Sunday, 21 April 2013

What does openBIM, IFC's and COBie actually mean for BIM?

This weeks article looks at giving a brief explanation of OpenBIM, COBie and IFC's whilst also asking a few questions on what all this means for the future of software vendors.

With Autodesk holding a 63% (NBS National BIM Survey) share of the CAD drawing market what affect will this have on open BIM for the future? What does open BIM actually mean and what are these COBie files that we keep hearing about? With these points in mind this week’s article will focus on open and closed BIM and the interoperability of BIM software as well as asking one or two questions about what all this means for the future of an open BIM collaborative working environment. 

Closed BIM generally refers to when BIM processes are carried out on a single platform whereas open BIM refers to when the BIM environment crosses multiple platforms regardless of the software vendor, in essence an ‘open’ shareable design environment using open standard data.

To achieve an open BIM project environment information needs to be shared/exported to a non-proprietary format, such as IFC’s. Currently there are strong opinions and voices behind the drive towards open BIM with the Government specifying in the BIS-BIM-strategy-Reports that Maturity Level 4 BIM should achieve “Fully open process and data integration enabled by IFC/IFD.” Many individual BIM experts are also pushing for the drive towards an open standard BIM future.

Sourced from - BIS-BIM-strategy-Report (2011)
To briefly explain what IFC data formats are, they are in essence an 'open' and neutral data format which set a data standard which if utilised can assist in the 'interoperability' between software packages. As stated by BuildingSMART  “Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) are the open and neutral data format for openBIM.” The data standard which has been developed by Building SMART international, if adhered to enables for the exchange of models and information between multiple software types, in essence achieving interoperability.

Interoperability is a significant word which if involved in BIM already you will be more than familiar with, if not it’s something that you will begin to understand the significance as you progress further into the world of BIM. For files and models to be shared and merged amongst multiple analysis tools and offices they need to be ‘interoperable’. If software packages have the ability to be interoperable then it means that time can be saved through not having to continually redevelop new building geometry for each tool that you wish to utilise to carry out your various analysis.  The importance of this interoperability of files and models across all the teams involved within a BIM project is a pressing concern within BIM which is continually being intensely developed.  Interoperability is a key factor that needs to be drummed home when considering BIM and is seen as being a key component in the future success of BIM projects and needs to be carefully considered at every step.

If the work produced by varying teams is carried out and outputted in an interoperable manner then it allows for multiple teams to work collaboratively on a project without necessarily holding the same software skills and licences. When reading and encountering BIM these are key words that you will soon become familiar with; interoperability, collaborative working, shareable data, data integration, IFC’s, data sharing protocols to name a few….all of these words and terms hope to lead the construction industry to one place, a ‘fully open process’ and working environment.

COBie is another tool that is also vastly becoming synonymous with BIM. COBie is a tool which allows for a multitude of non-graphical data and information to be stored in an organised manner, in essence a spreadsheet. All of this data can then be handed over to the client/facilities management department allowing for easy access to a multitude of details post-completion without having the unenviable task of sifting through a mass of fragmented documentation looking for specific details such as the manufacturer’s contact details of a door handle! With COBie the intention is that all of this information can be kept in an up-datable database which can be easily accessed and kept up to date throughout the whole life cycle of a building, from concept through to demolition. Interesting further reading on COBie can be found at NBS by Stephen Hamil.
Sourced from
It is argued that this topic of interoperability of file formats and software packages will be a major factor in determining BIM's success and whether it’s a smooth transition from isolated design practices to a truly collaborative BIM environment. Software programmes such as REVIT can sometimes be referred to as closed BIM, but I feel this is not a clear defined point as REVIT does have the capability to export file types in the ‘open’ BIM IFC format which allows for interoperability between designs and models. For instance REVIT can export all of the information and modal data from REVIT in the IFC data format which can then be imported into various other software packages, beyond the Autodesk circle of software.  So with this in mind you have to be careful when considering what is truly open BIM and what is closed BIM as the boundaries are not always clear.

The voices behind 'open' BIM are actively encouraging BIM practitioners to utilise the IFC data formats and open BIM standards, with part of the hope that no one software vendor will have a monopoly on the market. According to the recent NBS NationalBIM Survey 2013, within the scope of their research pool Autodesk currently hold a 63% share of the CAD drawing market so clearly they have a large proportional share of the market. What will be interesting over the years to come will be to see how this large market share affects the progression and evolution of BIM in the coming years. Will Autodesk’s share open up or close down the interoperability of BIM? Are Autodesk going to be happy to push forward with open BIM or is it in their interest to actually tie practitioners into their product package? This is something that will be interesting to see how it pans out and how far down the open BIM road BIM can progress with Autodesk and the other software contenders a clear defining factor in how ‘open’ BIM becomes.

To collaborate efficiently with a goal at reducing cost, time and carbon central to the ethos of BIM then in my opinion surely we need to push forward with an open approach to BIM sharing standards. I feel that with the research being continually progressed by the likes of BuildingSMART, NBS and the OPEN BIM Network as well as many others a collaborative open BIM future is possible and with the likes of the big guns within the software industry supposedly on board than surely it’s just a case of how do we get there rather than should we head in that direction?

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Please feel free to come over and look at the new set up and design as well as the latest article on Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems for Green Roofs (SUDS).   The article is a follow up to the previous article on To Green of Not to Green? This article will be focusing more on the technical aspects, in particular Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems, otherwise known as SUDS.

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Do you feel an open BIM future is or should be the only way forward for BIM or do you think one software vendor will end up ruling the roost and lock down the market? Please feel free to add to the discussion further.

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  1. Please do not think that closed systems mean we are trying to alienate any software vendors. The reality is that no one vendor intends to cover the entire scope of BIM. We are now able to expand our BIM horizons because everyone is beginning to use the international standards, chiefly ISO 16739.
    I also believe COBie provides two high level capabilities. The first is to establish a data stream starting during design, then collecting additional information during construction with in intent of delivering information to the facility manager. This is truly the “I” in BIM. This data stream can be used for energy modeling, carbon foot print analysis, procurement, scheduling, life cycle costing, plumbing analysis, HVAC analysis, fabrication, seating charts, key control, and nearly all other aspects of a facility over its life. The point is we want practitioners only to enter data one time and not have to enter it for each analysis or functional effort. You will certainly need a couple extra data elements for each application, but that is far better than re-entering it all. Moreover, having the authoritative source enter the information improves its accuracy. The second thing COBie does is keeps information in a usable format. Nearly all information today is in an electronic form at some point, however we end up turning it into printed information or into PDF, both rather unusable formats for computers without additional processing. COBie holds the data in a format that is known to the computer and to the computer tools that must use it as input.
    One of the bad habits we seem to find hard to shake is the ability to trust information created by someone else in the construction industry. When you make airline reservations you trust the information from the airlines don’t you, but why do we think we need to re-create the information from the designer during construction. I know why facility mangers re-collect information, it because we take so long getting the information to them that they need to re-collect in order to do their job. Another issue we are working to resolve, by using the information during commissioning and then turn it over immediately upon handover.
    BIM is really an enabler to help us change the industry. There are many facets to this transformation. I encourage you to help the buildingSMART alliance build some common standards to be used worldwide. Join the Alliance by going to We do need sponsors to help build the overarching tools to help the entire industry – please consider becoming a sponsor.

  2. Hi Dana, Thank you for your comment. It's nice to have such a detailed response to a really interesting and continually developing subject. I feel this topic will be an intense area for debate over the coming years as there are so many aspects to consider from a multitude of viewpoints. I feel there are now and will be in the future a need for COBie or a similar system as information handover to FM at present is a big issue.

    I've recently witnessed large projects being handed over (tens of million pound projects!)without any real effort or thought put into the information handover and what's left is a void of absent information which is having to retrospectively be gathered manually only a year after completion! This should not be the case in a modern smart construction industry.

    This particular area is an area of research that me and a team will be looking into over the coming months,lasting a few years. One of the aspects we are going to be looking at is a live case study of an estates information management system, with aspects focusing on 'What information is or should be handed over to the FM team? What is Absent? and what systems,data standards or tools could or should be applied retrospectively or for the future projects to handle the information? (such as BIM platforms/COBie/IFC's). This will be a live case study research project looking at existing estates asset stock some over 25 years old as well as modern asset stock under 2 years old. So lots of food for thought should hopefully come out of it!

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