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Suffolk's 'Smart Lab' brings new technology to construction projects

Suffolk Construction IT engineer Andy Kunkle uses a remote control and 3D glasses to view on the wall a 3D construction project inside the Computer Aided Virtual Environment room at the company's office located in the Channel District on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
Published Mar. 18, 2018

TAMPA — Along the Hillsborough River, the walls of the new Manor Riverwalk development slowly rise. Seeing it now, bare concrete and hovering cranes, it's hard to connect to the polished, landscaped models.

Enter the CAVE (Computer Aided Virtual Environment) – national building contractor Suffolk's virtual reality space that allows clients like Related Group, developers of Manor Riverwalk, to "step inside" a three-dimensional, visual representation of the project. The height of the ceiling is more than a measurement in a blueprint; it's visible over your head.

"It helps make an unpredictable industry predictable," said Josh Christensen, Suffolk's vice president of west coast operations. "It's a huge value to clients."

The CAVE is just one component of Suffolk's new "Smart Lab," a tech-driven construction "control tower" opening at its almost year-old Tampa location in Channelside on March 29. The technology's goal is make the building process, design to completion, more efficient, more cost effective and more collaborative.

In addition to the CAVE, the Smart Lab features four walls (nine screens) of connected Smart Boards used to measure progress on each project. It functions like a series of stickie notes in a visual flow chart. A new apartment building would start with the macro level notes, like square-footage, and then divide into smaller tasks, from choice of wall material to how many workers will be required to frame each room, all with a swipe across the screen.

What makes this "drawing board" truly valuable, however, is that those steps transfer instantly to a work schedule displayed on another series of Smart Boards, spelling out each trade partner's assignment and timing – and real-time price estimates. This wall includes an adjustable 3-D project model that even shows sunlight at different hours.

"Being able to to do all this in one meeting, all at one time, saves time and gives us a more accurate cost estimate," said CJ Britt, Suffolk's senior estimator. "It's all working together."

Julius Nasso, construction manager for Related, details the difference the Smart Lab's connected technology can make for a project like the Manor Riverwalk, a luxury rental community replacing the old Tampa Tribune building at 202 S Parker Street.

If he is pricing apartment units, he can virtually "see" each room's view of the river or road in the 3-D model and CAVE. If he wants to switch a flooring choice, a note on one screen will adjust each additional screen within seconds to show how that change will impact the project's timing and cost.

"One design decision can impact hundreds of jobs," Nasso said. "We can immediately see who will be impacted. This makes the process much more expeditious."

The Smart Lab includes a live feed view of each of Suffolk's current construction sites.

Suffolk opened its first Smart Lab in New York and is launching the technology in its Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami offices as well. Christensen called Tampa a good fit for its technology.

"Tampa is a focus market for us. There's an entrepreneurial spirit here. It's a community that is accepting of technology," Christensen said. "We believe in what we're doing here."

The Smart Lab's projected improvements in efficiency and attendant cost benefits will make a big impact for both private and public sector projects, Christensen added. It eliminates the need to re-do drawings, to "circle back to this at the next meeting", to try to visualize a huge building, inside and out, from a traditional blueprint. Trade partners who have worked on a Smart Lab project become the technology's biggest advocates.

"It eliminates a lot surprises, especially at the end of the project," Christensen said. "[The Smart Lab] makes sure the client gets the product they want when they want it."

Contact Emily L. Hay Hinsdale at hillsnews@tampbay.com.

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