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The Crossover Revolution

There is a need for the parallel worlds of geospatial and construction industry to merge today. As the AEC industry recognises the benefits of geotechnologies, experts have to come out of their shells to integrate with each other. By Bram Mommers

The worlds of construction and geoinformation have been working closely for many years, but there have not been any efforts to integrate it until recently. In fact, one can argue that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) and geospatial disciplines are separated by a common language. For example, while the geospatial world makes maps, engineers and architects produce drawings. Engineers and architects use CAD or BIM design tools, while the geospatial experts use GIS. The geospatial 3D standard is CityGML, whilst the AEC standard for BIM models is the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC). This separation extends into the way in which the disciplines develop. AEC companies and agencies usually have different departments for construction and geospatial activities. There are also different initiatives and innovation projects in both the worlds that are clearly trying to achieve the same goals. This situation is wasteful and unsustainable. But there is change ahead, and the possibilities offered by ICT are a big driver. There is a marked difference between the geospatial and AEC industry. Geospatial experts have to learn how to map the existing world into models and perform abstract statistical calculations to ensure the quality of these models. It is only when GIS experts translate these models into (digital) maps or GIS files, engineers can perform various kinds of analysis for their own purposes. In summary, GIS experts deal with the universal data so that the engineer can fill in the specifics related to their design solutions.

The geospatial industry has been using graphic objects like points, polylines and polygons for decades, which corresponds at the graphical level of 2D and 3D CAD, which is used in Level 1 BIM for construction. Using ICT to connect different data sources for performing complex analysis is a daily practice in construction and is called Level 2 BIM. It is interesting how geospatial software has evolved. Obviously a great extent of work is produced using software from the bigger software companies. However, open source software is also mature and there are many smaller companies who are using these open tools every day. There are even open standards for the Web-based exchange of geoinformation. In construction this is called Level 3 BIM. This is something the AEC industry is still striving for.

Momentum for integration
Because of the size of the AEC industry and its dynamics, and the highly fragmented way in which it is organised, the adoption of ICT has been slow. The level of technology adoption in the AEC industry varies from country to country, but it is safe to say that with the exception of some forerunners in the Nordic Countries and Northern Europe, the great majority are at this moment only just developing capabilities to work with object-based models.

But the AEC industry has to change. Due to recent market crisis, companies are realising the need to innovate and be more competitive. Herein lies a lot to gain, for clients as well as the industry. The costs of waste and failure are high, and ICT can be used to not only avoid failure but also to bring huge benefits. Around 10% of the total construction costs are a result of mistakes and miscommunications, and other savings can also be made through design and construction optimisation.

Another big thing driving the adoption of geospatial and BIM is the change in spending from capex (capital expenditures) to opex (operating expenditures). Increasingly, the developed world’s focus is more on facility management, partly because it has built most of the assets it needs. As the geospatial world knows, to be able to do this efficiently, owners need information about their assets. However, because in the last 60 years government organisations and other users were too busy building, and did not manage asset information in the right way, there is now a scarcity of information about the existing assets. This is already having big financial consequences as owners move to asset management regimes based on asset condition.

Given the shortage of public money, it is not surprising to see the willingness of national governments to stimulate these innovations to bring in the changes for creating a more competitive economy. In the Netherlands, for example, public asset managers of infrastructure embraced BIM and collaborated with the AEC industry specifically to solve the asset data problem and get the asset information to the right level and keep it up-to-date. The solution is to obtain the information as a structured BIM model from contractors. To achieve the desired level of interoperability, and to have a seamless flow of information between the AEC industry and public asset managers, standards have to be defined. These standards need to cover the information process, the data format and more importantly the semantics, which describe the meaning of ‘things’ such as crash barriers or track switches. The semantics need to be defined so that systems can handle information automatically without interpretation. When defining these standards, it became clear that the AEC industry could not stay within its own knowledge world. Information about the environment would also be exchanged requiring the use of geospatial technology.

This integration is being supported by developments from the software providers and this is independent of the policy- related initiatives designed to encourage the interaction between construction and geospatial industries. Commercial companies also discovered the added value of an integrated model that incorporated both construction and geospatial data. The following three examples from ARCADIS, the engineering and consultancy company which has for some time now been involved in projects that integrate geospatial into the designing process, illustrate this.

» HOV Nijmegen project: To perform impact assessment on the project, ARCADIS combined different environmental datasets and the outlined design to find the best infrastructural solution for a new light rail connection. This information was used for several sessions with the experts and this made it easier to focus on the main aspects and to visualise some ideas. The combined model was also used to communicate with the stakeholders, which made it possible to decide about a solution directly, instead of another session in which results were elaborated.

» Light Rail Groningen: In the tender phase of light rail project in the municipality of Groningen, the Netherlands, underground infrastructure, mapping and aerial- and terrestrial laser scan data was combined with the design of the structures to control the risks and calculate the costs. Since price and risks are the main drivers during the tender phase, to be able to control the biggest risks with relatively small effort was a big advantage. Another important aspect was to check if the proposed construction process was possible in the narrow streets of Groningen. The combination of environmental data and design made it possible to determine the feasibility of the project more precisely.

» The Hoornbrug Bridge: To design a new bridge in a rural area, GIS data (mapping data and aerial laser scan data was used to process 3D models of existing buildings) was combined with the design of the structure. The requirements were then included in a combined model. Besides the usual benefit of communication with the stakeholders, the project was significant in the way that it revealed in the very beginning that the pre-existing mapping data that was used was not completely correct. With some specific laser scan data this was corrected. Shall the twain meet? Integrating the AEC and geospatial industry will have big advantages and will bring about several changes. Implementation of BIM in the Netherlands has showed that cooperation between the two industries can speed up the processes. Geospatial industry has a lot to offer which the AEC industry can use to take bigger steps on its own journey towards BIM adoption. Besides these implementation aspects, the adoption of an integrated approach on projects can produce a lot of added value for the user. The impact of design choices on the environment, for example, is communicated immediately to the designer and the project owner. There are challenges of course, and the main risk is the workforce aspect. Are two proud cultures ready to team up? Are two distinct professions ready to work toward common standards? This transition is a big challenge for both worlds.