Open standards and the win for BIM


Richard Petrie, CEO of buildingSMART International explains that by adopting the open standards approach to BIM will mean you are always a winner…

The good news on BIM: we’re all converts now. The bad news: the road we’re travelling is a bit longer and even trickier than we realised. We’re not sure we’ve got the whole map, and there appear to be gaps. Worst of all, we’re treating it a bit like a race, when actually it’s a team event.

Let’s go back to the good news first, to cheer ourselves up. 98% of clients surveyed by McGraw Hill Construction back in 2014 said they used BIM in some projects, with 86% using it in more than a quarter of contracts. 78% of UK owners believed BIM in facilities management would add significant value, with 98% anticipating its use in FM by 2019.

There are few who don’t recognise the range of benefits on offer, from faster construction and reduced risk and costs, through to greater environmental impact control and ease of maintenance with reduced running costs. So perhaps it’s surprising to learn from that same report that only 20% of clients owned the software they needed to edit BIM files, and only 60% could even open them. 88% of respondents to an NBS study last year admitted that they didn’t pass the model on to building occupiers.

Why? It all comes down to communication. And that’s where buildingSMART comes in. As it stands, BIM is getting increasingly good take-up. Perhaps in part because of organisations’ understandable and inevitable urge to get ahead of the competition, it seems people aren’t very good at sharing. As well as tools developed in-house within various companies, there’s a choice of BIM tools available across the industry, each offering certain functionality and certain areas of application. But, they’ve all been written in different software languages, which creates a compatibility issue. So when architects, contractors and developers do share, they’re sharing something that needs translating. Except there’s no single tool to translate it all.

It’s somewhat ironic, isn’t it, that the chief benefits of BIM (aka, enabling collaboration and common understanding across disciplines and across the entire lifecycle of assets) are being side lined because too many companies are trying to go it alone?

If you want to take advantage of the full range of benefits of BIM, if you want to be attractive to all potential clients and if you want to know that your supply chain is being as accurate and efficient as possible, you should all be using tools capable of conversing with each other freely. buildingSMART is taking the initiative. Major BIM software houses are now working with us collaboratively to address those key issues of compatibility and translation.

Think about your smartphone. Apps are tools developed for a particular operating system. But they won’t work on a phone running a different operating system without some serious human coding intervention.

At buildingSMART we’re creating open data standards. We’re developing our solutions with an ‘operating system’ and ‘apps’, just like your phone; our operating system is the Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs), and our apps are the Model View Definitions (MVDs). The system and apps work internationally and universally by accessing our data dictionary, which manages language translations. Unlike your smartphone, where an Android app won’t run on an Apple phone, the idea is that the IFCs are platform-neutral and can all access the same multilingual dictionary. This means they can share digital information easily. They govern the rules and guidelines that allow anyone to create apps and products that will work on any device. Use the IFCs to define your software or products, and you ensure compatibility with all other compatible systems and BIM models.

Open formats will result in increased collaboration, communication and universally usable tools. But it is a work in progress. Far-reaching in scope and complex in nature. Some IFCs are already in use – and to great success. Danish civils and construction firm MT Højgaard’s research into projects where it had been using buildingSMART’s IFCs, revealed an increased design quality of 33%. The principles – and the IFCs – work.

We’re working with standards organisations ISO, CEN and OGC to build a common set of international standards. Our Strategic Council will consist of architects, contractors, consultants, manufacturers, software vendors and building operators and owners, from Europe, Asia and the Americas, all working towards a common goal that will benefit the entire industry. Such influential names as Autodesk,  Arup, HOK, Kajima Corporation and Nemetschek Group are already on board and helping to advance the cause.

But we’ve heard a plaintive cry of ‘IFC doesn’t work’. The truth is that we are still at the early stages of developing the capability everybody needs and have much more to do. Some tools are complete while others are yet to be developed. You can view a list of certified compliant and compatible tools at  The truth is that a certain level of technical knowledge is involved if you want to get into the nuts and bolts (although you don’t have to, to benefit from their use!). The truth is that with such a simultaneously broad and deep scope, we’re only at foundation level, to use a construction analogy. It will take time, patience, and the investment of expertise. And that’s where this race becomes a team event. For BIM to achieve its potential and for us all to reap the benefits, we need to work together.

As we progress, the conversation will naturally move from being what can sometimes be deeply technical, to focussing on the issues of construction and asset management.

Work alone, with proprietary or in-house BIM software, and you’ll make a large investment in something that can never reach its potential. Your map is incomplete and you’ll never finish the journey. Join the open-source digitisation of the industry, truly collaborate rather than trying to look for some short-term gain, and we’ll all be the winners. ■

To find out more, become a partner or member, or just to contribute to the progress of a universal set of standards, visit

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Richard Petrie


buildingSMART International Ltd

Twitter @buildingSMARTIn