Meet Mortenson's virtual maestro

Meet Mortenson's virtual maestro

by ANDREW G. ROE, for BuiltWorlds | May 9, 2015

Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction began tinkering with virtual design and construction nearly 20 years ago, using 3D and 4D modeling to find more efficient ways to build complex structures. Propelled by landmark projects such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, Mortenson has partnered with designers, academicians and other contractors to link 3D models with schedules and other time-based information, moving VDC from a novelty to a standard business practice. Over 90% of the company’s projects now use some form of VDC, including the $1-billion Minnesota Vikings stadium under construction in Minneapolis.


The driving force behind this extraordinary expansion of VDC use has been RICARDO KHAN (left), Mortenson's director of integrated construction. A 10-year company veteran with experience as an architectural designer, CAD technician, animator, and web developer, Khan now leads Mortenson’s 60-person, national VDC team. He also is a frequent presenter at industry tech events, including Chicago's first AEC Hackathon, held at BuiltWorlds in March. Last week, we spoke with him a bit about Mortenson's VDC journey and what he sees ahead. 

BW: How does VDC provide value for Mortenson?

KHAN: It helps us makes better-informed decisions early on in the project. We use the best resources and technology possible to build projects virtually [before they are built physically]. Using clash detection and other tools, we can reduce waste, such as rework and excess materials and labor. 

Company history: For an interactive timeline of Mortenson's multi-decade VDC journey, click here.

Company history: For an interactive timeline of Mortenson's multi-decade VDC journey, click here.

BW: What role does Mortenson play in the VDC process?

KHAN: We try to partner with the design team collaboratively and play the integrator role. We provide constructability analysis, estimating and scheduling expertise to aid in the design process. 

BW: How is VDC used during construction?

KHAN: Our VDC staff is integrated with our project team. It’s not a separate process. An integrated delivery advancement team typically starts out in our main office, then moves to the site to work directly with the project team in the field. Our superintendents and subcontractors use the VDC information to communicate with field crews. We can show a visual schedule from a macro level or down to an individual day, to show how the project gets built.

BW: What tools are typically used?

KHAN: We usually start with Autodesk Revit models, along with drawings done in AutoCAD, Sketchup, and Rhino 3D. Sometimes we use CATIA for parts that have more complexity. We then use Autodesk Navisworks to combine design and construction information in one model for simulations.

BW: What is the makeup of your VDC staff?

KHAN: We have about 60 people in VDC at Mortenson. We have trained architects, civil engineers, and mechanical engineers, and some who have come up through construction trades. The diversity gives us the opportunity to cross-pollinate and spread talent across different scopes and areas of expertise.

BW: How is VDC being used on the new Vikings stadium? 

KHAN: The VDC team includes six people collocated at the site. They work directly with the superintendents who communicate with the crews. The speed at which things are being built is a huge challenge. We only have 30 months to build something this large, with over 900 workers on the job. Without virtual tools, we would not be able to do it. [The 65,000-seat, 1.75-million-square-foot stadium is scheduled to open in 2016, on essentially the same site once occupied by the 900,000-square-foot Metrodome.]

BW: What are some of the latest tools being used in VDC? 

KHAN: We’ve been partnering to leverage gaming technology. The Oculus Rift [virtual reality headset] is being used to improve simulations. When you look at something on a 2D screen, your brain has to interpolate. When you put on a virtual reality headset, you’re immersed in the project on a 360-degree basis. 

BW: How is gaming technology worked into your processes?

KHAN: We get models from architects or trade partners, then we export them to a gaming environment such as Unity or Unreal, where we can portray things like lighting and colors accurately. It drastically reduces the time it takes to do animations. Traditional animation [without gaming engines] used to take weeks. Now it takes days or perhaps hours to do the same thing. 

BW: Any other trends worth noting?

KHAN: Mobile devices and the Cloud are being used to more effectively use digital plan sheets. A room full of 50-inch monitors in the home office can display drawings that can also be accessed in the field on mobile devices such as iPads. The monitors can be synched with a Cloud service to update information in real time. It’s moving us from a paper-based system to an electronic system.


Based in Minneapolis, the writer is a civil engineer, editor and consultant who has contributed articles to ENR, Design-Build, and Cadalyst, among other publications. He is president of AGR Associates, and the author of Using Visual Basic with AutoCAD, published by Autodesk Press. Email him at

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