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23/01/19

4D planning - the case for proactive coordination

4D planning - the case for proactive coordination in the Middle East’s construction industry

Mahmoud Abougabal - Associate Director, Driver Trett UAE explores the region’s ongoing drive for innovation - including their approach to managing their futuristic construction projects.

Over the course of the last few decades, the Middle East took significant steps to establish itself as the ultimate stage for modern architectural marvels.  For it is here where the tallest man-made structure was conceived, the world’s most iconic museum was re-inaugurated, gargantuan shopping malls were plotted, and sprawling, flora-inspired artificial islands were reclaimed back from the seas. Here, it is acknowledged with certainty, that not all projects are created equal.

It is on the back of such insatiable ambition that, come the year 2030, the region will have also hosted both a World Cup and an international Expo; been interlinked with space-grade hyperloop technology, and seen autonomous vehicles and flying taxis whizzing through its veins. Such a fiction-esque vision of the future is a testament to how construction and infrastructure projects have grown increasingly ambitious, requiring complex, cross-discipline coordination and engineering dexterity.

It is evident how these complexities give rise to fresh challenges at every stage of construction. Design clashes and incorrect sequencing of activities are only some of the most pertinent, yet avoidable, causes of delay in construction. And while designers and engineers have taken significant steps to reduce unnecessary errors by moving away slowly, but surely, from 2D computer assisted design (CAD) to 3D building information models (BIM), contractors are still reluctant to follow suit. Then again, in a region where every other project is of pressing urgency, this could very well make all the difference.

Conceding to these dynamics, contractors often find themselves on the backfoot in full recovery mode. Haunted by missing information and numerous employer variations, contractors are seldom proactive, rendering the powerful planning tools at their disposal unreliable and overlooked. As for the cyclical construction lookahead reports, these too are heavily reliant on the skill and intuition of an overworked and understaffed planning department, unable to customise them to the needs of every stakeholder.

Therefore, a question beckons: Is it possible to build a planning model that is simple enough to be readily accessible by all stakeholders but that carries enough sophistication to be free from common planning errors? Can the same errors that instigate unrealistic expectations, such as ‘the invention of flying hoverboards in the year 2015’, even result in timeline paradoxes ‘out-of-sequence activities’?

The short answer - Yes, using 4D.

So, what is 4D?

According to the most popular form of contract in the region, the Fédération Internationale des Ingénieurs-Conseils (FIDIC) 1999 Red Book, contractors are under an obligation to submit their proposed planned sequence of work in the early stages of construction. This is referred to as ‘the programme’.

 Whilst the programme’s integrity in these stages is more or less intact, this certainly changes when subjected to employer’s variations and the contractor’s re-sequencing of its own activities - which are all healthy signs of progress on site. The net result is a stupendous amount of data crunched into uninspiring, routine planning reports. The daunting task faced by planners is to streamline the tens of thousands of data-carrying activities into a comprehensible output, rendering the quality of project records a key factor to a reliable programme. Succumb to poor programme management, however, and this becomes a typical case of garbage-in garbage-out (GIGO), as coined by the computer science industry.

The fourth dimension, more commonly referred to simply as ‘time’, has always been a staple of construction progress reports. Time record-keeping earned its prevalence for a good reason too. Early completion of commercial projects is fundamental to maximising profit; therefore it is key, if contractual parties eventually lock horns over the issues of lost profit, prolongation costs, or liquidated damages.

‘Time recording’ is conducted on an independent planning platform where its workings are inaccessible to other disciplines. Even more direly so, although these platforms now allow for simultaneous multiple user access to the programme, only one user is typically allowed access at any given time to minimise the risk of errors.

To tackle this shortcoming, avant-garde contractors Bechtel and Hitachi worked together to merge aspects of design and construction planning in the world’s first 4D model as early as 1987. In this model, designers, planners, and builders all collaborated to create a unified all-accessible view of their project. Today the same concept is further developed by the introduction of mainstream 4D planning software much like Synchro.

An independent and capable planning software in its own right, Synchro is also able to merge 3D BIM models, prepared by designers on Revit, with programmes built using planning platforms such as P6. This merger results in assigning every BIM element (beams, slabs, doors, etc.) to a time-bound programme activity and vice versa. The all-inclusive model carries enough information to produce 2D shop drawings, 3D renderings and 4D footage of planned construction activities and crew movements on site. Moreover, the end product possesses enough versatility to be useful to technical and presentable to non-technical stakeholders alike.

The power of the fourth dimension

Just as designers and engineers introduced three-dimensional BIM models to coordination workshops, contractors can also now have the means to be active participants in the design process. But make no mistake, this is beyond a mere cosmetic upgrade. The integration of 4D planning and BIM design brings powerful and automated clash detection tools to design and construction. Such tools will speed up and enhance the quality of design and planning reviews and minimise errors.

Software like Synchro, can detect three main types of clashes:

  • Hard clashes - when two construction elements pass through one another or occupy the same space due to a design error.
  • Soft clashes - when objects encroach into geometric and spatial tolerances.
  • Workflow clashes - detects out-of-sequence anomalies related to procurement, construction, and work crews on site.

The project’s critical path can also be represented dynamically using 4D. One might even dare to wonder whether Gantt charts could one day be replaced by highly accessible four-dimensional models. That, of course, is subject to employers and whether they are willing to spare the effort and bear the cost.

4D in the Middle East

The Middle East is a test site for novelties of all sorts. A recent survey conducted by Algohari (2017)¹ confirmed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the United Arab Emirates is ahead of the pack when it comes to BIM adoption, followed by Qatar. According to the study, the general consensus among construction professionals favours 4D adoption, citing its many benefits from construction scheduling to logistics planning, and from clash detection to rendering and visualisation.

Yet, with all the cited benefits, 4D planning still has a few hurdles to overcome. The most obvious of which is perhaps the lack of trained professionals capable of capitalising on the premise of 4D. In the same study, Algohari¹, indicated that 60% of its survey correspondents identified the, “lack of skilled specialists” as the main challenge in preventing wide-scale implementation of 4D planning. This also resonates with one’s personal experience.  There is already a proven struggle to maintain reliable Gantt chart programmes, which are all but free of the sophistication required by BIM based software.

Client backing is undoubtedly another prime, if not the key, factor in 4D implementation. This is why many 4D and BIM advocates hailed the Dubai Municipality’s move to become the first public authority in the Middle East to mandate the use of BIM in 2013. Shortly thereafter, in 2015, Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Authority (RTA) released a BIM manual for its construction projects, further cementing the Emirate’s progressive vision. However, this optimistic sentiment is not necessarily shared by the many employers of the region; who understandably, after the 2008 recession, always aim to keep their immediate costs down. Nevertheless, it can always be argued that by not investing in preventive 4D technology, construction projects would be more prone to design conflicts, leading to project delays and possible contractor claims. Therefore, in the long run, employers can actually find themselves losing more money than they were trying to save in the first place.

The future of 4D

4D implementation may not eradicate ‘bad design’, nor completely render clients impermeable to troublesome contractor claims. Yet, the case for 4D planning is that it can create a much-needed collaborative environment in which even the least-technical of stakeholders can achieve non-zero-sum gains. Even when delays cannot be avoided, it can serve to shed light on the manner and extent of delays by means of simple and accessible visualisations. More importantly, in a region where arbitration is yet to gain significant traction, 4D planning can be just the right medium to approach local courts in cases of litigation.

On the experimental side, 4D is also being integrated with other exciting technologies, such as virtual reality (VR), giving a more immersive and personal outlook into both prospective planning and retrospective records of progress on site. One might wonder, “isn’t this moving too little too fast?”, but you must have heard: 5D and 6D solutions are already making headlines!


¹Algohari, S. (2017) 4D Modeling and the Middle East

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