Building with Words (AEC Insight Column)

31 Jan, 2008 By: Jerry Laiserin

How technology informates AEC specifications.

Even before CAD, computer technology — especially word-processing software and printing and communication hardware — helped automate the production, editing, and distribution of specifications. Today's technology potentially can go beyond merely automating spec writing to informating the process. You may ask, "What is informating? Is that a real word?" Informating is a neologism by social scientist Shoshana Zuboff, professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the 1988 classic titled In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power.

According to Wikipedia, "informating is the process that translates descriptions and measurements of activities, events, and objects into information." Thus, spec writing involves descriptions and measurements of activities, events, and objects — the materials, means, and methods of construction — and computer-aided or computer-enhanced spec writing informates the process and translates specifications into information that is usable and actionable by both humans and machines.

Tech for Specs

I see a diverse hierarchy of specifications technology, including software tools that

  • 1. automate the previously manual process of spec writing,
  • 2. generate specifications from plans and/or building information models,
  • 3. integrate the specifications view or representation of a building project with the model, and
  • 4. create and/or provide building information modeling (BIM)–ready models of building components with specification data embedded in the component model.

Beyond these core architecture- and engineering-centric specification technology applications, additional tools are emerging to move design specification information into the contractor's realm.

All spec technologies entail varying degrees of integration (of specifications with models), which is one of the modes of BIM automation I outlined in my November 2007 "AEC Insight" column. BIM model-authoring tools — such as ArchiCAD, Bentley Architecture, Gehry Digitalproject, Revit Architecture, and VectorWorks Architect — contain data about the material composition of walls, slabs, and so on plus specific objects and components (such as doors and windows). Every instance of every material or component can be reported out of the BIM model, effectively yielding an outline specification or a list of materials to be specified. In theory, the resulting outline specs can then be used to generate the actual specification language.

From Theory to Practice

At least that's the theory. "Data transfer in general is one of the most intriguing aspects in BIM," according to Barbara Heller, FAIA, president of Heller and Metzger, a specifications consulting firm, and CEO of Design+Construction Strategies, a technology consulting firm, both headquartered in Washington, D.C. "The process is broken in the 2D world. The process of procuring products — by type, quality, grade, warranty, and so forth — is not controlled by any one entity for any given project. Not by the architect, specifier, estimator, subcontractors, fabricators — no one. Thus, the point in the process at which the most money changes hands is the most broken. BIM makes these flaws more visible."

Early examples of spec technology simply replaced typewriters with computers. Many firms still rely on self-developed master specifications and/or building-type submasters from which they edit project specs. After Microsoft Word, the next most popular commercial software for this approach is MasterSpec. An alternative to the subtractive approach is one in which specs are built from a database of relevant sections. This latter method is exemplified by products from BSD Softlink, especially the PerSpective program (figure 1), geared to developing performance specifications for design–build projects.

 Figure 1. BSD SpecLink+ PerSpective is ideally suited to creating performance specifications during planning and early design phases, particularly for design–build projects. (Image courtesy BSD SoftLink)
Figure 1. BSD SpecLink+ PerSpective is ideally suited to creating performance specifications during planning and early design phases, particularly for design–build projects. (Image courtesy BSD SoftLink)

To Specs and Back

The next higher level of spec automation is generating specs from the selection of materials, components, and their properties embedded in a BIM model. Two leading software offerings for this type of integration are ADSymphony from Architectural Data Systems and e-Specs from Interspec LLC (figure 2).

Consultant Heller says, "tools such as e-Specs and so on make a start at automating the process, but the issue of how to populate models with data requires process change. Semantic technology may be the answer." Semantic technology refers to software that captures meaning in human language and makes it usable by computers. Heller explains that semantic technology can provide "the connections and inferences to produce machine-readable product information in BIM models."

Figure 2. One trend in technology for specs is linking model data to spec language. (Image courtesy of Interspec)
Figure 2. One trend in technology for specs is linking model data to spec language. (Image courtesy of Interspec)

An early entrant in this arena is CADalytic Media with two programs: SpecifiCAD is a plug-in for several leading BIM model-authoring tools that allows users to select building product manufacturer (BPM) content directly within the BIM environment, and SemantiCAD is a Web-based product that maps a firm's in-house definitions to those used by SpecifiCAD. By either route, CADalytic populates BIM models with BPM content downloaded from McGraw-Hill Construction Sweets Network (figure 3) and/or the Google 3D Warehouse (with optional links to relevant BPM catalog pages). At Autodesk University 2007, Autodesk Labs showed development projects for catalog search and visual search that will be able to tap into the same resources of BPM data.

Figure 3. Another trend is to link manufacturer s product data into the model. (Image courtesy of CADalytic Media)
Figure 3. Another trend is to link manufacturer s product data into the model. (Image courtesy of CADalytic Media)

Jockeying for Position

Traditional aggregators of BPM data — such as Arcat, Hanley-Wood eBuild, Reed FirstSource, and Sweets — are adding or expanding their model-data capabilities. Sweets has partnered with Google 3D Warehouse, and Reed recently acquired Tectonic Partners. Tectonic helped BPMs create BIM-ready content, a capability that will complement Reed FirstSource's cata- log offerings nicely.

Other Web-based entrants in this race to supply BPM content for BIM include the BIMlibrary from BIMworld, FormFonts, and ObjectsOnline (although the latter also includes some model content that lacks data and is more properly classified as entourage). Notably, these players and Google 3D Warehouse each rely to varying degrees on a Web 2.0 model of user-provided and/or shared content development and exchange.

Specs for Builders

Future specifications will be fully integrated with models that contain or are linked to component and assembly models of actual products, with spec language directly derived from model data. Although that future state will solve the architecture and engineering portion of the specification problem, builders still will need quantity takeoffs derived from the integrated model and specs, along with pricing data for specified products. In other words, integrated specifications data must be diffused throughout the construction supply chain.

Heller, the specifications and technology consultant, sees this issue as an extension of the semantic technology problem. "Whoever solves the problem first will gain a huge advantage," she says. "The solution could come from a specifications company, an estimating company, a code company, and so on. Or, it could come," she hints, "from a technology consulting company," such as her own.

Even before the semantic issues have been resolved, approaches to extending the procurement supply chain are emerging. Recently, 1stPricing announced patent approval status for its eponymous automated pricing technology application. Currently limited to residential construction, 1stPricing "pulls comparison pricing of multiple brands to fill out a detailed bill of materials with all related content . . . for specified building materials originating from the architect's desktop," according to the company's press release.

Other approaches to builders' use of specifications data are coming soon or are already available from Autodesk, Beck Technologies, HardDollar, Innovaya, Nemetschek, Tekla, Vico Software, and others. I will discuss those tools and others in next month's "AEC Insight" column.