Using Second Life to Teach Building Codes

Because I initially joined Second Life as a means of promoting the awesome community that I live and work in, my primary focus was always to find displays or builds that would help our city reach out to the community. One of the ideas I had thought about implementing was a “Code House” – a building in which the the International Residential Building Code could be shown in 3-D.

As the city’s building inspector I discovered that many builders and homeowners do not have the time, the patience, or the motivation to sit down and read the code book. I do think that the code council has done the best job possible in setting up the book and presenting the information, but let’s face it, few people want to sit down and read a book of regulations. So I have often wondered how to best convey the information in the code book in an easy and simple way that will engage everyone’s interest.

I believe that the Second Life environment provides the opportunity to create a presentation that will show the code requirements in a simple and intuitive manner. If I need to find out the height at which to install switches or receptacles, I simply walk into the house and the dimension is shown on the wall. If I need to show the width of a doorway, I put phantom text hanging in the doorway space. How much simpler can it be?
Code House on Public Works

Well, I started building the house but have to admit that it has been slow going – too much to accomplish in Second Life and that darn real life thing (such as my real job) keeps me from hanging out in SL as much as I would like. So I was happy to find a kindred spirit in the avatar of Brand Woodin. Brand, who is from England, had been considering the same type of idea but of course, wanted to build a home that would convey the English code. So we thought, how cool is that to have homes built to teach codes from different countries.

Last night we discussed the project some more and came up with some fun and interesting side projects like creating a kit to wire a light switch where someone in SL could get the kit and practice actually wiring it as they would in real life. The completed wiring job would work (turn the light on) only if wired correctly. Otherwise maybe it would blow up or something cool like that. Well, now we need a good scripter to help us implement that idea.

Eco-Build Soon to Come
Anyway, the home I am working on is located on the Public Works sim for now. Brand will be building his “across the street” from mine. English and American. Now if only we can find others from different countries who are interested in creating homes to reflect their codes. There is so much that can be illustrated and accomplished, so if anyone is interested in joining in with us to implement this project or create related projects, we would love to have you join in and become part of our team.


Can you communicate as well as a fourth-grader?

One thing that I have learned from my time in Second Life is how much all of us have in common even though we all work in different professions. Sometimes I think it is because all the work that we do, no matter the field, is based upon communication. Whenever anything goes wrong at work, what is it that EVERYONE says? “We need better communication next time.” But does that ever happen? Do we ever really make an effort to improve communications?

Up to the launch of the Internet, the only means of communication in the business world had been though conversations or letter writing. So as we tried to improve communication back then did we talk more? Maybe at first but then eventually we slipped back into old habits – it was never convenient to communicate. We didn’t see people, or they were not there when we telephoned, or we just didn’t have time to write another letter. Or perhaps conversations between co-workers were frowned upon as a waste of time.

And this is why I think the move to Web 3.0, or whatever it is called these days, is so important. The Web has given us, and continues to give us, so many means of communication and has made it so easy for us to communicate with anyone anywhere that there should be no excuse anymore for a lack of communication. If you are not adequately communicating today, it is your own fault for not learning the available tools.

With all the blogs, vlogs, wikis, virtual spaces, text messaging, internet-based phone and radio, social networks, and Web sites, there is no excuse for not communicating. The scary part of all this is that those of us who are out of college are already behind on the use of these tools. Today, as I was following my new philosophy of learning how to do my job better by researching what others are doing in their fields, I came across a wonderful blog by a school teacher: From reading her blog and the links off of it, I realized, school kids have already figured this out!! Fourth-graders are blogging and setting up wikis and using all these tools as if they have been around for years.

So for anyone who might still be thinking that this is all going away, you may want to start looking into what is happening on the Web these days. Not only are these tools growing in use each day by those in business, kids in our schools are being taught how to use them as part of their normal classwork. And even though experience in a particular industry still carries some weight, remember, it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t communicate at least as well as a fourth-grader.


Second Life Build as a Deliverable

Over the last year or so since my first introduction to Second Life, I have found myself trying to think of ways that this technology can improve or prevent problems or issues that I have at work. As I blogged about the other day, we had a terrible problem with the design/builder of our water plant reconstruction project – they completely failed to listen to our design requirements and ended up designing something that we do not want at all.

So as we work through the solution that I have come up with to resolve the design problem, I keep trying to think of how the use of Second Life may have prevented this. I don’t think it comes as any surprise that problems with the design usually arise during construction. This is really the first time that someone other than the designer takes a good look at what he or she has created. Also, design problems are hard to ignore as they are turned into “bricks and mortar.”

So how does SL help? Well, if customers/clients required a Second Life build of a design as a deliverable for each job, then the problems that would have arisen during construction may come up during the SL build process. I realize that this would probably only be true if the process followed more closely that of a RL build. (Wouldn’t it be cool if someone designed a tool in SL that actually knew if the build would fail in RL?)

Also, after the build is up, the designer should have to “walk” with the client through the build showing them what they are getting and how it will work (using scripting here). The build could stay up during the construction process so the client could continue to refer to it if questions arose.

Second Life has many possibilities and terrific usefulness in the design/construction industry. However, some people will only use tools if forced to do so. If we as the client push our designers to deliver a SL build as part of the project, perhaps the industry will finally catch on to what many of us have already discovered.


Knowledge Networking Group

Today I attended one of the three weekly meetings of the Knowledge Networking Group that was set up by Farnham Farrjones in Second Life. Farnham lives in Texas and works for the EPA. He has set up the group to help all of us meet and discuss what is going on with integrating the new Web-based tools with our real lives – both professionally and personally.

I think a group like this was really needed. After exploring and learning about as many of these tools as I can, I wonder how we are all processing it and working it into our lives. There is so much happening so fast it is hard to keep up. Yet I realize some have not even started. (When I try to talk about all of this with those who have not yet “see the light” they dismiss it all and say that they just don’t have the time to delve into it all.)

Although this group won’t help those that don’t even realize they need help, it will offer guidance for the rest of us moving through the tangle of new tools and sites. For any of you looking for a good business-related group to join for a general discussion of the use of the Web 2.0 tools for serious work, this is it.


Oh where have all the good consultants gone?

I don’t know what it is with our city, but we have never been able to find an engineering consultant that can actually deliver a design of a treatment system, water or wastewater, that works or that meets our design and operation requirements. With the ever growing number of engineering consultants out there, how can this be? I am starting to wonder if this is just something common with all engineering designs delivered by a consultant (thinking of the big dig project) or do we just have bad luck?

After going through last years debacle of having the consultant for our new wastewater plant deliver a full set of plans of a plant that was actually located about a mile from the property on which the plant was supposed to go and located on property not even owned by the city, to our most recent problem with MACTEC engineering, the company providing design/build services for our water treatment plant reconstruction.

This project is a few weeks from what should be completion. The project was supposed to fix the original plant’s design that was completely messed up by the original design consultant that is now out of business. (The city actually had to sue the company after the plant was built to recover at least a small portion of the damages caused by design problems.) After waiting for 15 years, and suffering through an operational nightmare every day, the operators and I were more than ready to see everything finally designed, built, and operated as a plant should be. We had spent 15 years telling everyone who walked through the plant door what was wrong and what we wanted fixed – including the new design consultant – MACTEC. MACTEC had actually been involved in assessing the problems caused by the first consultant so we thought they were fully aware of all the issues and knew exactly what we wanted. Even so we spent several meetings going through it all again.

So the plans were drawn, and the construction began. Last week I got a call from our operator who told me the engineer for the project had called him to ask him how they were going to manage to control and operate the plant – the project is almost done and the project engineer is asking our operator how it is going to run! (The control people thought it was actually going to operate a totally different way with components that had not even been installed.) I called the project engineer who kept telling me to just ask my operator – he was supposed to know how it all would work. And if I had a problem with it, it must be the operator’s fault I guess. So we had a meeting with one of the principles of the firm. He tells me that they will fix the problem and come back with a solution that we could accept. I told him that we no longer wanted that project engineer involved.

Today, after not hearing back and finding out the control people are now calling our operator to figure out how to control the plant, I tried to call the principal who was not in. Instead I got called back by the project engineer who tried to convince me how much better his design was from what we had.

So even though I was not happy about the principal arranging to have this engineer contact me after I had asked him to remove him from the project, I decided to allow the engineer to try to explain to me from a purely engineering viewpoint how a small portion of the system would work. Basically we have a tank open to atmosphere with a set operating range. A pipe feeds two pressure filters from this tank. I asked him the operating pressure and flow for the pressure tanks and the operating range for the other tank levels – he could not tell me. HE DIDN’T KNOW!! This is the project engineer for the project.

Then I tried to ask him how he was going to ensure a specific flow and pressure into the pressure tanks, and he didn’t know that either – another engineer with him told me they were going to use a butterfly valve that we already have installed – the same one that we specifically told him we did not want to use to control the plant. He not only kept it in, but he is using it in the same capacity that we already use it which has been the primary control issue and problem since the plant was built.

I am starting to think that consultants only meet with us so they can get out of the office and bill someone. Then when they are in the meeting with us, and we think they are listening to all of our concerns and problems, they are really thinking “blah blah blah” like Homer Simpson does. Then they happily go back to their office, start designing whatever they want, then send us the bill.

When I pretty much went crazy after finding out that this engineer built his new design and control around the very valve that we told him to get rid of, he said I wasn’t being fair. He irresponsibly spends over a million dollars of our taxpayer’s money, and I am not being fair to him.

Anyway, I ended up doing what I have to do every time this happens to us – sit down and figure out how to fix it all. Finally I eventually came up with a solution that should work, will still salvage all that we have just built, and require the minimal amount of extra investment possible. Tomorrow I will meet with our operators and call our pump supplier and hopefully they all agree that this solution works. Then we can pay off the consultant for services so far and say a fond farewell to yet another design fiasco.