The emergence of telecommunications and information technology as a Fourth Utility in buildings has created the opportunity for facilities to become interactive, computing environments.

The built environment is entering a wave that will change how buildings are perceived forever. The emergence of telecommunications and information technology as a Fourth Utility in buildings has created the opportunity for facilities to become interactive, computing environments. This places a higher asset value on a building as pervasive computing allows the building to interact with its inhabitants.

Our industry is entering its third wave of evolution regarding information technology (IT). The first wave was how we used IT to improve our internal processes. We are still struggling with this first wave. Drawing, estimating, specifications, etc. have all been affected by creating digital solutions to our traditional processes. We are slowly realizing that just because we can digitize a manual process, it is not always the optimal solution. Our industry’s younger generation realizes this and they are beginning to work in different ways, sometimes at the confusion of the older generation.

The reason our industry’s younger generation can begin to work in different ways is due to the emergence of the second wave of IT in our industry, the use of the Internet. The Internet brought the realization that computers were more than just for computing, but for communicating. The emergence of Project Specific Web Sites (Extranets) and the growth of mobile and wireless tools in the field has ushered in this second wave more quickly than our first uses of IT. Our younger generation are using these tools that allow them to work differently, and in most cases, more effectively and efficiently than previous generations. Like the first wave, the second wave of IT has mostly focused on the internal process issues that affect the cost centers of most AEC businesses.

The third wave of IT is when AEC team members begin to implement IT not just for their own internal processes, but also as an implemented value-added asset for owners.

This third wave of IT is taking place at a fast and staggering pace.Taking its lead from Building Automation Systems (BAS), innovative AEC firms are creating an augmented and parallel digital reality in which the information regarding a building is captured, managed and re-used in countless ways in order to create a valuable “digital asset” for an owner. This reality began with the emergence of 3D Object Model software like Bentley’s TriForma, Archibus and Autodesk’s Architectural Desktop (ADT). Where this has headed in a quick manner is our industry’s opportunity to present project information in a graphic format that allows faster understanding of complex issues and an extended relationship with owners of buildings.

This third wave of IT focuses on an integrated building model (in the form of object oriented CAD) that becomes the “digital DNA” for providing services across the entire lifecycle of a facility. Owners are expecting design and construction information to be communicated and delivered electronically so they can hook operations and facility information into their existing IT systems. Owners are seeing this method as a cost-effective way to reduce operational costs, thus becoming the essence of the life-cycle approach to project data that our industry is being required to adopt. Integrated building models, sometimes referred to as Model Based Design (MBD), includes any design method utilizing 3D models in a way that helps us create and manage more realistic and complete electronic simulations of buildings, prior to their completed construction or during the operations of the facility. The individual components in the model are defined as objects that can have various attributes attached to them, depending on the purpose of the model.

MBD models are created for different purposes and for viewing by different project team players whose roles require different views of, and access to, project data. Like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, each MBD model is complete to itself, but follows a continuing process of growth. Its object data is carried to the next model or design decision in the process, allowing efficiencies to be gained from not having to re-invent the wheel, like in traditional 2D CAD. Simply stated, MBD models are containers for data that allow for better management of the metamorphosis of project data. How you use and view MBD data brings a new level of value as a member of a project team.

One organization that is using MBD and validates of the emergence of the third wave of IT to these new value levels is San Francisco-based Screampoint, LLC (, a 3D modeling, animation and multimedia production company specializing in real estate projects worldwide. Headed by Hsiao Lai Mei, Screampoint is leveraging the power of MBD by using Autodesk Architectural Desktop for modeling of projects such as the Ford Field football stadium for the NFL Detroit Lions, the new Apple Stores for Apple Computer and a new retail facility in midtown Manhattan called epiCenter.

“Our clients have used our media and services for a variety of purposes,” says Hsiao, “Investor presentations, agency submittals and reviews, public relations, pre-sales, marketing, web content, design visualization, and facilities management are a few of the uses that object models afford our clients”.

Screampoint first models the project in great detail. “We don’t just model a chair, we build a chair one component at a time. The same goes for a building. We need to know early on in the process exactly where items like expansion joints need to be in order to properly model the project from the component level on up,” says Hsiao. Screampoint asks these questions before the project goes to a contractor, sometimes helping resolve potential issues before the project goes out to bid, saving time and money. Hsiao says, “By having to identify the individual components of an object model early in the design process, it creates a higher value on the creation of an object model.”

Screampoint uses Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max and Lightscape to provide 3D walk and fly throughs of their models. Due to the flexible nature of their models and subsequent digital “movies” of moving through the models, Screampoint has been putting their 3D media onto devices like the Compaq iPac so clients can show their project off to others without the use of a laptop or desktop computer.

“When you show a client a photo realistic visualization of an object model, the communications open up to a richer understanding of their project, leading to a happier client and providing you with a higher value,”Hsiao closes, “From the very early stages of property development through design, completion and post-occupancy, object models and the 3D media that can be created from them, are an integral part of Screampoint’s practice that helps communicate, coordinate and collaborate project and property information in a smarter and more profitable manner.”

As an example of further validation of the third wave of IT, some firms are adding other functions to Object Models, such as schedules to simulate the construction of a facility. Sometimes referred to as 4D, this time plus 3D concept has spawned the Palo Alto-based company, Invizn. Grown out of projects from Walt Disney Imagineering and Stanford’s CIFE, Invizn is providing building projects the opportunity to simulate the constructability of a project, even before the project begins. By starting a 3D Object Model, Invizn can integrate the model with off the shelf scheduling software like Microsoft Project or any of the Primavera solutions to perform 4D services. 4D allows a project team can see how, when and where a project should be visually at any moment in time.

In a nutshell, 4D allows designers and other project team members to communicate designs and schedules better, make schedules more predictable, integrate design and construction information and evaluate schedules in a highly visual manner. 4D technology leverages project information by interactively planning projects and visualizing key relationships between project information in a visual dashboard-style view. The goal of using 4D is to make project planning and facility management operations as easy and interactive as the 3D computer game SimCity, to build and operate virtual buildings and manage properties online. 4D models and products enable project participants to:

  • Determine the ripple effects of changes in scope and schedule on project budgets and completion dates.

  • Communicate decisions and their impact on the project throughout the supply chain far more cost effectively.

  • Simulate and visualize multiple approaches to project completion because they allow users to explore options quickly and interactively.

  • Work at the desktop or collaborate on the Web or in a conference room.

The main value from 4D is derived from using it proactively to visualize the construction sequence. Issues like conflict resolution can be the first place everyone can see the value of 4D; what goes first, where can you store materials on site, will the crane fit, etc.

Another benefit is the ability to run what-if scenarios to determine optimum scheduling and resource management. By linking 3D drawings to a project schedule, all project stakeholders, from the owner to a subcontractor, can see how the project is supposed to progress. Object model’s are also being used for:

  • Integrating with budget and costing software, referred to as 5D Modeling

  • Integrating with GIS software for disaster recovery, like is being used at Ground Zero in NYC

  • Integrating with structural software for a more realistic analysis of designs

These process enhancing solutions are wonderful new ways of working in our industry, but where the breakthrough opportunities lie are in the integration of the 3D models with the physical structure, providing owners with a new way of managing and enhancing their physical facilities. Some examples of this are:

  • Integrating with retail inventory software for 3D e-commerce solutions, providing a “true” online store

  • Integration with security and safety software and surveillance devices

  • Integration with sales and lease analysis software for greater returns on the selling and leasing of real estate

  • Integration with mobile and wireless services (802.11, GPRS, CDMA, 3G, etc.) for closer relationships with larger computer systems within the building

3D Object Models hold many promises for greater management and understanding of the digital information that a construction project creates over its lifecycle. 4D is an emerging component of how to leverage these 3D models in a cost saving and value creating manner.

What is exciting about the emergence of 4D is that there are organizations already pushing the 3D models to not only be driven by time (via schedulers), but also to add the costs of the project to the model, sometimes referred to as 5D.

By viewing these object models as Digital Assets, the industry has an opportunity to provide real value- added solutions for owners of real estate and buildings in new and unique ways. By integrating the mobile and wireless systems of today into our buildings as part of a Fourth Utility strategy, buildings can become more interactive with its inhabitants, creating a new reality in which we all live and work.

These exciting developments are pushing forward in a positive direction the future of the industry, and in turn, creating a better built environment for our children.

About the author: Paul Doherty is principal of thedigitgroup, a Memphis-based consulting firm, and author of Cyberplaces II: The Architects’ Guide to the Internet.