Imagine a collaboration utopia for architects, engineers, fabricators, contractors, and project owners. What would it be like?
Maybe it’s a world where all software talks to each other, regardless of which company sells it. Maybe it’s a world where no one has to remodel and duplicate work on a project because there’s a seamless flow of information handed off from discipline to discipline. Or maybe it’s a world where all collaborators can work together in a common data environment and access the important information they need, when and where they need it.
Good news: This better world—fueled by data interoperability—is close at hand. It’s the experimentation, problem-solving, and technical agility of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals and teams to adapt software tools and business models to the unique challenges of designing and making that propels this industry forward.
Just as credit is due to AEC innovators, credit is also due to the many companies, organizations, industry groups, and individual contributors who have documented their APIs, open-sourced their codebases, held their ground in debates about standards, and rallied around the collective banner of a better BIM (Building Information Modeling) for everyone.
What excites me now as I see people’s ideas launch, grow, and mature is the emergence of a more dynamic, bespoke, and customer-driven AEC technology ecosystem. And with it, one question looms larger than any other: How will everyone play well together in this heterogenous application landscape?
The Data Interoperability Challenge
The industry knows both everything and nothing about the data interoperability challenge. Every day, disrupted workflows hinder collaboration with partners and force the rework and workarounds that narrow margins and lead to frustration and BIM fatigue.
It’s evident in the bottom line: A 2016 McKinsey analysis reported that construction projects are typically up to 20% delayed and 80% over budget (PDF, p. 18). The different stakeholders delivering the project share these losses, but owners disproportionately bear the burden.
Meanwhile, a 2018 study (PDF, p. 7) by FMI and Autodesk portfolio company PlanGrid looked at digitization in the construction sector and found that 52% of rework is caused by poor data and miscommunication, costing about $31.3 billion in 2018 for firms in the United States alone. The report also revealed (p. 12) that, in an average week, construction employees will spend more than 14 hours—roughly 35% of their time—looking for project data or information, mitigating mistakes, managing rework, and handling conflict resolution.
For all the causes of inadequate interoperability—proprietary data formats, disputed standards, or simple technical debt—the industry is just beginning to grasp the costs. It’s important to bring up in the context of software development because, as design and engineering houses incubate and assess their own specialized tools, the ability to seize the market opportunity is essential for evaluating the bet. In other words, if you’re an architecture firm looking to bet on in-house software development, it’s good to know how much you stand to win—whether on your own projects or commercially in the market.
The Data Interoperability Opportunity
Autodesk has made quite a few bets in the past 39 years on new technology tied to interoperability. We bet on AutoCAD as a CAD tool that could run on any hardware platform. We bet on DXF and open file formats. We bet on the International Alliance for Interoperability. We bet on Dynamo and the democratizing impact of intuitive visual programming, backed by a developer ethos and an open-source community. We bet on APIs before cloud computing made them commonplace. We bet on partnerships—ESRI, Bentley, Schneider Electric, Trimble, to name just a few—where competition and cooperation both can thrive.
Today, I believe there are important bets for the AEC industry to make on interoperability—namely open-data standards, common data environments, and APIs and cloud computing.
With open-data standards, project teams need a common data language to create interoperability across all aspects of a project. It’s like a foreign language: I speak French, and you speak Spanish. Maybe we have a few things in common, but how do we communicate?
An industry consortium called buildingSMART International has been working to develop and promote just such a lingua franca for AEC data through IFC. File-based reference and data exchange are a reality for multidisciplinary collaboration, and the role of a neutral party like buildingSMART to umpire debates about standards and push for broader agreement and adoption becomes more pronounced in a crowded ecosystem. Autodesk is working with buildingSMART as part of its Strategic Advisory Council to align to a technical roadmap for interoperability that eventually moves beyond files and into the cloud.
Another point of consensus across the industry is the need for common data environments. Given the dispersed nature of global project teams, AEC firms need collaboration platforms that are cloud-native, especially during the prolonged disruption of business as usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cloud technology is particularly important because a large-scale building or infrastructure project might involve hundreds if not thousands of companies, and the cloud enables anytime/anywhere access and the ability to scale rapidly to all stakeholders.
Since its inception, BIM has provided a central coordinated model that all stakeholders can share, but by moving BIM to the cloud, AEC practitioners can more seamlessly give their partners access to the information they need to do their jobs—always up to date and accessible in purpose-built formats.
The 2017 expansion of the international airport in Oslo, Norway, serves as an example of interoperability standards playing an essential role on a project. The owner, Avinor AS, mandated the use of BIM for all project stakeholders and required project deliverables to be handed off in IFC, which included hundreds of discipline-specific models and more than 2 million unique objects (doors, walls, sprinklers, lighting fixtures, and more). The decision reduced the need for manual conversion processes in the project and eliminated thousands of man-hours over the course of the project—and in turn made for a happy owner.
Interoperable Data, Not Files
Interoperable IFC files have made a major impact on projects, but organizations like buildingSMART believe that the future of AEC collaboration isn’t just about files. Files are a coarse way to transfer information, yet more important is the ability to transfer granular data needed for a particular workflow or outcome. Data APIs will enable practitioners to focus on their particular workflow and just the data required to achieve the intended outcome. This creates more secure and lighter-weight workflows.
Cloud-based APIs on developer platforms (such as Autodesk Forge) allow people to build applications that augment and integrate design and engineering data, connect existing software systems, and create new workflows that help them work better and faster. And APIs can alleviate performance issues that come with data exchange across increasingly larger models.
For example, in the past, getting a mechanical design solution to talk to an architectural design solution was difficult. This API- and data-based approach makes that exchange much easier. Imagine, for example, that you need to access design data for an HVAC system that needs to be placed on top of a large apartment building. The API approach allows you to bring in only the granular data rather than an entire monolithic file.
Granularity is an important principle here. By breaking down monolithic files, you can speed the data transfer while also protecting your intellectual property. To specify the type of HVAC system for the top of that apartment building, you don’t need the same level of information needed to manufacture the system. Instead, you need to combine building-code information, tenant-comfort requirements, and any environmental sustainability goals for the project. Those factors will define the scale and type of system needed. This information will enable you to get the accurate size unit and determine whether it’s going to fit on top of the building.
By providing geometry and metadata to support these workflows—often called BIM-ready content—the HVAC manufacturer can increase the chances of its equipment being specified up front, the architecture firm can be certain it will meet the client’s operational goals, and the owner avoids paying for expensive rework.
In It Together
Data interoperability is important and game-changing for everyone involved, from the architect to the owner. Beyond obvious improvements in efficiency and productivity, enabled through a common data language and seamless data exchange, interoperability empowers the AEC industry to work together for the common good.
The reality is that, more than ever, the AEC industry has to tackle and solve problems of unprecedented scale brought on by matters such as climate change, urbanization, and even future pandemics. But by working together more collaboratively, the AEC industry will be better prepared to roll up its sleeves—and move a little bit closer to that collaboration utopia.