk Construction Co. job sites: virtual reality headsets and CAVE (computer augmented virtual environment) technology. Virtual reality headsets allow users to move through a building much like one would in a video game. In this instance, the user is experiencing the world but not directly engaging with it.

With CAVE technology, the user can actually experience and engage with the building. In a CAVE walkthrough, the user stands on a green screen that’s filled with the model. When the user puts on 3-D glasses, the model comes to life and he or she can begin exploring—ducking under piping, entering doorways, turning corners, etc. As the user moves, the model moves, too, and it becomes a completely immersive experience.

It’s this immersion that adds so much value to virtual reality tools. It takes away the complexity of a BIM model and allows the average person—doctors, surgeons, healthcare facility managers—to be in a space and assess it, long before construction starts. They can then provide feedback on the design and layout, allowing changes to be made in the model as opposed to in the field, where it’s much more costly.

Healthcare projects are taking advantage of drone technology by attaching cameras to the devices to gather progress photos on a daily basis. These photos can then be used to manage project documentation, inspections, and safety compliance. While it may seem like a simple tool, this is the first time that the construction industry has been able to document, in real-time, construction progress on such a regular basis. It means that contractors can visually guarantee owners of the quality, safety, and structure of a building.

Additionally, drone cameras can be used to inspect hard-to-reach or extremely high sectors of a hospital. For example, photographing the welds on a structural connection on the 30th floor of a building traditionally would require a crane, tremendous amounts of time, and a fair bit of trial and error to ensure that the picture captures exactly what it needs to. This may have been done on a weekly or even biweekly basis given the effort it required. Today, however, drones can photograph the 30th floor multiple times in a day with minimal effort. They’re able to go where no crane can enter, such as elevator shafts and narrow corridors, which enables more complete quality assurance and inspection across the project.

The images and documentation generated from the drone images can be provided to the owner at the end of the project as a record of the quality of the building design at every layer and every floor—from the welding to the beam placement to the steel structure, drywall, and paint—and serve as a visual representation of how the model came to life.

3-D printing
While drones are being used to capture the as-built status of healthcare construction projects, 3-D printers are being used to produce physical models that help owners visualize their buildings or specific building components. With 3-D printing, construction teams can create laser-accurate building components of any shape and size with pinpoint accuracy so they can be prefabricated offsite and more easily assembled on a project site for a faster, more cost-effective construction process. For example, there’s tremendous value in creating a physical scalable model of two steel elements of a building to show exactly how they’ll fit together.

In an industry known for complexity, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing new technologies and processes emerge to reshape the healthcare construction jobsite, all of which are major contributors to simplifying processes, eliminating waste, and increasing speed of delivery.


Jason Seaburg is senior project manager for Suffolk Construction Co. He can be reached at jseaburg@suffolk.com.