The delivery of capital projects in the water sector is dependent on a multidisciplinary team’s ability to work together smoothly.

Traditional project delivery methods for scope management, schedule, quality and cost control have had to adapt to the opportunities and challenges of working virtually. The challenges of virtual work are evident today as many individuals strive to keep homes and livelihoods together through the pandemic.

The virtual workspace removes geographic barriers and helps capital projects access the unique skills and experience of individuals and remote teams across the globe. The specialized talent required to complete a water infrastructure project can rarely be found in just one city or office. Projects often demand the collaboration of experienced professionals spread around the world to deliver successful projects. Water sector engineers and contractors have increasingly been leveraging virtual tools to partner and deliver larger and more complex projects. This increases efficiency, minimizes costs, reduces travel and improves the project risk profile.

Virtual design and construction (VDC) tools facilitate project progress despite difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic. These are tools that advance design in a virtual 3D space and then use complete virtual models to advance construction. They demonstrate underground and aboveground assets, including all the complex treatment process equipment and instrumentation housed in buildings and the interconnected electrical, instrumentation and piping between structures. This allows professionals — chemical, civil, mechanical, structural and electrical engineers; architects, scientists and construction professionals; and schedule and cost managers — to fluidly provide their intellectual input to advance the project.

Integrating VDC

While in-person interaction is indispensable to traditional relationship building and will always be necessary, VDC can help improve an individual’s work environment by minimizing distractions and better syncing with work habits, chronotype and lifestyle. The ability to drop a work product into a virtual space allows collaborators to add to and modify the product when it fits well within their schedule and supports a continuous workflow. This can increase efficiency and reduce individual and team stress.

To successfully utilize VDC, teams should integrate tools within the culture and with the input of the people commanding the tools. This virtual approach can sometimes be complex and unfamiliar to those working on traditional projects. Skillful leadership is required to help prepare individual team members and task leaders for VDC integration well before the project begins.

Creating a virtual environment that allows for the cocreation necessary for complex infrastructure delivery does more than simply replace face-to-face meetings with videoconferencing. It is an intentional and structured process programmed into the project execution plan and attended to by a host of software tools that conceptualize a project through the stages of schematic design through construction, commissioning and turnover. Underpinning all of this is a project schedule and cost control system that should be completed at a level of detail and with sufficient logical linkages that capture the dependencies of tasks and deliverables.

Success in Practice

As a global firm with a wide geographical spread, our teams have been leveraging VDC for projects since the inception of 3D design models. We will frequently step into joint laboratory environments with software vendors to push the edge of what these tools can offer. One of our most recent successes with VDC is evidenced by the ongoing on-time delivery of a $500 million water project for the City of Wichita, Kansas, to provide a climate-resilient and sustainable water supply. This project launched its most critical phases — design development and construction inception — during a year when progress was challenged by the pandemic. These VDC tools, coupled with a strong and involved management team, have helped our team continue to meet commitments.

With seven design firms contributing to this one project, effective collaboration is paramount. We have turned to VDC tools to help manage the development of the design to meet the allocated cost and mitigate scope creep. Our teams use a suite of software, starting from the basic Microsoft Office products, that allow online collaboration to linking with schedule, cost and risk management with Primavera P6 and construction management platforms like Procore. We also utilize the more advanced design tools by industry leaders such as Revit, Civil3D, Navisworks, BIM 360, Plant 3D, Assemble, Synchro, along with virtual reality software and hardware.

These tools help advance collaborative design development, data analytics, quality control and error checking, quantity takeoffs, bid package production, interactive design modifications with equipment manufacturers, reduction of request for information and submittal cycles, and more efficient and accurate fabrication and delivery in the field. A critical element with all these tools is the ability to harness them for data visualization. This is particularly important in the virtual space, to keep the product as realistic as possible and provide context that can sometimes become disconnected if tools are used in isolation.

As demonstrated on our project in Wichita, VDC tools allowed us to bring in multiple design firms and vendors while moving forward without delay. With the right tools in place and with leadership focused on team and project success, VDC tools can accelerate project efficiency and reduce costs.


Delivering a new water treatment facility for Wichita, Kansas, is a top priority for our team. See how we’ve been able to save millions of dollars in capital construction costs through process optimization and value engineering opportunities.

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Chitra Foster is a senior project manager at Burns & McDonnell, where she specializes in design-build project delivery. She is the deputy project manager and design integration manager for Wichita’s Northwest Water Facility. Throughout her more than 25-year career, she has worked and lived around the globe.