IFC & OpenBIM resolve key issues in projects


Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) within the OpenBIM format resolves key issues in complex projects.

A rise in the complexity of projects has generated an increased need for specialisation in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) services and associated design tools. However, the more specialised the tools become, the more difficult collaboration between them becomes. A workable solution should encourage specialisation and at the same time find a common language that bridges the gap of interoperation.

The complexities in the development of a built environment arise from the client’s desire for iconic solutions, the architect’s pursuit for innovation or the engineer’s demand for sophisticated solutions. Added to this are requirements for more accurate assessments of environmental sustainability, efficient building performance and low running costs, as well as more accountability in construction methodology and costing. In short, as the complexity of buildings increases so too do performance requirements in design, construction and operation.

Corresponding to the increase in complexity is the demand for evermore specialised consultants and subcontractors and for multi-layered construction processes. Two issues have emerged in response to this shift. On the one hand, we find that traditional documentation methods can no longer serve the demands of complex architecture or the unique requirements of the specialist consultant. On the other hand, we are seeing an expanding communication void forming between the various disciplines, and consequently between the tools they employ. As evidence of this, we can identify difficulties within the construction process arising from these two issues.

Some examples relating to the inability of given tools to meet the increased complexity of a project include:

  • Limitation of 2D documentation to effectively represent complex geometry for visualisation and coordination;
  • Absence of mechanisms in traditional documentation methods that ensure consistency, such as synchronising changes between plan and elevation, or plan and schedule; and 
  • Inability to represent sequencing and time based functions.

In addition, the lack of open, standardised and consistent communication creates another set of issues:

  • Delayed communication (and often incomplete information) in providing design updates and clarifications to all concerned parties;
  • Inability of existing processes to propagate changes across multiple platforms; and
  • Communication disruption and time wastage where project standards are not correctly implemented or different subcontractors are using non-compatible CAD software.

For the most part, we see these two issues being dealt with quite separately. In response to the first issue, one finds the development of increasingly sophisticated building information modelling (BIM) software able to undertake complex modelling and manage multiple rule-based tasks. This has demonstrated tremendous success in addressing the first set of issues.

However, there has been limited success in responding to the second set. To address the issue of information flow, one must look to data exchange by means of a collaborative platform.

Such platforms enable centralised data to be accessed by any project member at any stage of the project and often from any geographical location. In the realm of BIM, however, the process is more complex. It is not simply a matter of sharing information, but also ensuring that the data is openly compatible that is, the content generated in one software is legible to another given software. This tends to mean reducing content to the lowest common denominator, sometimes in 2D form or as simple 3D geometry without the valuable BIM content.

This scenario is counter-productive as the high-level content produced in specialist software is made largely ineffectual when it enters the collaborative environment. The solution then is to ensure that while the software continues to excel in specialisation, it also conforms to a standardisation; a common language.

Common language for AECOO

The architecture, engineering, construction, owner and operator (AECOO) industry benefits from the specialisation of its disciplines and the diversity of its tools, and yet the success of a project is dependent on the ability of all parties to collaborate effectively. As much as we may applaud the emergence of specialist disciplines and new technologies, so too must we ensure that the industry retains a common language of communication.

In the realm of BIM, we see this paradigm come to a head. The industry is best served by the ability of software to perform increasingly complex tasks – processing compound geometry, assessing inputs from performance analysis data, and synchronising between multiple interfaces. Nevertheless, the ultimate value of this software is in its ability to disseminate this information to other project stakeholders.

Unfortunately, we still find that collaborative platforms deployed on a project are often not capable of processing the wealth of BIM content generated in the original authoring software.

In many cases, we see BIM reduced to basic 3D geometry, devoid of valuable BIM content. In other cases, one can still find a preference for 2D CAD output or even PDF documentation. This is certainly taking the ‘I’ out of BIM.

The direction that the industry ought to be taking is to ensure that the software deployed on any given project has the ability to communicate in a common standardised language. This is the principle of OpenBIM, which promotes the use of IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) as an industry standard for interoperability.

IFC is an application-neutral object-oriented file format developed specifically for the AECOO industry. Model content is represented accurately in terms of geometry and system-based parametric data. The IFC data model is based on class definitions of elements that represent the parts of buildings, or elements of the process, and contain the relevant information about those parts. The data focuses on those classes that are needed to share information (rather than processing it in a particular proprietary software). Most of the leading BIM software have established interoperability (import/export functions) with the IFC format, and it is widely considered the industry standard for OpenBIM.

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