AEC practitioners meet Silicon Valley programmers for a weekend of tackling the most complex process problems in the profession

One’s life can be measured by celebrations, graduations and other rites of passage. We all experience these rites where the event takes on a life of its own and we are but actors on the stage of life. The AEC Hackathon is not only a personal rite of passage for its attendees, but also the AEC industry’s rite of passage as a new, game-changing community has been formed.

The AEC Hackathon is designed not as just an event, but a community. The Hackathon events themselves are meant to bring together people, facilitate ideas and deliver solutions in various states of completion over a weekend. The Hackathon environment is provided to allow teams of tech and AEC folks to:

  • Hit The Ground Running: Bring their own agendas, ideas, projects, past hacks and hack over a weekend
  • Expert Categories: Hack on predetermined categories of interest (Facebook’s new campus, smart buildings, digital fabrication, etc.)
  • Sandbox: Meet some people, brainstorm and come up with their own hacks

The challenge is within each participant as to the weekend’s success, and development continues after the Hack weekend in the form of online communities and meetups in between Hackathon weekends. It is a true grassroots event that has developed a community that polices itself very well.

We have had companies use the AEC Hackathon to work on projects they cannot work on during the workweek due to a number of issues (cost, time, limited resources, interruptions, etc.) while other organizations used the Hackathon to learn new things (software, hardware, processes, standards, etc.). Our job as the organizing team is to facilitate the environment; the event itself is up to the attendees. You make it what you want to be. If it’s about IFC’s and BIM? That is yours to hack. If it’s about augmented reality working in Google Glass in the field? That’s someone else’s focus to hack. The experts in Silicon Valley meeting AEC folks like yourself creates a cross pollination of the numerous ideas and issues to solve that makes for a very dynamic environment.

Planning

There have been two AEC Hackathons, both conducted on the headquarters campus of Facebook in Menlo Park, California, in November 2013 and March 2014. With the recent entry into the AEC industry of technology giants like Oracle (Primavera) and Google (Vannevar), Facebook seemed an unlikely choice to host a potentially important AEC event. Behind the scenes, members of the organizing committee of the Hackathon were working on a sustainable, green home for a Facebook employee who loved the idea of bringing the lessons he had learned and exposing it to a bigger community. Thus the selection of Facebook as our host.

The ramifications of the space, Facebookers, services and the overall vibe of having the AEC Hackathon at Facebook cannot be measured. It has been the perfect environment. Having set the stage after months of planning, the AEC Hackathon organizers benchmarked the event against other successful Hackathons, and continuously looked into opportunities to bring together the elite technology developers of Silicon Valley to match them up with the best minds of the AEC Industry. The result? Over 300 registered AEC Hackathon “Pirates,” two Hackathons with over 100 “observers,” witnesses to a rite of passage and intervention for the old, stogy AEC industry.

Like someone blowing dust off an antique, the minute you walk into the Hack Room, you know this is different event, one the AEC industry had never experienced (but should have before now).

Friday – Day 1

The tone is set on the Friday night kickoff where the organizers welcome the Hackathon Pirates to Facebook and explain the spirit of the event, which is to disrupt, innovate and break traditional processes of the AEC industry in a safe zone, one that protects the individual while celebrating the result.

The organizers found out during the course of the weekend that the majority of the participants came on their own dime and did not inform their firm that they were attending. When asked, almost every attendee had the same answer: they felt that the promise of the AEC Hackathon was good enough for their time and money, and that their existing organization was not funding them. The Friday kickoff sets the tone and the areas that each Hackathon focuses on: design, construction, big data, smart buildings/smart cities, robotics, GIS/3D, digital fabrication, etc.

The exchange of ideas between attendees is articulated in a lighting round of introductions by the attendees, which gives 15 seconds to each participant willing to say what they needed with technology, what technology they currently possess and what process they wanted to “hack” over the weekend. After the lightning rounds, people meet up through the Hack Room to form teams, a 90 minute process that defines the structure of the Hackathon for the rest of the weekend.  

Saturday – Day 2

Day 2 starts with the recently formed teams getting to work at 9 am. Having teams formed overnight between Silicon Valley technology experts and the AEC professionals proved to be a stroke of genius, as the teams begin a design process that both sides understand; schematic design, design development and construction documents are similar for both industries. Whiteboards, easel pads and hi-speed WiFi were all employed with large amounts of data sets and digital resources are provided to the development teams.

When you walk into the hack room on day 2, it is like entering a scene from the movie, “The Matrix” or Tony Stark’s workshop in “Iron Man”; a hive of energy surrounding teams of workers, passionate about making a change to a process — a hack — to our tired but proud industry. Surrounding the hack on the periphery of the room are new technologies like 3D Systems’ Cubify 3D Printers, Oculus Rift (Virtual Reality), Leap Motion and Google Glass, seducing the development teams to use their products as part of their Hack. Each team uses their time on Saturday to define their Hack and began to produce a solution to present on Sunday. The word “magic” is often overused to describe an important place in time, but the word cannot be overused regarding what happens on day 2 of the AEC Hackathon.

The ingredients of place (Facebook), time (BIM is tired, what is the next thing?) and value (an event that joined Silicon Valley with the AEC industry) naturally creates a “happening.” The concurrent workshops of world renowned experts in the both AEC and Tech that run during day 2 provides rich resources for the Hackathon teams to draw from. The Hackathon offers a series of workshops throughout the day on two tracks in two different rooms.

The AEC Workshop Track provides educational sessions on topics like smart buildings, smart cities, GeoDesign, digital fabrication, big data in AEC and FutureTech, while the Tech Track covers topics like augmented reality, Web 3D, hacking the AEC industry and additive manufacturing. The teams take to heart the disruptive nature of the event and adopt team names like “The Devils of AEC Disruption,” “Hack-E,” and “This Is How You Do It Pirates,” capturing the essence of these events.  

Sunday – Day 3

One cool aspect of the AEC Hackathons is the mix of young and veteran people that proves that different generations can work — and excel — together when put into the proper environment with a communal cause. An industry veteran of 40+ years described the events on day 3: “This was an important event. One of the best ever.” Others describe the AEC Hackathon as “an absolute game changer,” and “I have a book to write about one of the most incredible weekends of my life where I was privileged and blessed to engage with incredible minds that truly cared about making a difference.” As time ticks away to the deadline, each team is a beehive of activity as code flies everywhere. The deadline comes and each of the teams begins their presentations. A YouTube video of the AEC Hackathon 1.1 presentations and winners can be found  here.

Summary

All solutions from each AEC Hackathon are meant to remain open source, self-policed for the industry to use. One example of open source solutions can be found at http://aechack.github.io/ . The goal is to continue the community of open source solutions, focused on improving the built environment. Some other interesting outcomes from the AEC Hackathon 1.0 and 1.1:

The AEC Hackathon is part educational workshops, part networking and part competition; a hybrid Hackathon that hits on all cylinders with the right people, at the right place and at the right time. The AEC Hackathon is a very unique format and is unlike any event you have experienced.

This is the moment to break things and challenge the status quo, which is uncomfortable for those of you in the AEC industry that has made money and careers out of the inefficiencies in our industry. You do not want to change, as change will only work against you.  For those of us who are wielding a technology sword at the very inefficiencies that you make a living from: we are coming to get you.

The rise of the AEC Hackathon and its pirates has arrived. Many of you reading this article will not know that the transformation has happened, and soon it will be too late. Many of your workers are actively embracing this transformation of the AEC industry with excitement and hope, and you might not even know it.

There has never been a better time to be in the AEC industry, an industry with a bright future and unrealized potential. Say goodbye to the old AEC industry and its parasitic processes and roles, and say hello to the new age of hackers. A rite of passage has occurred for the AEC industry. Enjoy the moment.

Paul Doherty is a registered architect, co-founder of the AEC Hackathon (www.aechackathon.com) and President of the digit group, inc.
(www.thedigitgroupinc.com) an industry leading Smart City solution provider headquartered in Silicon Valley.