Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »
AECCafe Special Report: AEC Collaboration Platforms and the Cloud
March 18th, 2016 by Susan Smith
Buildings are now generating vast amounts of data, cities need to be sustainable, flexible and producers of resources. AEC professionals must also have their eye on environmental impact and diminishing greenhouse gas emissions in design and construction as well as operations. As owner/operators get more involved in the entire lifecycle of the project, there is a greater need for convergence and collaboration of AEC teams.
The AEC industry has arrived at an important milestone of advancement, which improves how we design, deliver, and manage projects going forward.
The cloud has allowed us to realize the benefits of easier user experiences, greater computing power, continuous and controlled connectivity, and increased insight into performance, in addition to allowing for more sustainable approaches to design.
Meeting Challenging Requirements
Last spring, Bentley Systems introduced the CONNECT Edition of their software that provides users with a common environment for project delivery. According to Nicole Stephano, senior platform advantage manager, Project Delivery, users can easily integrate modeling and documentation workflows across disciplines for projects of any size and complexity. “With the CONNECT Edition our users can also access, share, and manage all their data throughout the project and asset lifecycle,” said Stephano. “Having complete visibility into the design and the project’s performance facilitates immediate feedback and better decision making.”
By offering a project-centric hybrid environment across the desktop, cloud, and mobile, users are always connected to their projects, teams, and enterprise. Since the CONNECT Edition products are natively enabled with always-on cloud service, project teams can create a common data and project performance environment to integrate isolated project data, connect distributed project teams, and plan for skilled resources.
Because projects require widely distributed, multi-discipline teams, it is essential to provide a common data environment which unifies teams and ensures that they always have access to the information they need, whenever and wherever they need it.
Project teams need access to catalogs, standards, engineering content, geospatial data, models, and other essential project information throughout the entire project lifecycle. Providing a reliable and accessible source of data supports comprehensive worksharing, which not only improves team collaboration, but also reduces the likelihood of costly errors and safety issues.
Last November at Greenbuild Autodesk launched Insight 360, targeted directly at addressing the challenging issues of collaboration and access to information. Autodesk senior product manager Ian Malloy, described Insight 360 as a fast, intuitive outcome driven guide to better building energy and environmental performance applicable to all stages of the building lifecycle, different scales and stakeholder needs.
“Insight 360 represents a culmination of the effort of many years of building performance analysis and largely the introduction of a whole new paradigm,” said Malloy.
Vectorworks software begins to address these current challenges a number of ways. “We have recently introduced an integrated energy analysis feature, Energos, which provides an interactive and near real-time gauge of a building’s energy performance during the customer’s design process, based on the Passivhaus calculation method,” according to Jeffrey W. Ouellette, Assoc. AIA, IES, architect product specialist at Vectorworks, Inc. “Internal collaboration is addressed through our multi-user environment, Project Sharing. This allows colleagues to work on the same design file concurrently. Our robust support for the industry data interoperability standard, IFC, enables Vectorworks’ strong partnerships with organizations such as IES Ltd., SCIA, Datacubist Oy, Solibri, Inc. and Synchro Software, which also support the AECO teams that are involved in a project. These partnerships enable all project stakeholders, including engineers, contractors and owner/operators, to use the best tools to help them explore the possibilities of BIM and beyond, as well as access and act on the vast amounts of data now available and used throughout a project.”
In response to meeting the challenges of collaboration and sustainable design, IMSI/Design’s latest TurboCAD Pro 2016 and TurboCAD Pro Platinum 2016 have been enhanced to included support for IFC/BIM data. “We have also implemented map capture and insertion via Google maps to augment files with terrain data, satellite imagery and location data,” said IMSI CEO Bob Mayer.
The growing demand for high-performing buildings is being met by teams who leverage technology and collaboration from the very beginning of their design process, according to Kerger Truesdell, resident architect and product manager at Sefaira.
Traditionally, a building’s performance is explored in the later stages of design and documentation, and then by a single specialist acting alone. With this approach, there is little to no opportunity to act on the insights the specialist uncovers: changes to the design this late in the process are prohibitively costly. What’s more, because knowledge is siloed, teams miss out on collaborative opportunities to identify unique and powerful project optimizations.
Sefaira supports a new and richer approach to exploring a building’s performance. Sefaira Architecture and Sefaira Systems provide non-specialists and specialists alike the technology to assess performance from the earliest stages of design, when it is still possible to act on the information they uncover.
Sefaira Architecture, which integrates with Trimble’s SketchUp and Autodesk’s Revit, helps architects explore how siting, massing and facade design can affect a building’s energy use. Sefaira Systems helps engineers to quickly explore the impact of different HVAC options using the architect’s SketchUp or Revit model.
These two tools can help to drastically improve a building design’s performance relative to resource use, occupant experience and environmental impact. In fact, a Net Zero Energy targeted home is currently being designed using Sefaira.
The World of Collaboration and the Cloud
Collaboration across a multi-disciplinary project team occurs when relevant information is shared in a timely manner. Sefaira leverages the computing power of the cloud to deliver powerful and relevant performance feedback to project teams early and often throughout the design process.
Dan Chapek of IMAGINiT, consultants, said that data collection is one thing, but making the data agile and available in multiple forms to all project stakeholders brings the maximum benefit to collaboration. “The cloud can act as a simple avenue for sharing this data or as a collaborative partner with almost limitless computing power.”
On top of the traditional architectural collaboration, BIMcloud allows the customers to involve additional participants of the BIM workflow (clients, consultants, contractors) into the BIM process with the help of the BIMx application, said Tibor Szolnoki, Team Leader, ARCHICAD Implementation, GRAPHISOFT. “These participants can view the model and the documentation, together with the help of live links between the different information. Users can also provide live feedback and engage in conversations with the design team using the built-in messaging and markup functions. Data exchange through open file formats enables the AEC professionals to involve experts from special disciplines to analyze and further fine tune the design before it is actually built.”
According to Malloy at Autodesk, collaboration is an absolutely fundamental theme and the cloud is the key to enabling these technologies. “With Insight 360 we provide clear reliable indicators of building performance in a highly visual and interactive way so it’s possible for everyone on a design team to understand the opportunities, options, and tradeoffs, and work together to ensure high performance. Thanks to the cloud, we are able to make simulation and special computational techniques and real time feedback available to anyone in a web browser.”
“Our Vectorworks Service Select members receive exclusive Vectorworks Cloud Services that enable them to share files from any location by using their mobile device, laptop or web browser,” said Ouellette. “Changes to their Vectorworks files will automatically be synchronized to their private cloud storage and any devices connected to their account.”
Additionally, the Vectorworks Nomad app allows designers to make design decisions away from their desktops, by viewing, marking up and sharing Vectorworks 3D and PDF files with colleagues – all from an iOS or Android mobile phone or tablet.
Ouellette cited their growing industry and product partnerships as helping close the circle of BIM collaboration, enabling architect customers to interact with their project partners to fill in other pertinent aspects that are outside of their design and documentation domain. They can also support other phases of the project such as construction sequencing and facilities management. “For instance, our partnerships with Asite Adoddle, Synchro Software Ltd. and Trimble Connect not only serve our OpenBIM based workflows, but they also offer cloud-based project collaboration.”
“Within our CAD products and mobile products we have introduced workgroup and contact management support to enhance collaboration management of projects,” said Mayer at IMSI. “We currently have deployed a cloud based file conversion application to expand the range of file types available to our mobile application without increasing the footprint of those applications.”
“We believe collaboration must not be limited by the brand name of the different applications,” said Szolnoki. “GRAPHISOFT embraces open standards and fully supports the OpenBIM platform. Our cloud collaboration policy is very similar to this openness: we support any kind of deployment of our collaboration solution let that be locally in the office or on a private or public cloud infrastructure. It is up to our customers to pick the one which suits their business layout the best.”
At the advent of the cloud, many organizations were afraid to embrace it because of security concerns. In some cases, this has now become a non-issue. Yet other software companies continue to address security as one of the biggest factors of cloud adoption, and all provide both private and public cloud options.
According to Chapek, security and liability concerns continue to plague certain market segments that may be a bit slower to change, but the metrics have been established that when the project stakeholders all work in conjunction to complete a project, rather than in individual siloes, a benefit for all can be found.
Autodesk incorporates advanced data security technology to deliver secure cloud technology to users of Autodesk Managed Cloud Services. “The biggest concern organizations have with respect to performance analysis tools is the risk it may expose them to if tools are used incorrectly and provide unreliable information,” said Malloy. “In other words the age old fear of ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out.’”
Overcoming this hurdle was another central challenge to Insight 360 which required the development of both entirely new simulation and computational methods, and critically how the information is presented to the user. For example, it used to be that specialized skills, knowledge, and time were required to create an energy model. “Now anyone who can do basic architectural modeling in Revit and FormIt 360 can create an accurate energy model instantly because that process has been entirely automated,” said Malloy. “Furthermore, Insight 360 contains an entirely unique concept of an ‘Energy Range’ which immediately reflects both the opportunity and uncertainty of key factors for design and operation.”
Bentley’s ProjectWise has always been the workhorse for sharing engineering and design data. With new cloud technologies, ProjectWise offers new cloud services enabling users to extend beyond design coordination to comprehensive worksharing empowering the engineering workgroup to manage the entire project delivery lifecycle. “Now cooperating teams or organizations can synchronize data with managed workflows with virtual design teams, and secure supply chain communications by managing the exchange of deliverables including transmittals, submittals, RFIs and issues resolution,” said Stephano.
“Since security in the cloud is important to customers, we have made it one of our top priorities,” said Ouellette. Vectorworks Cloud Services runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS) which is a notable provider in the world to a majority of other cloud services.” Vectorworks benefits from the security that is built into AWS and augment this with their own own vigilant measures.
“We have noticed that users have gained more confidence with Vectorworks Cloud Services and its usage is steadily growing.,” Ouellette pointed out. “As a result, our users are sending more enhancement requests for our cloud-based services, resulting in such additions as customer Dropbox account integration to their Vectorworks Cloud Service accounts, for example.”
For IMSI/Design, security has not been a significant issue. “However, we have discussed and proposed a number of solutions with prospective clients,” said Mayer. “These include SSL, Encryption, User management/access controls, and project management/access controls. In the future these will be expanded with compliance standards and enterprise distributions of our products to be delivered to secure isolated sub-nets.”
“We find that organizations are typically more enthusiastic about the cloud than they are wary,” said Truesdell of Sefaira. “They see great opportunity in the access and scalability provided by cloud-based solutions.
“When concerns are raised, we are proud to share that our cloud-based software is hosted with global leaders in SaaS infrastructure, at data centers that are fully SOC 1 / SSAE 16 audited and are compliant with several industry cloud security standards.”
Pros and Cons
The global concerns for sustainability and environmentally positive design can feel really daunting for many architects, especially those with little past experience of previous energy supply crises and ‘green design’ initiatives.
According to Vectorworks, any negative sentiments among AEC professionals about the cloud are rapidly dissipating as the value of cloud-based collaboration workflows become more and more apparent to all involved. Most importantly, it’s invaluable to be able to quickly share information through a cloud-based repository. This further encourages more frequent exchanges of information among the stakeholders, a collaboration, which adds more depth and value to the data, in turn. Plus, depending on the tool set of a cloud-based or cloud-enabled application, you can act upon the data in various ways. Ultimately, this aids project coordination, model coordination and project management to the benefit of more efficient design, construction and operation. For example, cloud usage allows for near real-time coordination of procurement of materials or cost with the ability to use the model data directly from the authors and put it into the pipeline immediately.
Autodesk does not see any cons in adopting the cloud, only pros for their Insight 360, which allows users to:
o Visualize and interact with key performance indicators, benchmarks, factors, ranges and specifications with real time cause and effect feedback to guide you towards better outcomes.
o Model with FormIt 360 Pro and Revit to generate insights using robust automatic analytical model creation and visualization of performance information directly in the modeling environment.
o Organize and share insights with other stakeholders and access anywhere to work towards better outcomes continuously and consistently from early targeting and feasibility all the way through to operations.
Collaboration and the cloud compose a wide new market ripe for expansion, according to Mayer of IMSI. “Since we are in the infancy of these technologies the playing field is relatively level, allowing smaller companies and start-ups opportunities for penetration and growth.”
As with any new technology, the learning curve is steep and downtime for expertise acquisition creates concomitant opportunity costs. In addition, “weaknesses in the new technologies have not been thrashed out, pitfalls remain undiscovered, and some vital components are missing. These will in time become resolved, as they have already improved over the years since technology’s inception.”
According to Szolnoki of GRAPHISOFT, BIMcloud is designed to support both public and private cloud deployments. Companies with strict security policies can deploy BIMcloud within their existing IT infrastructure or in their private cloud. Such deployment ensures that all the existing security measures and policies will automatically apply to BIMcloud.
An issue not cited by any vendor is the possibility of going cloud-only. While it appears bigger companies like Autodesk promote the cloud over the desktop solutions, it would be foolish to only offer cloud solutions as long as their products are sold into countries with spotty internet service. And there are those in North America who may be slow to adopt.
Examples of Successful Cloud Implementation
The Design Büro, located in Warwickshire, in the United Kingdom, has adopted Vectorworks’ best practices for Open BIM workflows and achieves close collaboration among key stakeholders in their design of heath and social care facilities. Additionally, Kwaske Collaborative relies on their success with adopting Vectorworks Cloud Services to help grow their business.
The new Project Sharing feature is also proving successful with many of our customers including King+King Architects, which has a staff of almost 50 architects. This new feature in Vectorworks software has saved them time on project setup and documentation processes, as well as provided employees who work remotely with the ability to remain tightly integrated and work collaboratively.
Many architects are enthusiastic about Autodesk’s Insight 360, saying this is something they’d be willing to share with a client to engage them in high performance design, setting goals, explaining tradeoffs, and generally tracking progress in a fast manner. “At the same time we have also heard from engineers that they believe Insight 360 will be useful for working with architects and design teams early in the process,” said Malloy. “These were two key things we were aiming to achieve with Insight 360 and it’s been great to hear that reflected back to us.”
Through Autodesk Consulting, successful projects are underway with the US Air Force and in Washington DC with the Sustainable DC 2020 plan. “What’s interesting about both of these projects is that they relate to existing buildings, in large quantities and at the city scale where time is short and information is scarce,” said Malloy.
Brinjac Engineering used Sefaira to optimize the performance on two related but unique building projects. Brinjac Engineering used Sefaira Systems to explore envelope optimization strategies with their client, and distinguish between designs that marginally impacted energy savings and those that would more drastically affect the building’s performance. This iterative design process resulted in a reduction of the anticipated energy use by 20% from the ASHRAE 90.1-2010 baseline.
Brinjac also collaborated with their client to explore the impact of various mechanical systems options on building performance. The team quickly made decisions based on multiple dimensions—system size, operational energy use, the building operators’ preferences, etc.—as they looked at different design strategies together.
“Sharing this relevant and timely insight would have been much more difficult without the computing power and accessibility of cloud-based software,” said Truesdell.
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