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 the push toward 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. The larger and more complex the project, the more impactful BIM can be. Suffolk Construction has been a proponent of the BIM solution for a number of years and, with the help of a Topcon PS-103 total station, has been utilizing that discipline to its fullest on one of the southeast U.S.’s most ambitious transportation undertakings in in recent memory.

Fast Track to Orlando
Suffolk Construction is no stranger to large-scale projects. In addition to high-profile work in its hometown of Boston (Logan Airport’s Rental Car Center, House of Blues), the company’s Florida branch has managed construction for the Fifth and Alton Vertical Retail Center in Miami, and the Dania Casino and Jai Alai complex in Dania, Fla., to name just a few. So it was no surprise when the company 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 taking shape between Miami and Orlando.

According to Daren Mercedes, Suffolk’s assistant BIM/VDC manager, when complete, AAF will provide high-speed rail service from Miami to Orlando International Airport, cutting travel time by more than an hour and reducing congestion by some three million cars per year on the already-overcrowded I-95 and Florida Turnpike.

"We are the construction managers for the massive MiamiCentral station which alone carries a price tag of more than $250 million," he said. "It is situated in downtown Miami and will be unlike any other rail station in existence today. The station extends for nearly a mile, and features a track level positioned 50 feet above the street to link with other existing elevated public transport."

Towering Challenges
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. He anticipated the complexities of the project very early on and wanted to utilize technology to tackle the issues he saw as inevitable. 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."

Because Suffolk was already heavily involved in 3-D 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 a number of other personnel 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 wanted to verify that all measurements were correct and 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 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. 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."

No Small FIB
As mentioned, in bringing a total station solution onto the AAF jobsite, one of Suffolk’s goals was to make certain every element of the project was located correctly. The FIBS mentioned above were a key example of the that. In between the FIBS and each pier cap sits a vibration isolator which ensures that vibration from a passing train does not transfer to the building itself. Getting the pier cap, isolator and FIB to match up perfectly was imperative, said Jones.

"Because the FIBS come pre-drilled to mate with each isolator– there are some 247 of them–they needed to be in the perfect location," he said. "Finding out, after placing a FIB, that the holes are not aligned would be a major setback for us. To eliminate the risk of that, we use the total station to pre-check each key area to make sure that the points they are referencing are indeed the right ones and the match will be perfect."

While the PS-103 spends a good deal of time verifying the work of the host of trade partners working the AAF site, Suffolk has also found its own uses for the instrument, said Mercedes.

"On a job like this, there is a ton of temporary power work that needs to be done, meaning, we need to know precisely where we are able to dig," he said. "Because this is a BIM-centric job, I can see what’s in my model, bring it into the total station, and know without a doubt that our team can lay a cable or erect a panel in a particular area. Having that advantage saved us a lot of time."

Service Over and Above
Because of the limited experience Jones and his team had with total station technology, the help GeoShack provided at the outset was invaluable, he said.

"When we first began looking into purchasing a total station, I researched the various suppliers and was, of course, familiar with Topcon. I met with Thad and was really impressed with his knowledge–not only of his own product but products from the various other major manufacturers. I also liked the fact that he didn’t just try to sell me their product but instead went over the pros and cons of the Topcon PS-103 versus the others and compared each to my needs. Once we comEach Florida mitted, I felt comfortable with our decision I-Beam (FIB) and appreciated it when Thad came out on comes pre-drilled several occasions afterward. That really to mate with a vibration isolator helped us hit the ground running." between it and the pier Within a week or so, added cap. The PS-103 was Mercedes, they had a basic critical in ensuring that comfort level with the the pier cap, isolator and FIB matched up perfectly, eliminating instrument, a level that the costly downtime needed to quickly increased correct errors or re-do work. the more they used it. "Even though this is a BIM-focused job and people are generally more open to new ways of doing things, we still got a bit of skepticism at the outset," he said. "However, when the total station repeatedly proved itself and showed its inherent value, it made believers out of a lot of people."

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."

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 4.203Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE