New study: Virtual Reality unlocks savings in complex infrastructure and construction

04.11.2019 / Marius Sekse and Jørgen Storm Emborg

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is creating significant savings in the infrastructure and building construction industry. Virtual reality is likely to accelerate those savings even further. An ongoing study is looking into the potential gains for the client. 

For decades, the construction industry has struggled with cost and time overruns on large projects. One of the main reasons for these is the complexity of projects. Characterised by collaboration between multidisciplinary parties and iterative processes, construction projects are highly dependent on the quality of communication between the different participants. 

According to a McKinsey report from 2016, large construction projects typically take 20 per cent longer to finish than scheduled, and are up to 80 per cent over budget. In some markets, construction productivity has actually declined since 1990. 

Savings with VR?

The question is whether new technologies and digital tools can smoothen the processes and unlock savings. 

In the case of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the answer is yes. The same McKinsey report actually forecast that wider adoption of BIM would unlock 15-25% savings in the global infrastructure market. Earlier studies have shown comparable potential in the building industry. 

BIM paves the way for Virtual Reality on projects 

In recent years, the construction industry has experienced increased demands for BIM deliveries, either through governmental BIM mandates or, increasingly, by clients and contractors. This has led to a large rise in the number of projects executed in 3D and BIM. 

The fact that most new construction projects are designed in BIM today enables us to add another digital tool when communicating projects: Virtual Reality (VR) and related tools like Augmented and Mixed Reality.

In September 2016, COWI initiated a new study together with Aalborg University and the VR tech company Epiito to evaluate the potential gains to the construction industry and clients of adding VR to the BIM design process. 

from wow factor to value adding tool 

VR was born in the 1950s, with Morton Hellig’s Sensorama. After having its breakthrough in the late 1980s, it has matured significantly and has started offering possibilities for finding solutions to complex problems. 

This has become visible within the construction industry, amongst others, with solutions like VR Caves from BIM Equity (allowing multiple users in the same model), ARUP Soundlab (simulation of sounds in the built environment) and Oculus (affordable VR goggles including hand tracking abilities). 

optimised user experience

In our study, we have seen that VR actually does have significant potential to increase the quality of projects, and unlock further benefits for the client, because it provides a real sense of scale, functionality and user experience. 

For example, when designing Copenhagen Airport's new Pier E, VR was used for mapping people flow. The model of Pier E was designed in 3D, and with the help of VR, the client was able to test whether the planned signs make sense and can be seen properly from different angles on location.

VR technology for staff training

We also used VR on a new water basin at a water utility in Denmark. Here the operating staff had the opportunity to enter the virtual model to test the planned functionalities. It was so valuable that the water utility subsequently chose to invest in VR technology for staff training.  

VR has also proved valuable in the presentation of urban development projects in Norway, where private and public builders, architects, advisers and citizens have had the opportunity to experience how buildings, urban spaces and infrastructure will be linked and what atmosphere they will create.

Virtual Reality provides a real sense of scale, functionality and user experience.
Jørgen Storm Emborg Technical Director, COWI

Next step - Augmented Reality 

The VR scenarios are various: from simple representation of time and scale, to more complex types of virtual representations, to Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality.

Whereas VR replaces the real world with a computer-generated world, AR overlays the existing conditions with a digital layer. MR encompasses the continuum consisting of VR and AR combinations.

In addition to computer images, auditory (sound) and haptic (touch) displays, as well as leap motion and controls can be added to contribute to the realism of the illusion. 

VR only takes a few clicks

Initially, we saw great interest in the most common form of VR, because the technology is relatively cheap and easy to operate. It literally only takes a few clicks to get the 3D model or 360-degree photos into VR, and make a simple visualisation on a smartphone and small VR glasses.

In contrast, a co-creation scenario, in which different participants can meet and work together within the model, requires multi-user hardware and set-up, as well as input from all parties that deliver to the model. 

Visual experience of impact on surroundings  

As part of our VR study, we have tested different usage scenarios for AR (Augmented Reality). This will allow us to view model-based data in the field, which is the main focus within the study’s infrastructure component.

While the complexity of a building project is centred around the internal project coordination, with an infrastructure project it is centred around the coordination with external stakeholders.

With the right technology we can bring the virtual 3D model into the field by using the GPS location, and thus, for example, give a visual experience of how the projects will affect the surroundings and the access to the new infrastructure.

More accurate AR systems are needed

In Denmark, we have tested AR on the Herning – Holstebro highway. Together with Aalborg University, we have looked into different systems for viewing design data in the field.

This has shown us that the current software solutions do not have the desired accuracy nor functionality, but new and exciting technologies and solutions emerging, like Apple’s ARKit, are improving the value of AR in the field. 

Based on open-source software we have therefore developed our own app as a pilot. The result is better accuracy and functionality.
To make this a robust solution we will need to automate some of the processes in the data conversion and link the functionality with our BIM workflows.
With the right technology we can bring the virtual 3D model into the field by using the GPS location.
Marius Sekse Landscape Architecht, COWI

Keeping costs down with VR

The study to evaluate the potential gains to the construction industry and clients of adding VR to the BIM design process was finalised in October 2019 and the conclusions are clear: 

The use of Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality in complex projects can indeed make an important contribution to saving time, increasing productivity and keeping costs down, to the benefit of our clients.

The major value additions are related to: 

  • Increased quality and better decisions 
  • Faster completion at increased accuracy 
  • Improved clash and error detection 
  • Decreased risk of budget overruns 
  • Increased ownership – valuable inputs from future users 

It is evident that VR and AR technologies are moving from infancy to mainstream and will be the new standards for model representations in the AEC industries. 

To inspire you, we have collected a variety of cases on applications of VR and AR.

Read more: The value of virtual and augmented reality in infrastructure and buildings

FACTS about the study 

The project Virtual Reality in Design, Construction and Operation has been developed by COWI in collaboration with Aalborg University’s department of Civil Engineering (Keld Svidt, Rasmus Lund Jensen and Erik Kjems) and the technology company BIM Equity VR. 

Supported by COWIfonden.

Project period: 2016 - 2019 


McKinsey report - Imagining construction’s digital future

EUBIM - Handbook for the introduction of Building Information Modelling by the European Public Sector

DTU and Bygningsstyrelsen - Måling af økonomiske gevinster ved Det Digitale Byggeri

Get in contact

Marius Sekse
Technical Director
Spatial planning and Landscape architecture, Norway

Tel: +47 99000688

Get in contact

Jørgen Storm Emborg

Jørgen Storm Emborg
Technical Director
Sourcing and Engineering Applications, Denmark

Tel: +45 56401378


My field of expertise lies within digital innovation and infrastructure

As a landscape architect, my interest has always been in multidisciplinary understanding and the ability visualise a design.
Starting in COWI nine years ago, I understood that focusing on 3D modelling could be a great way to make a difference in our project delivery.

One of the highlights of my career has been working on the BIM for Landscape project. This is a project for Statsbygg (the Norwegian Construction and Property Management Department), where we have been asked to look into how we deliver BIM models within the landscape architecture discipline. Together with colleagues from three other companies I have come up with a system to structure our deliveries and standardise on objects to be used in design and management.



My field of expertise is in identifying, designing and implementing new ways of working with new technology within engineering projects

I started out as a structural engineer doing calculations and realised that there was a huge gap between the way projects were executed and how they could (or should) be done using digital tools. I like to focus on bridging the gap between IT and Engineering – especially focusing on getting the most value from BIM workflows.

I have been part of many interesting initiatives, such as creating industry standards for new ways of working, using VR on projects, etc., but if I had to pick one initiative with a huge business effect it would be identifying and implementing a way to perform distributed engineering across COWI. This involved a long process of both solving technical issues and changing the mindset of the employees, but is now an essential part of many COWI projects executed across geography. It shows that a good idea combined with dedicated and sustained effort from a group of people can actually make a huge change if you stick to the idea.