Open Source in Construction. Opacity of the IFC Format and buildingSMART. Lobbyist Wars And the Development of BIM. Part 7

artem boiko
23 min readDec 23, 2021

Unfortunately, with the advent of BIM, access to data in the construction industry has not become more accessible or cheaper. BIM data created by design in CAD programs today cannot be used in other 4D-7D solutions without the use of expensive CAD programs, complex plug-ins, incomplete APIs, or the “not quite interoperable” IFC format.

The IFC format or, more specifically, the controlling organization buildingSMART, under the additional marketing cover of Nemetschek OpenBIM ™ (openBIM® is the registered buildingSMART designation), is heading towards the creation of a global data format for the construction industry.

Full version of the map: https://bigdataconstruction.com/history-of-bim/

The history of the creation of the IFC format and the organization of BuildinSMART: Fathers of BIM Technologies. Who is behind the success of Autodesk and openBIM

Unfortunately, de facto, the buildingSMART organization has levers for managing the development of the IFC project, and the project itself is lobbied for individual interests, which does not allow us to consider the development of the IFC format itself transparent and open, which positions itself as a product close to open source.

Content of the article:

⚈ Asian and European beneficiaries of the openBIM movement

⚈ Hidden IFC format features

⚈ The complexity of working with the IFC format

⚈ The construction industry needs interoperability

⚈ Open Source — a ray of light in the darkness of monopolies

⚈ Applied Open Source in the sectors of the economy

⚈ Open source in construction

⚈ Conclusion

⚈ Completion of the series “Lobbyist Wars and the Development of BIM”

In separate parts, this material will be additionally published on the Medium platform and on a site dedicated to open data — opendatabim.io

Asian and European beneficiaries of the openBIM movement

The active developers and main beneficiaries of the IFC idea today are European vendors seeking to break Autodesk’s hegemony over data, and Asian companies participating in the New Silk Road project.

The main forces of the buildingSMART organization today are aimed at developing the sections of IFC Road, IFC Rail, IFC Ports, IFC Tunnel: almost all the achievements of the IFC format over the past seven years are associated with the development of classifiers and documentation for infrastructure projects.

Asian investors (member-participants) of buildingSMART need to build transport infrastructure from central China to central Europe in a fairly short time. New railways are being laid through Asia and eastern Europe, and from Greek ports through Serbia to northern Europe, which will help speed up the delivery of goods from China to Europe via high-speed overland routes. In 2020, the New Silk Road freight service already covered more than 13,000 km of roads.

The New Silk Road is a Chinese mega-project that is supposed to connect 65 countries by sea and land.

To synchronize information on projects, Asian and European specialists use the IFC format, in the classification of which new classes of elements (entities) and parametric geometry are added, so that, according to the description of this geometry, a specific element is displayed in any (Asian or European) CAD program in the same way.

Unfortunately, not all elements or classes added by European and Asian specialists in IFC are used in construction in other countries of the world.Those. rare elements or classes used in a less wealthy country (unable to promote their manufacturers through buildingSMART) will not be included in the official IFC classification and will be recognized by all CAD programs only through an additional “crutch” — IfcBuildingElementProxy.

Using the latest edition of IFC 4.3 Bridge as an example, we can see how the lobbying of individual interests works: the Bridge Cap element has been added to the IFC format classification, which is only used in the construction in one particular European country. This element is an abstract object. Each country has its own specific nuances for which you can use this abstract object to display, but why do you need it in the world format if other countries don’t use it. This happened because the developers of a specific committee (rooms) to discuss the IFC Bridge “work only in one country, and these specialists was particularly important to add this element in the IFC classifier, without taking into account the fact that in other countries around the world and even Europe element “Bridge Cap” in the construction is not used, or in this place in the construction of bridges used elements with a different geometry.

In other words, small groups of specialists with certain connections are able to write down the national elements of their manufacturers with a detailed description as a standard in the new version of the world IFC-classifier without additional discussions.

One inconspicuous example of lobbying individual countries (and their manufacturers) in buildingSMART standards is also the Rail Connector Bonded Joint (RTR_OT_TR-70). This common connection element in IFC is described in great detail, and specifically for this element there are all the properties and standard parameters for automatic visualization in any CAD program of the world.

But if railway builders in other countries do not have similar connectors in projects or they use similar connectors with different properties, then such builders need to organize a national buildngSMART committee in their country, so that after paying membership fees for certain access rights, through difficult lobbying of their interests in certain committees (rooms and chapters), they have the opportunity to add their own elements to the next version of the world library of IFC building elements.

And even with a good description of the geometry for such elements, its import and export in different programs turns into a quest for collecting a puzzle, as a result of which we get different results in different CAD programs.

Hidden features of the IFC format

In order for the receiving (importing IFC file) party to understand what elements were exported to IFC, the user exporting the model must have a good understanding of the task and purpose of transferring the model to create the appropriate export settings. At the same time, when exporting, it is necessary to take into account who will be the consumer of this model and what software will carry out the import. Fulfilling these conditions in practice is often an impossible task.

Completeness of data transfer through IFC file depends on how well the developers of this or that CAD-solution worked out and implemented the export-import module of IFC format. If the export module from a 3D CAD program (eg Revit, Archicad) and the import module into another 4D-7D program or service (BIM360, Nevaris, Solibri) work with developers of the same CAD-corporation (Autodesk or Nemetschek), then all information will be transferred via IFC format correctly and without loss.

But if you are working with data between systems with different developers, then due to the problem of object-oriented approach and “small features” of IFC format, you won’t be able to export correctly, rebuild data by geometry and transfer it correctly through IFC format without time-consuming manual mapping (matching) of all UserDefined properties and geometry in IfcBuildingElementProxy.

As a result, the strength of SDK (software development kit — a set of development tools), working with IFC-format, becomes not a 100% correct implementation of buildingSMART standards, but the base of the typical bugs in the implementation of the format — that is the ability to decrypt the “complicated” IFC file.

Only strict adherence to the general requirements published in a huge number of documents on the IFC specification from buildingSMART can guarantee high-quality data transfer through the IFC format. These documents are available for free, but the IFC specification is so large that it does not allow you to get into it quickly enough to add to the main problem with the format is that there is a lack of transparency in how to interpret certain provisions in the requirements in a lot of bureaucratic text.

A proper understanding of “certain provisions” is available only to paid members. As a consequence, whoever wants access to important knowledge (certain features of IFC) will have to pay, or get to it by their own research, which may come out more expensive than the buildingSMART membership fee.

“You come across a question about importing and exporting data via IFC format and ask fellow vendors: “And why is this the way the IFC file passes parametric room transfer information? The open specification from buildingSMART doesn’t say anything about this. Response from “more knowledgeable” European vendors: “Yes, it doesn’t say, but it’s allowed.”

From an interview with the developer of the Renga CAD program (a buildingSMART member who is actively implementing the IFC format in his solutions)

At the same time, companies that are interested in volume data from 3D models and have invested time and money in supporting IFC are ultimately disappointed in the format because IFC is not practical in those processes when it comes to cost estimates, 5D calculations or 4D construction schedules.

Specialists who participated in the creation and registration of the IFC format in the 90s created simpler formats that allow you to work with projects without the use of parametric geometry or complex classifications. As a result, the largest construction companies in Central Europe, more precisely in the DACH-region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), almost do not use the IFC format in their work, because at the stage of checking volumes and calculations — the data obtained from the IFC files, due to inaccurate data on volumes can not be used in the estimating departments, calculations and in those departments where accurate volumes obtained at the design stage are required.

The solution to the problems with the quality of the transmission was to be the certification of programs according to buildingSMART standards, which, through the observance of a large number of bureaucratic points, was supposed to resolve the issue with the correct implementation.Such a buildingSMART IFC import and export certification for a small software company can start from $ 50,000 or more often $ 100,000, which is a big burden on the business of such companies. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely trust the information about the passed certification, since the presence of a certificate often means that the IFC is only being read, but the quality of this reading can only be guessed at.

To avoid interpretation problems and to get a quality IFC file in different programs, it is necessary to openly publish additional recommendations (implementation agreements), now available only to paid members, every year to gather developers of large and medium-sized companies and together with buildingSMART to force them with each release of a new IFC version to qualitatively connect all changes and innovations from buildingSMART with the innovations in their CAD-Legacy product.

The complexity of working with the IFC format

In the IFC classifier today there are almost 885 (4 years ago — 700) only basic classes (Entities) with a rather complex classification. The active addition of elements in recent years was due to the New Silk Road project.

The problem with the standard buildingSMART classification is that it often does not coincide with internal national classifiers or classifiers of construction companies, which makes it impossible to automatically obtain quality volumes from models in 4D-7D systems. In the absence of a certain class in the IFC classifier, to calculate the estimated 5D items (in calculations, budgeting, operation) often you must either create a new “internal” IFC-format with its own classes and properties, or wait several years and “trust” foreign experts who will update or correct classifiers, disputes over which due to multi-level bureaucracy can take years.

To bring complex process flowcharts and logic for working with IFC format to designers, buildingSMART has an approach (similar to ISO certification) to how knowledge about openBIM technologies should reach the construction industry.

Getting initial buildingSMART certifications (training is often outsourced through third parties) starts at $1,000 to $2,000 for regular engineers. Prices for YouTube courses and workshops on buildingSMART standards for professionals or students from anywhere in the world start at €199.

To attract new specialists to the side of IFC and openBIM, the buildingSMART organization comes to new countries. For most of the world, buildingSMART creates a business card site where you can only pay for membership or buy training on IFC standards for a few thousand dollars. Thus, construction or software companies in countries that do not have an active buildingSMART presence pay money only for membership, for the opportunity to receive a 30% discount on training and for the opportunity to place the buildingSMART logo on their website.

From the outside such an “entrance ticket” to international business and non-transparent management structure is more like a monopolistic industry cartel with local branches that are created only to sell subscriptions and training.

The behavior of the speculative construction industry itself has given direction to the development of this initially good idea into a bureaucratic system. Unfortunately, the development of the IFC format, registered in 1994 by Autodesk, today is not under the control of the free developers society and Open Source community, but the semi-closed organization buildingSMART, and only its members, who have connections at a certain level and bought a costly subscription, can describe processes, define the data structure, translate processes into technical requirements, create terminology and describe the properties of products. All of these changes in IFC standards are read-only, where no changes can be made without purchasing a membership.

Because of the difference in approaches, motivation and abilities of developers to import and export — in the end, the quality of data suffers. The problem with the format is that the quality of the data in this format is highly dependent on human factors: the software developer and the specialist who imports or exports the file. That means that the quality of the data in the IFC file depends on the willingness and ability of often several specialists.

The construction community is left to trust each year, with the release of new versions of CAD software, to the goodwill of CAD-corporation owners and the buildingSMART organization to implement IFC import and export modules in the same way. The utopian nature of this idea, unfortunately, does not allow today to consider the IFC data format as a significant electronic document.

The construction industry needs interoperability

The solution to the problems of proprietary and closedness are projects with access to source code. More successful industries have already made the transition to Open Source solutions. Open initiatives and the Open Source community will give us a chance to have data in a transparent and understandable and usable way in the construction industry.

Open Source — a ray of light in the darkness of monopolies

Open Source emerged in the 1980s, when a large number of personal computers appeared in the home market, which each year became smaller and cheaper, giving even small commercial companies and individuals the opportunity to explore the new world of electronic data.

At the same time, there were more and more enthusiasts or employees of commercial companies who wrote software. And there was a growing question of whether programs should be licensed, which led to the equation of programs with literary works in 1974. Competition and development of software licenses began, and legal bans on third-party product modifications appeared.

“Free software (software) came along with computers. Everything was free back then — everyone just shared with each other. It was only in the late ’70s and early ’80s that people started shutting down their software and saying, “No, you’ll never see the source code, even if it’s important for your needs. Perhaps Microsoft is to blame for this — they were the pioneers of the proprietary software model.

1996, Bruce Perens, author of the Open Source rule set, head of the Debian project.

Complete map of Linux distributions: Linux Distribution Timeline

Many technology leaders in the 90’s saw open source as a poison that would destroy all principles of economic prosperity. SAP president Shai Agassi, at a Churchill Club meeting in Silicon Valley, called open source a brake on progress.

“Socialism in intellectual property is the worst thing that can happen. Open Source is not innovative and can even undermine the development of other applications. In the end, copyright and patent rights exist to protect intellectual property and shape “a society that depends on creative achievement.”

Shai Agassi, 2005

One of the main opponents of the Open Source movement was Microsoft, which fought the open source Linux operating system until the mid-2000s. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates called the GPL (GNU General Public License) a good code-eating toy, “Pac-Man-like”. “People who think everyone should have the right to program, to write complex programs freely, they’re communists,” Bill Gates argued in the ‘90s.

Steve Ballmer, who succeeded Bill Gates as CEO of Microsoft, also compared Linux to communism and called the Open Source Linux project a “cancer” of the industry.

“Linux is not a public domain. Linux is a cancer that devours everything it touches in terms of intellectual property. That’s how its license works.”

2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

But the rise in popularity of Linux, Android, Ubuntu by the developer community and customer desires forced the corporation to change its policy. In 20 years, Microsoft has gone from being an opponent of Open Source to one of the biggest and most powerful supporters of the open source principle.

Microsoft “forced” to admit the mistake of being biased against free software, bought GitHub, brought .NET Core into Open Source and is now actively involved in the development of open source projects (such as Linux), and even Steve Ballmer now confesses his love for Linux.

Today’s Microsoft president Brad Smith admits that the company’s past stance on open source was fundamentally flawed: “Microsoft historically took the wrong path when Open Source blew up the industry at the beginning of the century. I can say that about myself”. Smith pointed out that Microsoft is now the largest provider of Open Source projects in the world when “it comes to business.”

Open source can help bridge the “digital divide” between major technology companies, major universities, and countries around the world. In a January blog post, Microsoft OpenSource executive Sarah Novotny explained why it’s unlikely any company can do without using open-source software.

“A few years ago, if you wanted to bring together several large technology companies to work together on a software initiative, establish open standards, or agree on policies, it would often take months of negotiations, meetings, debates, and conversations with lawyers and attorneys. Open source has completely changed that: it has become an accepted model of cooperation between companies.”

January 2021, Sarah Novotny, head of Microsoft OpenSource

RedHat research shows that the part of proprietary software in the corporate segment has been shrinking at a serious pace for several years now. According to 86% of RedHat respondents, the most innovative companies in their areas use opensource software.

Gartner, an international IT market research institute, predicts that by 2022 the amount of proprietary software used will decrease to 32% and about 70% of enterprise software will be based on open source code.

According to a survey of international companies, 95 percent of IT managers said that using freely licensed software is an important part of their IT strategy. Open Source steals the smartest, most innovative and passionate professionals from all sectors of the economy.

Applied Open Source in the sectors of the economy

Today the world of technology in most industries is ruled by Open Source solutions and open data libraries for machine learning. Open source ideas have long captured the banking industry, where most processes are automated with Smart contracts built on open source principles. And transparent blockchain-based systems completely replace the competencies of hundreds of thousands of individual employees in banking institutions and the functions of unstable currencies in some countries.

“I cannot predict exactly what awaits the world economy, but I am convinced that it will change beyond recognition. Will there be a major bank of the country? Sadly, I cannot give a 100% answer to this question either. Most likely, the question is different: which of the current businesses will be left at all. In 10 years, I’m afraid there will be no banks and nowhere for me to go to work.”

CEO of Sberbank, Herman Gref, 2017.

In the mechanical engineering industry, Hardware is actively giving its position to Software solutions, which are mainly built on Unix, Linux and Open Source solutions.

Tesla publishes its patents, and the main successes of the automakers are related to autonomous driving, which is built almost entirely on Open Source applications and libraries.

“When I started my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were good, and I worked hard to get them. And they may have been good a long time ago, but these days they too often serve simply to stifle progress, strengthen the position of giant corporations, and enrich lawyers rather than real inventors. After Zip2, I realized that getting a patent really just meant buying a lottery ticket for a lawsuit, so I started avoiding them whenever possible.”

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla June 12, 2014

Without the creation of a community, Open Source projects would not have the resources to bring the project to the end user, so that eventually third-party developers and enthusiasts would become interested in the project. The community is a key success factor in Open Source projects, which can significantly reduce the cost of project management, development and maintenance.

Open Source in construction

In the world of construction, we can’t improve productivity without using open source principles and building Open Source communities. In the field of services and applications for construction, the first projects with access to the source code were solutions from OpenCascade, FreeCAD, ODA and BlenderBIM, which solve the problem of available tools for creating 3D data today.

The emergence of transparent data from old proprietary products or new open source solutions will enable the collection of data from previous projects in a uniform format, which will finally give a boost to the topic of automation: Big Data and Machine Learning in construction (which are not developing due to the lack of open data).

Big corporations today have already obtained machine learning technology, created relevant libraries, and collected customer data through cloud services. Large corporations will not give ordinary users access to such libraries for geometry recognition or for creating automatic classifiers, for example.

Open communities in the construction industry will create their own tools and their own open data libraries, which will be of higher quality than the libraries of Legacy-developers from large corporations. Such open libraries and new open CAD solutions, created through the efforts of the Open Source community, will automate design and optimize most of the legacy 4D-7D business processes in the construction industry.

Proprietary storage formats are perhaps the most damaging invention of our time and a major obstacle to our ability to overcome the challenges of new technologies in the construction industry.

Problems with data transparency in the construction industry are associated with the lack of a single convenient format for an information 3D model, which will be unambiguously interpreted in the main 4D-7D systems and in which operations for packing and unpacking the model will not lead to information loss. Unfortunately, existing solutions in the form of BIM methodology or information transfer via IFC-format are not suitable for the purposes of interoperable work with data, because in these systems there is a great dependence of data quality on the owners of CAD-solutions and on buildingSMART organization.

Of the whole family of ISO 19 650, which is fully dedicated to BIM, only the fourth part, dedicated to data exchange in construction, is still under development.

The construction industry needs an exchange tool — a converter, not based on trust, but on open source, which would allow any participants to transfer data directly, without an intermediary. This problem is partially solved by using the IFC format, but the need for a “trusted person” for quality control and the opacity of format development (see “opacity of IFC”) makes this approach without its main advantages.

The problem of transparent data transfer can be solved by using an open format that is independent of the data provider. Interoperable and transparent formats are an opportunity for any organization in the construction industry to optimize processes, increase efficiency, competitiveness and product quality. Open data allows programmers from other industries to come into construction with their work and suggestions, which creates a platform for the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and their rapid development.

Conclusion

Large corporations have grown into structures whose main energy, due to pressure from investors, goes not to developing technology, but to maintaining the continued viability of old Legacy programs. In addition, corporations outsource the development of their products through developers in Asia, which has turned such companies from developers of their own software in the financial companies, where managers are poorly knowledgeable in the development of CAD. With the help of Closed BIM environments (Autodesk-BIM360, Nemetschek-Nevaris, Oracle-Aconex, Bentley-Projectwise 365) corporations monopolize control over user data, replacing any third-party 4D-7D solutions (ERP, ECM, CAFM, etc.) in the construction business ecosystem with their services.

Corporations themselves are hostages of global opacity, which the main players in the construction industry — construction companies — are not ready to remove, which today do not need transparency, where each participant, on which the data stops or who passes it through, earns on data ownership of their “unique” competencies. Due to non-transparent schemes of information transfer, at each stage there is a loss of its part, and the rest is subject to speculation, and then comes to the final customer in the form of increased budget and lost quality. The beneficiaries of such a system are all participants in the construction process, except the customer.

“An optimist is a person who thinks he can build a $12,000 house for $12,000.”

Francis Rodman

Construction companies make super profits on projects with “inattentive” customers thanks to opacity, and CAD-corporations with their monopoly over data bring additional chaos to these already confusing and non-transparent processes. Lobbied in the early 2000s, the concepts of BIM and IFC, which are supposed to solve these problems, can not be considered affordable and transparent solutions because of the high dependence of data quality on the decisions of a “third party.

Transparent and high-quality data — the key to any successful operation — must be stored and transmitted without regulatory and supervisory bodies in the form of CAD vendors or organizations like buildingSMART.

New transparent data solutions must be developed using open source code. But since none of the major players in the construction industry today is interested in supporting open source projects, any initiatives to create transparency must come from the Open Source community itself, in which lobbying individual interests and excessive bureaucracy makes no sense.

By continuing to work with proprietary formats, we support a disorganized system that purposefully creates bureaucracy, high prices, technological stagnation, and inequality. “Inflation of distrust” has grown due to opaque data and fatigue with old business processes.

“Show me regime change, and I’ll show you inflation.”

Arthur Hayes

While the heads of construction companies are forced to try to make money on speculation, the engineers, who are getting less and less access to their data, and in general the entire construction industry are tired of the excessive human factor and are waiting for the automation of multi-level bureaucracy.

Lagging productivity in the construction industry and stagnation in technology will cause the old system to need a rebirth in a new code, in a new logic with less bureaucracy and less human influence.

Concluding the series “Lobbyist Wars and the Development of BIM”

This is the last part in the “Lobbyist Wars and BIM Development” series.

Thank you so much for your comments and your criticism under the articles! Positive comments provided direction for further articles, and your criticism was always relevant and kept us within the bounds of objectivity. As a result, starting with Part 3, each article was checked by at least 3–4 (BIM, DATA)experts with various backgrounds who commented on the draft material before it was published. That is why the number of links has increased significantly, which many of you may have noticed.

It has not been the intent of this series to portray in black and white certain organizations or companies. All of the lobbying problems that big corporations and organizations have are probably created by ourselves, and we are all — in one way or another — part of this bureaucratic system. Any organization and most likely every person on earth, with such “resources and connections”, would do the same thing if they were Autodesk, Nemetschek, Vanguard, BlackRock, buildingSMART: buying up startups, creating bureaucratic verticals, control and pressure systems. Lobbying is human nature, and it does not depend on countries or organizations.

By its own nature, the process of lobbying involves influencing officials whose decisions have broad political and social consequences. Pressure groups are, for the most part, elite groups with their own interests that differ from those of the majority of the population, but at the same time, lobbyism is an absolutely legitimate and necessary institution in civil society.

In an ideal world, lobbyists should think about the results of their actions in terms of the welfare of society as a whole and inform both their clients and officials about the possible economic, social and political effects. But, unfortunately, the lobbyists themselves are ordinary people who suffer from the pressure of their families, shareholders and corporations, which forces them, to the disadvantage of the public interest, to promote only certain economic interests which give advantages to a narrow group of people and for a short period of time.

Hiding beneficiaries or manipulating the laws was possible in a time without journalism, open media and accessible information, in the days of Generation Boomers and Generation X. With the appearance of the Internet the world has changed, now we are all residents of one big village in which any information can reach all of its citizens during a single day.

The age of the Internet and Open Source are changing attitudes toward societal transparency. Millennials and Zummers are used to the idea that only transparency and the ability to give back determines the success of life in today’s “village”. In all likelihood, in the near future our society will get used to the fact that it will be impossible to hide the origin of ideas or resources, making patents, closed clubs, sanctions, lobbying verticals and bureaucracy unnecessary, and it is likely that the Zoomer generation is the last generation to know the words “insider”, “lobbyist” and “bureaucracy”.

The next series of articles will presumably be devoted to the topic of 4D-7D data creation and how this process, at first sight complex, can be realized with the help of open tools and Open Source applications.

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artem boiko

For the last ten years I have been working in construction industry and implementing Python scripts and processes automation in construction industry.