I walk around the helicopter pad, glancing off the edge of the roof of Seattle Children’s Hospital’s newest building, to see a field of solar panels crouching at the foot of the hospital. They’re tiny from this height, and for a moment I’m a bit dizzy as I realize how far off the ground I am. I collect myself and make my way across the roof, through a set of swinging doors, and onto an elevator that takes me to the ER. 

My emotions are real. The building isn’t: It won’t exist until next spring. But I’m not the first to already have stood on its roof or traveled up and down its elevator shafts. 

The ability to experience any part of a nonexistent building — at any time of day and in any season — is possible due to a new project by MacDonald-Miller, a mechanical contractor headquartered in Seattle with offices across the Pacific Northwest. The project, called MLAB, is a virtual reality room that allows people to walk through, measure, move, and modify anything about a building, including its architecture, design, landscaping, plumbing, or heating. 

MLAB opened last September, and since then clients such as The Boeing Company, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and BioMed Realty have worked with the technology. The concept that a building can be experienced and inspected before it is built is especially popular in the biotech field, where millions of dollars go into designing systems that meet FDA requirements. 

Photo by: Jeff Hobson

“To be able to come in before construction begins and see the building and make changes saves tons of time and money and change orders,” said Nicole Martin, marketing manager for MacDonald-Miller. “(MLAB) helps build this really collaborative environment for the architect, the owner, the general contractors, (and) us. It’s really exciting.” 

MacDonald-Miller is agnostic of industry and can apply its virtual reality services to anything that has HVAC, mechanical, and plumbing. 

For just about any kind of structure, then, general contractors, architects, landscapers, electricians, and more can walk through the projects they are working on and see areas that might be problematic once built, such as a doorway too narrow to fit a critical piece of equipment that an architect may not have even known was going to be used there. These problems are solved before walls start going up, which saves a lot of pain down the road. 

“With how things worked previously, the building would go up, and people might just shrug at certain things because that’s what it is; you can’t change it,” said Bradd Busick, CIO at MacDonald-Miller and one of the people who helped develop the use of virtual reality at the company. “With MLAB, you can change all of that upfront.” 

The experience is more than just an accurate walk-through of a building’s plans. Each model also works in 4D and 5D, meaning that it includes elements of time as well as labor and cost. 

“If you asked me where this project is supposed to be on a specific date, I can fast-forward and, based on the schedule associated with this project, show you the percent completed for electrical, plumbing, and landscaping on that date,” said Busick. “You can also pick up a piece of equipment and move it, and you will be told how much making that move would cost.” 

According to Busick, MLAB is the first of its kind in multiple respects. As a full-service, design-build mechanical contractor, MacDonald-Miller is in the business of designing, installing, and optimizing a building’s plumbing and heating systems. While some architectural firms may be using virtual reality to design their buildings, Busick said that MacDonald-Miller is the sole mechanical contractor in the area to use virtual reality in this way. In doing so, it goes beyond aesthetic design — though architects can come in and try out changes in MLAB — and looks collectively at every element of what makes a building function, down to the most efficient placement of pipes.  

Additionally, MLAB offers more than a typical virtual reality experience in which one person wears a headset and sees what is on it. MLAB adds another layer: The lab is a Computer Aided Virtual Environment (CAVE), which means that other people in the room can see and experience what the person wearing the headset sees and experiences, all inside a 750-square-foot room outfitted with 24-foot-tall movie-theater screens for walls. 

“I can adjust the perspective so that even though I’m 5-9, I see what you see as someone who is 5-4,” said Busick. “That becomes especially important in the case that we have a facility guy who is 6-8 come in; we can see everything from his perspective as he walks through to make sure he would fit into the spaces comfortably.” 

The lab, which is in one of MacDonald-Miller’s South Seattle locations, discreetly hidden at the top of a gravel road and surrounded by stacks of shipping crates, doesn’t even need to be physically visited to be experienced: Someone working on the project from Bellevue can throw on a VR headset from his or her desk and meet up with Busick and others from MacDonald-Miller in the model. Everyone would see virtual versions of each other, and could walk through and collaborate in the model together. 

The impact that this kind of technology could make on the construction industry, Busick said, is huge. The breadth and depth of possibilities are yet to be discovered. 

“At the end of the day, there are still people swinging hammers,” said Busick. “But upstream of that, there are new jobs that are being created that we haven’t even thought about yet. Perhaps a virtual designer or a virtual engineer. We think this will be a huge market sector.” 

Martin agreed. 

“I really think it’s going to change the construction industry,” she said. “What I’m excited about is how it’s going to change the workforce. As younger people come to the industry, we’re facing a huge shortage of union workers and field people, so having this technology that they can get excited about is really going to help.” 

To foster that excitement in the next generation, MacDonald-Miller has partnered with Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit that connects those students most underserved and underrepresented in STEM fields with a high-quality STEM education. 

Photo by: Jeff Hobson

This partnership leads to a hands-on experience for STEM students, who are invited into MLAB and allowed to explore different models while learning about the process that goes into their design. The opportunity to apply mathematical and engineering concepts learned in class and see how they are used to develop the many layers of a virtual reality experience is one that will hopefully inspire students to stay in the field past middle and high school. 

Beyond the future shifts in the construction industry and these educational initiatives that might fuel them, the changes made possible by technology at MLAB are already drastic. These are perhaps best appreciated in the business of designing hospital buildings, such as the one that I explored that will soon be a part of Seattle Children’s. 

The alternative to this built-out, almost-real model of the building in virtual reality?  A true-to-size model built from cardboard. 

“Without the VR, the process is to rent out a warehouse somewhere in downtown Seattle, spend 1,200 man hours to construct a cardboard mockup of the hospital, then walk through that version,” said Busick. “If you don’t have to do that, you have instant savings. It’s more collaborative. And you can make changes. You don’t have to rent out a warehouse, or make a detailed model with cardboard. Up until recently, general contractors didn’t have the technology or capability to do anything else; now we do, so we want to move away from that.” 

Though Busick did not reveal exact costs for a client to use MLAB, he said that customers who already partner with MacDonald-Miller have the technology baked into the project they’re working on. Companies who aren’t partnered with MacDonald-Miller but that want to use MLAB can pay an hourly rate to come in and use the service. Like design services, the cost is based on the need of the client, the level of support, and the duration of time in MLAB. Typically, Busick said, people buy blocks of three or five hours. 

“I think this will become part of the industry rhythm, and more people will start to migrate toward this as part of their normal delivery for service,” he said. 

As far as the investment made by MacDonald-Miller to get MLAB up and running, Busick said it wasn’t cheap. But it was almost immediately worth it. 

“Our ROI was 30 days,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “The room paid for itself in the first month. You never find that for technology solutions.” 

That near-immediate return on their investment, as well as the positive feedback about MLAB that MacDonald-Miller has heard from its clients, makes the company confident that its approach to using virtual reality as a collaborative tool in the construction industry will be extremely disruptive — until it’s the status quo.

“If you haven’t already done this, you’re behind,” Busick said. “We’re the first of our kind, and we’re using this time to work through all the kinks. We’re calling it a lab because we’re experimenting — we’re trying things out, breaking things in. And we’ve had some pretty wild success with it thus far.”