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BIM & Design

IFC, Open Data, and buildingSMART: What’s the Big Deal?

October 25, 2022

IFC, short for the industry foundation classes, have been a recent buzz word thrown around with building information modeling (BIM). Before we can understand the hype about IFC and why it’s important, we must first understand the context of digital information exchange within the built environment.

The built environment consists of a wide variety of digital representations of physical products, building elements, and project information. With various application domains, diverse stakeholders, and uses, the amount of data communicated and exchanged is unfathomable. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, virtual and augmented realities, and computational design methodologies are striving to make the delivery faster and economically sustainable. These robust sets of interactions lead to the existence of diverse data about the built environment being exchanged in a large diversity of ways.

These technologies will be integral to the management of transportation projects in the future. State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and other owners are beginning to see the potential asset management advantages to using them. The most widely adopted technology obtained and utilized is building information modeling (BIM), which provides the 3D geometries and product information of the structure elements and assets. The impact that BIM will place on pre-construction processes like estimation and bidding have already impacted the development path for software companies like Infotech to incorporate open data standards that can be more interoperable with a model.

All the promising technologies lead to a fundamental question: how do we exchange and manage all these data? In a perfect world, all data would be free to flow to and from system to system without losing meaning or integrity, a concept called interoperability. However, there are many barriers that prevent this free and open exchange of data, such as non-compatible software, proprietary information, and legal issues, to name a few. Nevertheless, the quest for the holy grail of the open exchange and management of data has been a major research topic in the industry.

The first concept that needs to be understood is that data, whether a 3D model, digital project delivery, or any asset lifecycle data, are passed digitally between systems in a binary form, a sequence of millions of 1’s and 0’s, called data exchange. For simplicity’s sake, we can assume that all computer systems and software systems already take care of this by following protocols. The second concept is the ability for the computer to interpret and understand the data that is being passed so it can perform the tasks required by the end user, which is called semantics. For example, if a user queries into an image database (such as Google) “find bridge”, what do you expect the results to be? As a user in the AEC domain, we expect to see results like arch bridge, truss bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. However, without any semantic context, the database doesn’t know what to populate, so it produces any picture with the tag “bridge”, which includes bridge graphs (mathematics), human nose, and dental bridges among the bridges we expect.

Thus, the creation of semantic representation and having computer applications understand the context of the end user is the reason for information exchange (IE) standards. IE standards define the rules, formats, and content needed to facilitate interoperability. With the zettabytes (trillions of gigabytes!) of data being produced globally, it is safe to assume that there cannot, and will not, be a one-fits-all IE. Herein lies the purpose of IFC, which is to define all the data related to buildings and infrastructure, including construction processes, product information, 3D shapes, etc. Essentially anything about a building that needs to be represented and passed digitally is defined as to remove any semantic confusion.

IFC is maintained by buildingSMART International and has been registered as an International Standard ISO 16739-1:2018. As an open standard, any software vendor can incorporate the IFC schema in order to pass and receive information to other IFC compliant software. Once that information is imported, the software can use its own native and proprietary coding to manipulate the data to achieve its own objectives. Infotech joined buildingSMART USA to support the adoption of IFC in civil infrastructure and develop the roadmap that incorporates IFC and an open data approach for the company’s software development efforts.

Although it has been originally created to represent commercial building, there are efforts underway to expand the structure types to include other infrastructure, namely roads, bridges, and tunnels. Because of the expansion efforts and the success IFC has had in facilitating information interoperability, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recently adopted IFC Schema as the standard data schema for the exchange of electronic engineering data (Administrative Resolution AR-1-19).

Since everything has been, or will be, defined in IFC which makes interoperability achievable, does this mean that we can access digital project delivery right now? Not quite. Efforts to implement IFC into software and test the various scenarios will take a few years. To help speed up this process and to make information less dependent on hard-encoded, single exchanges, recent concepts of “open data” and “linked data” are being developed to make information exchange accessible over the internet. These concepts are important for passing other types of data needed for AI and real-time project data that are difficult to pass via IFC.

In the not-too-distant future, when the model as the legal document and open data standards are realized to their full potential, all of the information transferred via the model will be exchanged electronically. BIM will also assist with estimates and quantities necessary to bid and order the various materials. Identifying and keying in this information takes time, resources and introduces a risk for error. Quick and efficient data exchanges would reduce cost and provide meaningful advancement over current practices. Later, asset lifecycle data in addition to as-built and inspected conditions, which, if stored electronically in a standardized format, would expedite better asset management and increased overall lifecycle. The list of possible improvements is vast, but it is fair to say that scarce transportation funding and resources will necessitate this kind of innovation. Significant, tangible benefits have been proven, such as reduced errors, shortened schedule, decreased project costs, and increased profits. However, in order to realize the full potential of BIM and IFC, it’s essential that all stakeholders need to work together to provide collaboration and alignment. BIM has been successful since it was driven by the vertical industry, and we must continue to drive this effort in the civil construction industry.


Aaron Costin, Ph.D.
Aaron Costin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the M.E. Rinker, Sr. School of Construction Management at the University of Florida. He received his doctorate in Civil Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Costin leads the Smart Construction Informatics (SCI) laboratory where they research emerging technologies and interoperability for the built environment. Dr. Costin and his team are developing IoT-ACRES system that is a central, interoperable hub that can incorporate a variety of heterogeneous sensors, technology, software, and AI to provide services for research and applications in the construction industry. He also is a leading expert in information modeling, information exchange standards, and construction safety and productivity. He serves at the chair of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) BIM Council Working Group for Information Standards, and the chair of the buildingSMART USA Data Dictionary Working Group.