Automating Construction Processes by Making BIMs Machine-Readable

Process digitalization and automation is an essential strategy in improving construction productivity. A Finnish fast-track standardization project is paving the way to automation by making open building information models (BIMs) machine-readable.

buildingSMART Finland is a collaboration forum that disseminates information on BIMs and helps its members implement BIMs. Standardization is at the core of buildingSMART Finland’s mission. The organization initiated a project in April 2017 to augment the open IFC standard with property sets and attributes that will make design models truly machine-readable.

I had a chance to interview three representatives from buildingSMART Finland about the project.

Open standards are good, but they don’t go deep enough

Tomi Henttinen Gravicon

Tomi Henttinen

“We have defined certain data exchange structures, but they are not enough when our goal is true machine-readability,” says Tomi Henttinen, head of buildingSMART Finland and CTO of Gravicon. “So far, almost all classifications have been based on human interpretation.”

IFC is the international standardized format for sharing BIMs between software applications. It’s strong when it comes to transferring geometrical data, and it maintains certain intelligent features of the model’s components. A system reading the IFC file can understand that a component is, for example, a door or a pipe.

The problem with today’s application of IFC is that the attributes o f the building components are not sufficiently standardized. A door can be a fire door or a simple office door, but there’s no agreement on how that property should be presented in the model.

Every design software can have a proprietary way to present certain attributes. That’s why a bills of quantities system, for example, cannot read IFC files and trust that the attributes are coded coherently, no matter where the files came from.

From human interpretation to automation

Tero Järvinen

Tero Järvinen

Tero Järvinen of Granlund is the chairman of buildingSMART Finland’s MEP group. He claims, “Functioning MEP standardization does not exist in Finland in practice! An IFC model does not have a place, for example, for pressure drop or air velocity in ventilation ducts.”

Järvinen says current MEP design software programs manage the same information but write it into different places. When you transfer MEP models using open standards, you need human interpretation. “Until now, engineers have added the missing data manually into Excel sheets, for example. This is both unproductive and error-prone.”

The goal of this standardization effort is a process in which software-independent, automated data exchanges between systems are possible. All the design and calculation software programs can read and write attribute data consistently.

Ari Törrönen of NCC heads the building clients group at buildingSMART Finland. He says, “Our vision is machine-readability. It allows people to focus on adding value and automating routine tasks as much as possible.”

On the fast KIRA-digi track

The standardization project has received funding from Finland’s governmental KIRA-digi program. The €16M program’s vision is an open, interoperable information management ecosystem for the built environment.

Ari Törrönen

Ari Törrönen

The current project started in April 2017. It involves members of the building construction groups from buildingSMART Finland, including architects, construction and MEP engineers, clients, contractors, and software developers. The focus of the first round is on BIM data, from design to construction.

“In the beginning, we did not consider the capabilities of the modeling tools too much; we concentrated on what kind of information needs to be transferred between a designer and a contractor,” Törrönen says. “Software developers will be involved in the next phase. They can tell us what can be achieved with current tools. Maybe everything is not realizable as such, but software developers also need challenges.”

According to Järvinen, MEP software firms have already provided valuable insights into technical issues, such as how to deal with measurement units. They warned about incorporating every possible piece of attribute data in the IFC files. “IFC files are a good way to transfer models, but not all information needs to be included in the files. The model must include keys to other systems, such as product databases,” says Järvinen.

The draft of the new norms has circulated for comments, which are now under scrutiny. buildingSMART Finland will release the first version in the summer of this year. “This way, we can test and see benefits very quickly,” Törrönen concludes.

The new norms will be a supplement to the Common BIM Requirements 2012.  When they are available, you can download them at buildingsmart.fi. The BIM attribute definitions will be available in English and will be freely available for use.