Successful Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) collaboration depends on the timely dissemination of relevant information throughout the project team. This task is made difficult by the number of collaboration interactions that occur and the diverse range of digital tools used to support them. To improve this process it is proposed that a collaboration kernel could weave together these disparate interactions and tools. This will create a more productive and efficient collaboration environment by allowing design discussion, issues and decisions to be efficiently and reliably exchanged between team members and the digital tools they currently use. This article describes how Project Bluestreak, a messaging service from Autodesk Labs, can be transformed into an effective collaboration kernel. To guide this transformation, the principles of the Project Information Cloud have been used to evaluate the existing service and identify areas for future development. These fundamental digital collaboration principles are derived from lessons learnt in the formation of the World Wide Web. When these principles are embodied within a digital collaboration tool, they have demonstrated an ability to improve the timely delivery of relevant information to members of the project team.
Seamless collaboration within a fragmented digital environment
A successful AEC digital collaboration environment brings multiple parties together so that they can productively work towards a satisfactory and achievable design outcome. During this process participants must engage in a variety of interactions between team members and the digital models used to describe the design. These interactions, and the technologies commonly used to enable them, are summarised in the following diagram and table.
Note: The term 'model' refers to a CAD or BIM digital model that represents the proposed design. Digital models play an important role in the collaboration process as they communicate ideas, impose restrictions and can be manipulated to reflect a participant's opinion.
A diagram illustrating the relationship between the different digital collaboration interactions. (Click to enlarge)
Below is a presentation I gave today to a group of Honors students at Victoria University's School of Architecture and Design. The presentation covers what I have learnt during my time doing my PhD and the mistakes I made, especially around the research process.
The primary message of the presentation is that research is by no means easy and when things get difficult you need to focus on MUPPET:
Motivate - Eureka moments only take you so far.
Undertake - Write something every (other) day.
Plan - Conciously identify your rainbow (objective), horse (process) and cart (interest).
Ponder - Understand how your actions relate to the research.
Exchange - Talk to everyone (relevant) about your research.
Test - Continually evaluate what you have done and where you are going.
Below is the slide presentation I will (hopefully) present at tonight's Be2camp North un-conference. Basically the presentation graphically summarises my recent blog post on the use of micro-blogging within architectural collaboration.
The conference is in Liverpool and I am in New Zealand, so if the technology gods are not in a good mood things may go pear shaped very quickly...
The majority of professionals within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry use the telephone and email to collaborate on immediate design problems. Unfortunately there is a disconnection between this communication and the underlying Building Information Model (BIM) where the agreed upon architectural solution is recorded. As a consequence it is difficult for a person interacting solely with the BIM to take part or learn from this external conversation because they are often oblivious to it taking place. Micro-blogging is an emerging, Internet-based communication medium that may provide the common thread to tie these disparate sources of project information together. It will achieve this through enabling the issues and outcomes discussed during architectural conversations to be quickly recorded by any member of the project team. Those working on the BIM will be able to actively monitor and search across these conversations to keep up to date with the project’s state and help solve new design problems.
Unlike blogging and instant messaging, micro-blogging can communicate simple messages between groups of people using mobile phones or any Internet connected device. These conversations are published online so they can be referenced in further design discussion, or indexed for searching alongside other sources of project information. For adoption to occur the technology must be integrated within the BIM toolset so that being part of this conversation is a natural extension of the digital workspace. Current micro-blogging services such as Twitter, lack this integration and have not (yet) been tailored to meet the specific demands of architectural collaboration. A focused implementation would likely improve architectural collaboration because micro-blogging embodies many of the principles of the Project Information Cloud. Its qualities of simplicity, ubiquity, decentralisation, modularity, awareness, context sensitivity and evolving semantics make it a promising collaboration medium, and one that could move the AEC industry towards the goal of hyperlinked practice.
Today Google released a very early preview of O3D, a cross-platform, open source plug-in that enables OpenGL accelerated graphics within Web browsers. Delivering 3D graphics within browsers is not a new thing, (remember VRML?) but what makes this initiative promising is that it works on all platforms and is backed by Google. Performance-wise O3D seems very snappy when compared to alternatives such as Flash 3D. As a result some of the initial demonstrations are very impressive, and it hints at a future where Google Earth and SketchUp leave their desktop roots behind to become pure web applications.
Project Dragonfly is an Autodesk Labs technology preview of a web-based, simple to use architectural planning tool. It represents a step towards a future where CAD and BIM model editors are not considered bloated, complex, or desktop-bound. Whilst the current functionality of the tool is limited, it is technically impressive, and the underlying concept hints that Autodesk’s broader web strategy (as discussed in ‘Autodesk Beyond Desktop CAD & BIM’) is proceeding at a slow, but steady pace.
We are now at a stage where a computer's speed and network connection are no longer significant process bottlenecks in digital architectural design. As a consequence the need for efficient digital collaboration tools within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is a growing requirement. The BIMserver project from TNO and the University of Eindhoven is exploring how collaborative design can be improved through the combination of Building Information Model (BIM) and open source server technologies. Unlike conventional, workstation-based CAD software, BIMserver stores BIM data within a dedicated server where it can be accessed by all members of the design team simultaneously. Whilst conceptually not a new idea, the project is the first to move beyond the research lab and be promoted as software (almost) ready for production deployment within AEC organisations.
What is a BIM server?
BIM in its most general sense is a collection of 2D, 3D and textual data that when assembled within a computer’s memory creates an accurate and detailed representation of an architectural project. Like its predecessor CAD, BIM data is typically stored in a digital file (or files) where it is accessed directly by complex, workstation-based applications such as Revit and Microstation. In contrast a BIM server stores all design data internally and exposes its information to client applications through a series of well controlled and documented interfaces. This has a number of practical and technical advantages, the most significant being all client applications read from, and write to, the same digital model. In comparison when using a file-based BIM it is up to each participant to ensure they are working on the latest revision of the project’s files. Additionally by centralising the flow of data a BIM server enables near real-time collaboration as changes to the model are reflected on all clients each time their view of the data is refreshed from the server.
Another important characteristic of a BIM server is that the building model exists as a live entity, distinct from the client applications that interact with it. This means client applications are simpler to write because they do not need to know how to comprehend an entire digital model, they simply need to ask the BIM server for the subset of information that concerns them. For example using a traditional file-based BIM an application that counts the number of doors in a design needs to parse the file, construct an in-memory model, and then count the door instances. In comparison a BIM server handles the parsing of the digital model, all the client application needs to do is construct a query that asks how many doors the design has. Another benefit of a live BIM is that the server can automatically respond to outside events such as scheduled processes or changes to data hosted by external services. For example the BIM server could monitor the pricing and availability of materials used in the design and automatically update the model to reflect these variations. The end result is that instead of being viewed as a static, “dumb” file, the migration of the Building Information Model into a server would create a far more dynamic and accessible project resource. Read more »
Recently I gave a presentation at Victoria University on the work I am doing with my PhD. For posterity I have uploaded this presentation to Slideshare.
The talk covered the problem of digital architectural collaboration and how it is an immature field compared to other aspects of architecture. Due to the pressing nature of architectural collaboration the solutions to this problem will not be revolutionary, e.g. Second Life-like, but rather evolutionary, and at times even haphazard.
After introducing the problem-space I went on to discuss the emergence of the Building Information Model (BIM) as a central figure in digital architectural collaboration. However whilst BIM is an excellent productivity tool it does not address many of the industry's collaboration issues - in fact in many respects it compounds them.
WIth BIM identified as a significant yet problematic collaboration technology I outlined the need for an overriding set of digital collaboration principles that can be applied to future collaboration technology decisions. Rather than starting from zero I propose that we build on top of the underlying theories of distributed systems such as the Internet. With this need and methodology identified, I go on to introduce the seven principles of the Project Information Cloud:
- Modular design
- Information awareness
- Context sensitivity
- Evolutionary semantics
Through application of these principles it is hoped we can establish Project Information Clouds within architectural projects. These unbounded information clouds will link significant amounts of projects data into intelligent, loosely joined, knowledge-bases.
I have recently been checking out Projjex, a relative newcomer to the online project/collaboration/document management market. The "cool kid on the block" when it comes to this field is 37signals' Basecamp, but it seems like the two companies are after very different audiences. Basecamp is synonymous with "Web 2.0" and has a look and feel that suits this crowd. In contrast Projjex seems to be going after the older (more mature?) audience with an offering that emphasises practicality over design.
My sweeping generalisation is that if you read TechCruch religiously then Basecamp is for you, whereas if you have never heard of TechCrunch (or prefer 'real news') then Projjex is probably more to your liking.
The genre clash dilemma
Before I go over Projjex I need to get a couple of things off my chest. The problem I have with these project/collaboration/document management tools is that they are trying to do too much with too little. It is like a summer blockbuster that cannot decide whether it is an action, comedy, drama or romance film and just ends up being nothing. Pulling something like this off is almost impossible and at some point the software developer has to put a stake in the ground and focus their efforts on one primary thing. For example when you take a look at the 'traditional' desktop each one of these functions is handled by a dedicated product:
- Project management: Microsoft Project
- Collaboration: Outlook, Notes, Groupwise, Apple Mail...
- Document Management: Sharepoint, Alfresco
Every one of the above products has a very deep feature-set and whilst it is possible to monitor projects in Sharepoint or manage documents within Outlook, these capabilities are purely secondary and often accidental. Read more »
or: How they Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Internet
It is my opinion that Autodesk is in the early stages of implementing a bold Internet-centric strategy that if successful will position it as the Software + Services giant within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry. Excluding the spin-off and re-purchase of Buzzsaw during the Dot-com bubble one could say Autodesk's attitude towards the Web, like the rest of the AEC industry, has been tepid at the best. In a similar manner to Microsoft, the historical and financial foundations of Autodesk lie in the traditional, desktop software market. Here its catalogue of heavy-weight tools compete for domination of the competitive CAD, BIM, animation and rendering markets. Unlike Microsoft vs Google, Autodesk and its competitors (such as Bentley Systems) have yet to face serious competition from an Internet savvy, AEC software heavy-weight. Rather than waiting for such a competitor to emerge Mike Haley, Jeff Wright and the rest of Autodesk's Content division are building it 'in-house'. Read more »