Better Together: OpenBIM Leads to Connected Design and Build Ecosystems

August 18, 2021 Kyle Bernhardt

Remember the days of exchanging massive project files only to find out the person on the receiving end couldn’t open them? The processes were clunky and led to inefficient, fragmented workflows. So what’s the better way for the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries to continue to modernize?

The answer is BIM (Building Information Modeling), the process of creating and managing information for a built asset—from design and engineering to construction and operations. And openBIM is the common language and standards that enables interoperability of software solutions so that information can be shared regardless of the vendor you’re using.

Although BIM moved the industry ahead with 3D digital models tied to design data, openBIM is another key facet in the digital transformation of the built environment. It allows teams in formerly siloed disciplines—such as architectural, structural, and mechanical processes—to exchange information while still using their preferred software.

OpenBIM helps construction teams work better, deliver a better product for their clients, and begin to unlock the potential of a digitally powered industry.

Design and build teams collaborate online using openBIM.
OpenBIM allows interoperability among teams, tools, and processes at every phase of a project.

What Is OpenBIM?

A simple openBIM definition is that it’s a way for multidisciplinary teams that are not running the same software to exchange information. Through a set of shared standards and working procedures, openBIM improves data flow and enables interoperability among teams, tools, and processes through every phase of construction. OpenBIM is not a product; it’s a way to work.

Several AEC industry organizations support openBIM, such as the UK’s Open BIM Network. Nonprofit consortium buildingSMART, of which Autodesk is a founding member, coordinates, ratifies, and maintains most of the activity around openBIM to advance industry-wide adoption. The organization describes openBIM like this: “Throughout the whole lifecycle of an asset, openBIM helps connect people, processes, and data to achieve asset delivery, operation, and maintenance goals.”

OpenBIM offers greater flexibility for AEC firms, letting various software programs work together by importing and exporting data as Industry Foundation Class (IFC) files—a global open-data standard overseen by buildingSMART—so workflows are smoother and collaboration is easier.

6 Core Principles of OpenBIM

In its definition of openBIM, buildingSMART states the following:

1. Interoperability is key to the digital transformation in the built asset industry.
2. Open and neutral standards should be developed to facilitate interoperability.
3. Reliable data exchanges depend on independent quality benchmarks.
4. Collaboration workflows are enhanced by open and agile data formats.
5. Flexibility in choice of technology creates more value to all stakeholders.
6. Sustainability is safeguarded by long-term, interoperable data standards.

A built asset created with openBIM.
Interoperability is a critical driver of digital transformation in the built-asset industry.

How Does OpenBIM Work?

Constructing a building from start to finish requires a coordinated effort among different disciplines, such as architects, engineers, and general contractors. Those disciplines are often in different companies, and those companies use different software. OpenBIM creates a common language for greater transparency and closes communication gaps. Everyone involved on a project can use their preferred software and save project information as a vendor-agnostic IFC file.

For example, say an architect is going to use Autodesk Revit; the structural engineer is going to use Trimble Tekla Structures; and the systems engineer—who designs the ductwork, the piping, and the electrical—works in MagiCAD. From a workflow perspective, it might look like the worst-case scenario: No one’s using the same thing. Different programs produce different outputs, leading to data loss, workarounds, and rework when exchanging project information. An openBIM approach enables information handovers between those different disciplines via IFC files.

Here’s where the benefits of openBIM and IFC really start to kick in: The architect can bind metadata to certain elements of the design. For example, the architect designs her model with IFC in mind. Certain pieces of metadata attach to different parts of the design, like a wall, so that when she exports the IFC, informationsuch as the location of windows and doors and material specifications—is in the right place as other disciplines need to reference that data, each working on their specific scope of work.

OpenBIM entails different teams exporting to IFC to communicate the current state of their designs. The other teams consume that file as a reference, working against it to deliver a good, coordinated design.

You can break it down a little further by looking at the two file types creating a common language in openBIM:

Industry Foundation Class (IFC) File

An IFC file is the de facto open, interoperability standard for BIM. It’s a digital file type that enables the exchange of information between desktop authoring applications that don’t speak the same language. Projects teams select a specific Model View Definition, which defines the specific IFC schema version to be used, so all parties are speaking the exact same language. Similar to a PDF, an IFC is a reference model and a way to archive and view data, but it is not an authoring tool. By using IFC, openBIM allows stakeholders to use the design platform they prefer.

BIM Collaboration Format (BCF) File

Under the umbrella of openBIM, there’s another form, called the BIM Collaboration Format (BCF), which is also managed by buildingSMART. BCF communicates design issues across platforms. No matter who authored the BIM data and which tool is used for tracking issues, others can flag and track issues in their preferred tools with BCF.

The Evolution of Interoperability

The move from siloed and isolated processes to an open ecosystem is creating new possibilities for the AEC industry. But this data interoperability has taken decades to reach.

Companies were dabbling in open file formats such as DXF in the 1980s. In 1994, AEC and software organizations came together to create the International Alliance of Interoperability, which would eventually go on to become buildingSMART in 2005. By 1996, companies were designing software that was IFC compliant. And buildingSMART is continually revising and improving the IFC standard to help AEC reach a more data-driven future.

As BIM processes have moved to the cloud, openBIM standards continue to evolve and shape the landscape of cross-team collaboration and interoperability within the AEC industry. Here are two ways openBIM standards will support even greater interoperability in the near future:

openbim
The AEC industry is gradually evolving from siloed processes to an open ecosystem.

From Massive Files to Granular Data

As openBIM works now, IFC files contain the entirety of a discipline’s scope of work. But exchanging big files isn’t the best way to communicate information: The goal is to break these information exchanges into more precise elements of information. An IFC file contains tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of components. The currency is shifting from these large discrete files to more granular data. If an architect sends an 850 MB file to an engineer, it often contains superfluous information that isn’t relevant to the engineer’s scope of work. Sharing granular data means contributors can send a set of curated information or make updates to specific parts of a design.

APIs Will Connect Data and Move Closer to an Industry Cloud

As the IFC currency evolves into smaller pieces of information, the mechanism for exchange is also shifting from a file-based, human-driven export-upload-download-import process to a more automated data flow with application programming interfaces (APIs), or intermediary bits of code that enable connectivity between two different programs. Think of APIs as creating pipes that you can fill with data.

The benefits of APIs connecting granular data include:

  • Data APIs will allow stakeholders to work on their particular workflows and connect them to the specific data they need.
  • These APIs support the push toward an industry cloud, a connected ecosystem of cloud platforms, like Autodesk Forge. The only way to achieve this is to have interoperability across these cloud platform APIs, running on granular data.
  • Automated exchange of data results in higher productivity and efficiency, which the industry desperately needs.

Here are four companies that are leveraging Autodesk’s APIs to connect data, people, and workflows and to improve interoperability:

  • Resolve built an integration to allow files to transfer from Autodesk BIM 360 to the Oculus Quest VR headset for model visualizations.
  • Datum360 created an integration to merge technical engineering data with corresponding models.
  • hh2 connects project-management data and financial information to Autodesk Build with its Universal Construction Model.
  • Newforma developed the Newforma Connector for BIM 360, in which design files are integrated with the project record for a complete picture of the project.

How OpenBIM Is Leveling Up Industry’s Digital Journey

As AEC moves toward greater digital collaboration, this unified approach to the design-and-build process benefits every design and construction team in the following ways:

Stakeholder Alignment

Different teams work off the same files for project-wide coordination, which can reduce miscommunication, the primary reason for 52% of rework. An open ecosystem provides a complete picture of a project equally accessible to every team.

Interoperability

Easily exchanging data among people, platforms, and workflows helps eliminate siloed information and creates efficiencies. For example, construction personnel sometimes spend 35% of their time looking for the right documents. With a connected ecosystem, they can easily find what they need.

One Connected Ecosystem

Solutions such as Autodesk Construction Cloud, Resolve, Datum 360, hh2, and Newforma have developed cloud APIs for interoperability, allowing BIM data to be exchanged.

Long-term Asset Management

IFC digitally preserves project information—from digital models to project accounting to materials used—for use in the entire lifecycle of the structure. While BIM creates the fuel for digital twins, openBIM standards ensure that the data going into the BIM process is interoperable, allowing for the continuous optimization and monitoring of a structure long after the ribbon is cut. Deeper benefits to consider include:

1. A future sale of the asset could include all project data, from every team that worked on the project, stored in a common data environment.
2. Privacy requirements ensure data is securely archived and managed.
3. Real-time access to digital twins can help troubleshoot potential issues and evaluate the changing environment around a built asset.

More Sustainable Processes and Projects

When design teams coordinate information and workflows, it results in a more efficient, connected process. Working from common information allows teams to focus more on the important outcomes of the project, like its carbon impact.

Reduce Schedule and Budget Overages

Real-time access to all project data can help projects come in on budget and on schedule. A common set of information in each authoring tool enables designers and construction professionals to spot errors digitally before construction begins—and avoid problems during construction.

openBIM leads to better long-term management of assets like roads.
OpenBIM standards ensure that BIM data is interoperable, which means better long-term asset management.

Despite these benefits, the industry has reached only a 60%–70% BIM-adoption rate (PDF, p. 17) in 35 years, a much slower rate than other technologies, which take on average eight to 28 years to reach 90% adoption. But every company must adopt these standards to move the entire industry forward.

3 Reasons to Embrace OpenBIM Now

If you don’t operate using openBIM or IFC, you’re just exchanging drawings and leaving value on the table. IFC-based workflows allow you to work with more high-fidelity data. As the digital world starts catching up, companies need to hop on board or get left behind, because this digital transformation doesn’t stop at openBIM. Here are three reasons companies need to adopt openBIM standards:

1. Future-proofing

The AEC industry is moving toward digital, shared data. Companies that adopt openBIM processes now can minimize disruptions in an evolving field and keep up with changes.

2. More Project Opportunities

OpenBIM strengthens the collaboration capabilities presented by the BIM process, allowing designers to choose the software they prefer, rather than having to use unfamiliar tools. When bidding for a job, a company could lose out simply because it’s unable to work in the same digital environment as other disciplines. The purpose of openBIM and IFC is to connect applications and platforms.

3. Attracting Talent

With digital natives making up an increasing segment of today’s workforce, companies need to stay digitally progressive to attract talent. This is a particular concern for the construction industry, which has been facing a labor shortage as workers age out and younger generations overlook the field for careers with digital accessibility. A recent study in the Harvard Business Review revealed that 88% of job hunters look for companies that take advantage of the latest collaboration tools.

open bim construction site
Today’s digital-native workforce wants modern collaboration tools.

3 Companies Leading the Charge for OpenBIM

AEC has been relatively slow to leverage emerging technology, but a few companies are taking the initiative. Here are three organizations that are using openBIM on big projects for seamless workflows, effective collaboration, and better business outcomes.

Erik Guidice Architects (EGA)

EGA used openBIM when designing the 645,834-square-foot Platinan building in Gothenburg, Sweden. This decision improved collaboration between EGA and the other contractors involved in the build. Using Revit as its core design platform, EGA was able to export IFC files to share with other teams using a variety of software applications. Next, it will be using its openBIM collaboration strategy to build the athletes’ village in Paris for the 2024 Olympics.

Norconsult

Norwegian engineering and design company Norconsult pushed infrastructure digitization forward when it built the 19-kilometer, $500-million E39 roadway in southern Norway. Norconsult wanted to have a single source of information for the 2,000 people working together. Using Forge as its primary project platform, Norconsult created a cloud solution that enabled real-time collaboration and file sharing of 100,000 digital documents. The firm leveraged Forge APIs for BIM model viewing and is now building its own digital twin platform.

VolkerWessels

For the Zwolle-Herfte railway expansion project in the Netherlands, new tracks had to be laid, roads and bicycle paths had to be moved, and a train tunnel had to be built. VolkerWessels combined BIM with GIS for deeper data integration to navigate the complex project. OpenBIM allowed for greater transparency and easier collaboration across platforms and among multiple stakeholders in the value chain.

What Is the Future of OpenBIM?

While BIM is improving AEC workflows and openBIM is fueling the interoperability of data files, digital transformation is evolving to support the growing complexity of built assets. There is an increasing reliance on capturing and leveraging data to foster collaboration. Here’s what to expect next.

Government BIM Mandates

Creating a more sustainable, efficient, and productive building process is good for more than just the construction industry. The shift to openBIM reinforces societal benefits, such as a built environment that is able to last longer to support an increasing global population. Governments are already taking a more proactive stance, developing construction mandates that require public and private-sector AEC firms to use openBIM for projects.

Rail infrastructure will be advanced by openBIM.
Governments in several countries are already requiring both the public and private sector to use openBIM.

The Shift From Huge Files to Granular Data

The future of openBIM is migrating to the modern technology stack for interoperability. It is using granular information powered by APIs to connect industry services. The future looks more targeted, more automated, and more capable than anything taking a traditional approach today.

The Rise of an Industry Cloud

The future is a connected AEC industry cloud. This is the convergence of the entire tech stack needed for any given project in the cloud. These pieces will connect via APIs to create an interdependent network of products. Companies will start working together to provide a greater overall capability to deliver what the industry needs. The industry cloud will be driven by APIs that run on granular data—that’s the constellation of the future.

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