Customer Showcase


McNicholas takes on a large-scale shopping center and a sports park challenge with AutoCAD Civil 3D and Autodesk Vault software.

Global urbanization is a force widely acknowledged but little understood. Many people would find it hard to believe that half of the world’s housing and infrastructure needs for the next 25 years have not yet been built, yet it is true.

Simultaneously, much of the world’s existing infrastructure is aging and failing; the result will be unprecedented levels of spending to repair or remodel it.

Moreover, providing roads, utilities, and the infrastructure to support growth and renewal will require engineering on a scale not seen in recent history.

Understanding, embracing, and responding to such change is something that one British company has been doing for almost 60 years. Utilities contractor McNicholas has been involved in civil engineering in the UK since the last major worldwide infrastructure boom of the 1940s.

Born out of the post-war expansion of the telecommunications industry, Elstree-based McNicholas started out servicing this sector; it then went on to add electricity, gas, and water—and, more recently, rail and renewables—to its portfolio. Today, it has become a leading utility contractor involved in planning, designing, and constructing multiservice utilities infrastructure in increasingly large and complex projects.

One such recent project was the 900,000-square-foot Park Place shopping center in Croydon. Actually, "shopping centre" doesn’t begin to describe what is essentially a whole new urban district, the total area of which, including roads affected by the scheme, will occupy some 8.5 hectares.

The utilities diversion task for such a large-scale project was extremely challenging, but it was one that McNicholas—with extensive experience and the use of AutoCAD® Civil 3D® civil engineering software—was able to face head on.

Twenty-First Century Infrastructure Planning

Croydon’s Park Place required a full utilities diversion plan to be undertaken before demolition, which had to include the construction of new service ducts including tunnelling and planned phases for the consequent road closures. Because it was critical to minimize disruption and delays, there could be no margin for inadequate or inaccurate information.

In the past, the civil engineering task would have involved digging a lot of holes in the ground to find out where the existing pipework and services were and take measurements. But digging up a built environment necessarily involves the suspension of business or services and the not-inconsiderable task and expense of putting it all back. Even then, using the old 2D design software, it was necessary to input the data, analyze it manually, and then process it with another program to create a cross section. The margins for error were incalculably large.

In the face of such complexity, McNicholas—together with project managers, Bovis Lend Lease—boldly took the decision to remodel the existing site in 3D, using Civil 3D software.

The first time that you see a fully integrated, large-scale, 3D model of the labyrinthine utilities and services beneath a vast complex like Park Place, you feel like a near-sighted person putting on glasses for the first time.

But perhaps the most remarkable feature of this software is that it doesn’t just show you what’s already there, it also enables you to experience your redesign and alterations plans before they are real.

Increasing Collaboration

“A phrase that comes to mind is ‘the wow factor,'" says McNicholas's CAD surveyor, Mark Watson. "We were working in conjunction with people like BT Openreach—because obviously we needed to know that what we’re designing was correct and going to work for them—and other companies like Virgin Media and Southern Gas Network. We had to have a good working relationship with these guys and they used to come into the office to look at how the model was progressing. They even brought in their colleagues just to look at the model. They thought it was amazing."

Communicating its ideas comprehensively with high-impact 3D presentations enabled McNicholas to quickly get across its design intent to all the stakeholders and was an important factor in getting the job.

Minimizing Risk

“Using Civil 3D, we can create a full 3D environment and truly understand where everything lives, eliminating risk when designing a utility diversion,” Watson says. Moving around a fully integrated 3D model enables each member of the team to view pipe, duct, or chamber, from any angle and understand its position in the context of the whole project.

“We realized that using Civil 3D eliminated a lot of risk with designing multiutilities diversions. Because of its clash-detection ability and also by being able to put cross sections anywhere through your model at any angle, we could see exactly what clearances we’d have on any of the utilities we’ve modeled,” he explains.

In this respect, McNicholas is a pioneer in its use of 3D technology. “McNicholas is using what is really a drainage part of the package to do underground utilities and the level of complexity that they’re taking it to with the job in Croydon is absolutely amazing," comments Autodesk's Jack Strongitharm. "There’s so much information in there. They have carried out radar scans to locate all these pipes and cables and then modeled them all up in 3D so they can work out where all the cables need to be moved to or dug out. It’s so much more information than a drawing would normally ever have given them.”

Data Management Advantage

Given the sheer volume of data involved in their projects, McNicholas decided to install Autodesk’s data management solution, Autodesk® Vault software, to better manage the Croydon project.

“We were helped by Excitech, who told us that on projects of this magnitude, Vault would really help us, and they were right," says Watson. "It’s enabled us to manage all the files a lot more easily. We were trying to create one huge model and have everything in one storage file but the amount of data that’s stored in every single pipe, structure, and surface is just too large to handle. Using Vault, you can create references from different drawing files, so it made the whole project more manageable."

Vault will also be critical to the infrastructural planning of a prominent sports park McNicholas is currently working on to make the project more manageable.

As for Croydon, the new sports park is a highly complex project, but what is completely different is that the utilities are largely being created from scratch rather than being diverted, and this creates further innovative challenges. The project involves multiple venues, each with their own multiple facilities, and McNicholas is designing and building the gas, water, electric, and telecommunications functionalities that will serve each of those venues.

“At the moment, I’m working on trying to fit water mains, HV, and EHV electrics, along with three different communications networks into a corridor, and they all have to cross each other at some point," explains Watson. "I am also trying to design how they will be actually layed out on site—they all have mandatory clearances. For example, the telecommunications ducts cannot be any closer than 300 milimeters from the electric ducts, and so forth. So it’s a case of drawing all the pipes referenced to surfaces I’ve already created from topographical information received, and using alignments, sample lines, section and profile views to correctly design the utility corridor.”

But this is a long-term project, with completion still some two years away. And by then, McNicholas’s infrastructural design repertoire is likely to have expanded even further.

In the same way that the firm’s use of Civil 3D enabled it to take on a project like Croydon, it is also helping McNicholas push the boundaries once again by allowing them to take on the project management of underground utilities projects as well as being the contractor for its constituent tasks.

While the McNicholas brand is built on its extensive experience, its future positioning seems to be based on its willingness to embrace the tools of the future.

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