Bridging the gap

June 2014 » Project + Technology Portfolio » Transportation
Visualization technologies can increase public understanding of design intent on infrastructure projects.
Karen Weiss, P.E.

The designers of the original Sellwood Bridge were unaware they were building on a landslide area on the west bank of the Willamette River, setting the stage for the structure ultimately to deteriorate dramatically. Photo: Public Information Office, Multnomah County, Ore.

One of the biggest challenges with any large infrastructure project is communicating to the public exact intentions to expand, build new, or demolish old and rebuild, and what it’s going to look like when it’s completed. As recently as 10 years ago, public information officers had fairly limited options for communicating their intents to stakeholders. More often than not, planners and engineers would stand up in front of a room of people armed with a host of 2D exhibits, including maps, cardboard renderings, and preliminary design drawings — documents that were difficult for anyone without an engineering background to interpret.

Other show-and-tell options often included plotting out a site plan and enhancing the printout with colored markers, or, if the budget allowed and it was a large-scale, high public interest project, hiring an artist or architect to create a series of artistic renderings of what the finished project would look like. While more visually appealing and easy to understand than 2D exhibits, this process could be tremendously expensive in upfront costs. Often, these renderings were not true to scale and time consuming — and updating an artist’s drawings would take even more time and budget that often did not exist. 

Fortunately, in recent years, powerful 3D modeling, visualization, and simulation technologies have become available, allowing planners, public information officers, designers, engineers, and even contractors to communicate their urban planning and design intent more effectively and more accurately — even for the most complex projects. This development was clearly a step in the right direction, but until recently, it still required highly trained specialists to understand and use these software tools. All of this is changing with the advent of more accessible software technologies, such as Autodesk’s InfraWorks 360, for urban and infrastructure planning and preliminary design modeling with supporting visualizations. 

Example 1: Sellwood Bridge Project

When the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Ore., opened in 1925, it was a welcome upgrade from the ferry service that had shuttled passengers across Portland’s Willamette River. But the narrow, two-lane bridge fell into disrepair and scores only a two out of 100 on a federal bridge sufficiency rating scale. Buses and trucks are restricted from using the bridge and the 87-year-old structure was designed without seismic considerations. In construction now, Multnomah County is replacing the bridge with a new, two-lane steel deck arched bridge, complete with biking and pedestrian lanes.

The construction joint-venture team of Slayden Construction and Sundt Construction, which ultimately won the bid for the project, used 3D Building Information Modeling software from Autodesk (including Autodesk AutoCAD Civil 3D, Autodesk Navisworks Manage, and Autodesk 3ds Max Design) to develop and communicate a bold idea: A 1,100-foot-long segment of the failing bridge could be lifted and moved aside onto temporary piers and used as a detour bridge while the new bridge was constructed in its place. 


The Slayden/Sundt team used advanced 3D visualization tools to explain how it planned to slide the existing bridge onto temporary supports in the river, making room for a new bridge to be constructed in its place. Image: Slayden/Sundt, A Joint Venture

These precise and accurate digital images from a 3D model came in handy when Mike Pullen, a public information officer in the Multnomah County Communications Office, needed to explain to the public what was happening with the Sellwood Bridge.

“Our contractor was proposing something very innovative, but also very complicated and potentially risky if not done properly,” Pullen said. “We had a skeptical public that we needed to share this concept with to make sure they understood what was actually being done. Having detailed animations was incredibly useful for showing the general public — as well as the elected leaders who had to sign off on the project — how it could be safely accomplished.”

Pullen recalled several instances when the 3D digital models and visualizations helped convey the intricacies of the project more effectively. “I remember having conversations with people who thought we were going to be trying to move the columns — the piers that go into the river — which was, of course, not part of the project,” he said. ‘Once people saw the visualizations, the light bulb went off above their heads and things started to click as far as how the different phases of the project would be carried out.”

Example 2: 11th Street Bridge Park Project

Meanwhile, 2,800 miles away, officials in Washington, D.C., are in the midst of a $390 million project to replace two bridges built in the 1960s with three new bridges that separate local and freeway traffic. But that’s not all. In the course of replacing the 11th Street Bridges, the city, in collaboration with a local non-profit, will transform the aged infrastructure into the city’s first elevated park — a new venue for healthy recreation, environmental education, and the arts.


An animation video helped stakeholders see the complex series of steps to create a new traffic access on the west bank side of the Sellwood Bridge. Image: Slayden/Sundt, A Joint Venture.

“The 11th Street Bridge Park will be a new civic space on top of the Anacostia River, linking the communities of Wards 6, 7, and 8,” said Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park. “This is an opportunity to take an obsolete piece of infrastructure and do something really magical with it.”

Community feedback was absolutely imperative, as the 11th Street Bridge touches many diverse neighborhoods — from the wealthy Capitol Hill neighborhood, to the economically challenged Anacostia neighborhood across the river.

To help spur community creativity and involvement about what the park could potentially be, the agency used a 3D animation that had been created in Autodesk InfraWorks 360 software by members of Autodesk who met with the project leaders, developed the models, generated the visualizations, and presented them at two major community design charrettes in December 2013. (Watch a video about the charrette youtube.com/watch?v=Tegt6uEfN6U.

Users can pull in all kinds of information — with the help of InfraWorks — including geospatial and GIS data, LiDAR and terrestrial laser scans, digital photography, and more — to create a stunningly accurate 3D model and place it in the geographical context of the real world. Additionally, the animation enables virtual “flyovers” that allow viewers to examine the 11th Street Bridge Park from multiple angles. 


Autodesk InfraWorks 360 made it possible to aggregate multiple forms of information — including geospatial and GIS data, LiDAR scans, and digital photography — to create a compelling and accurate 3D model to illustrate the 11th Street Bridge Park design intent. Image: Autodesk

“People kind of scratch their heads when they first heard what we’re trying to do,” Kratz said. “But then they see the animations — which are geographically accurate and completely done to scale — and the vision starts to crystallize.

“If the community says that it values a musical performance space for the park, we can adjust the 3D model, in real time, to make the performance space bigger,” Kratz said. “If the community says a playground for children is important to have on one end of the park versus the other, that’s no problem: We can pick up the playground and place it in a different location. The general public gets to see their ideas coming to life on the spot, without having to wait weeks to see a revised set of drawings — and that just gets them more excited about what we’re all working together to accomplish with the park.”


Autodesk volunteers to the project generated images and helped create animations that assisted with communicating design options and intent to technical and non-technical audiences. Images and animations: Created in Autodesk InfraWorks 360, courtesy of Autodesk.

This type of visualization is critical for designing a park that best serves the needs of a community, let alone bringing two communities on opposite sides of the river together. Tendani Mpulubusi El, an artist from Ward 8 who served on the community advisory board for the 11th Street Bridge Park, echoed Kratz’s sentiments about visualization. “As far as I’m concerned, these types of animations are a very underutilized tool that could be used for greater impact,” Mpulubusi El said. “They allowed everyone — not just the architects and engineers — to see and understand the potential of what the park could be.” 

This community-led effort and associated 3D visualizations will help communicate the community’s “vision” to those who will bid on the design-build project for the bridge — turning around the process and empowering the community to present their ideas more effectively to those who will make them real.

Conclusion

As both the Sellwood Bridge and 11th Street Bridge Park Projects demonstrate, the more radical or innovative a concept is, the more it can benefit from visualization in explaining it to the general public, and validating its approach. 

Fortunately, in many cases, such as the Sellwood Bridge Project, the 3D models that often have been created during the bidding process can be reused by many stakeholders — project contractors, owners, and government officials — to communicate with the public. This type of effective communication with stakeholders accelerates the entire review and approval process for large infrastructure projects. And the more quickly people understand and sign off on these types of projects, the more quickly they can be funded.

There is no shortage of infrastructure projects to be funded in the U.S. given the status of our infrastructure. In North America and beyond, government officials and taxpayers want to see how infrastructure funds are used in the most cost-effective ways, and the returns they will get from them. With the right visualization tools, municipalities will be able to more easily show how they intend to rebuild, replace, or creatively repurpose their built environment. 3D modeling and visualization contributes along many stages of a project’s development, helping to provide project stakeholders with easy-to-understand visual progress updates. When it comes to effectively communicating design intent, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Karen Weiss, P.E., is a senior industry marketing manager for civil infrastructure at Autodesk.


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