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Station to station

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Though most facets of the construction process stand to benefit from building information modeling (BIM), general contractors and construction managers could gain the most from its implementation. BIM, after all, is designed to help them more effectively manage the wealth of information produced during a project — from feasibility at the outset, through design, then on to the many phases of construction, and finally operation. With the help of a Topcon PS series total station, Suffolk Construction, a seasoned proponent of the BIM solution, has been utilizing that discipline to its fullest on one of the southeast U.S.’s most ambitious transportation undertakings in recent memory.

"Having the PS-103 catch this error early on not only saved the production schedule, it confirmed that our decision was the right one."

Darren Mercedes

Towering challenges

Experts in large-scale projects, it was no surprise when Suffolk Construction secured the bid to oversee construction on the major component of the $2.5 billion “All Aboard Florida” (AAF) project — a truly impressive transportation effort to provide high-speed rail service between Miami and Orlando. Suffolk is construction manager for the massive MiamiCentral station, which alone carries a price tag of more than $250 million. Situated in downtown Miami, the station extends for nearly a mile, and features a track level positioned 50 feet (15+ meters) above the street to link with other existing elevated public transport.

Three separate high-rise towers being built above the tracks — ranging from 15 to 33 stories — add complexity to the project. When complete, they will offer more than three million square feet of office/commercial space and residences as well as parking to support it all. The sheer size and intricacies of the tasks at hand, coupled with a massive team of trade partners, prompted Suffolk to look for ways to minimize the risk of error, according to Christophe Jones, regional BIM/VDC manager for the company.

“Fortunately for us, we had the benefit of the foresight of John Planz, a Suffolk vice president, who anticipated the complexities of the project early on. John felt that questions like: ‘how do we control the job — including work being done by all the trades — and make sure all the key elements are located correctly?’ could best be addressed through the use of a total station.”

"Now, when we are building our 3D model, we feel it’s just smarter to integrate it with the total station when we drop the points."

Regional BIM/VDC manager for Suffolk Construction, Christophe Jones

Because Suffolk was already heavily involved in 3D modeling, Jones followed Planz’s lead in seeking out the right solution to allow them to combine two critical steps in a project’s early stages — design and layout. He contacted the Dallas office of GeoShack, which dispatched Thad King, their North American BIM manager, to meet with the Suffolk team. After looking at a number of options, in December 2015, they took delivery of a Topcon PS-103 robotic total station, King got Jones and his colleagues up to speed with its operation, and the company was ready to put the technology into action.

Unscheduled stop

Up until the time when they made the total station purchase, Suffolk’s approach to building layout had been to first model the structure’s foundation, then go in and place the points in the necessary location. That all changed at AAF.

“Instead, using the total station, we were able to incorporate the points for each of the Revit families — the columns, pile caps, corners, etc. — into the 3D model,” said Jones. “We turned two separate steps into one extremely accurate operation, saving us both time and money.”

Equally important to Suffolk was the ability to use the PS-103 as a tool for checks-and-balance between them and all the trades involved in the AAF project. He cites an example early on which, left undiscovered, could have seriously impacted both their schedule and budget.

“About three weeks after we purchased the total station, we were doing our first major concrete work at the site, a pour for some slanted columns that support the deck holding the train tracks,” he said. “About half way through the formwork and reinforcing steel installation of the initial pour, we discovered that the rebar was off by four inches. Using the PS-103 we ran checks and found where the error occurred, re-scheduled the pour and avoided a costly error. In fact, the money we saved by stopping at that point versus having to redo everything later paid for the total station — and then some — right there.”

Jones’s colleague Darren Mercedes added that, because they caught the error early and acted on it immediately, they lost just one day of production. Had they continued along, he said, it could have been a major setback for the entire project.

“Even though the station has a lot of concrete, it is primarily steel,” he said. “So a structural column that is off by four inches would mean all the pre-fabricated steel connected to those columns would either need to be redesigned or the engineers would have to alter the design to accommodate for the change. In addition, because the columns are linked to the curtain wall system, that too, would have to be redesigned, as would the FIBS (Florida I-Beams) that support the slab and the five rail lines. Having the PS-103 catch this error early on not only saved the production schedule, it confirmed that our decision was the right one. Its impact was huge and it continues to be.”

Ingrained instrument

As the AAF project continues on track, additional examples of how the Topcon PS-103 has become a part of Suffolk’s operation present themselves. First and foremost, according to Jones, the instrument is changing the way they’re using BIM.

“Now, when we are building our 3D model, we feel it’s just smarter to integrate it with the total station when we drop the points,” he said. “It not only speeds things up, it ensures accuracy. We feel so strongly about this that we want our trade partners who don’t have the means to own a total station to benefit from it — they’re able to reap the benefits, and we all stay in check. It’s been a key component on this project and it is definitely a tool we will be using more and more in the future.”

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