In 2004, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a seminal report that documented the significant cost of inadequate interoperability within the construction industry. It placed the conservative annual cost of $15.8 billion in the U.S. market alone. But poor data interoperability has significant additional impacts on our delivery of facilities, including decreased sustainability, increases in delivery time, and lost opportunities to perform more detailed safety analysis for our projects.

Recently, when I attended a software vendor’s conference, many good solutions for moving information from one of the vendor’s applications to another were presented that leveraged propriety information formats and the vendor’s application platform. While I watched the presenters emphasize the value of these new exchanges, I was reminded of a quote from Jim Collins that states “Good is the enemy of great.”

Why? It is because the best way to achieve “great” interoperability within our industry is through open, consensus-developed information exchange standards. Too frequently, the current solutions are developed to support vendor-specific workflows, and their success is measured based upon information moving from one of their software tools or platforms to another that is “good enough” to reduce effort in that single case . These one-to-one exchanges are cumbersome to manage and limit the options for users to effectively leverage the best tools, regardless of vendor, to achieve their goals.

A course that would serve the industry better would be for it to embrace—and invest in—open data exchange standards for building information model content with the support of software vendors. The most significant industry effort in this area is the development of the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), along with the definition of specific model views that allow for the open exchange of information for defined purposes.

Possibly the best example of the use of such standards to date has been the Construction to Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie), which has provided an open data structure to store information that will be valuable for the owner to operate and maintain their facility.

My fear is that the industry’s emphasis on developing “good” vendor-specific, proprietary information exchanges for isolated workflows will detract from the opportunity to create a “great” open standard for information exchanges across the industry.

So what is the path forward?

First, I’d like to encourage everyone who is passionate about this topic to get involved with your time to support the open standards effort. The buildingSMART alliance, the developer of the National BIM Standard - United States, is currently seeking new members to continue the development of open standards to support the U.S. construction industry. Also, many associations currently have a task group or committee focused on addressing interoperability concepts for their sector. In addition, BuildingSMART International continues to develop openBIM® solutions such as IFC at an international level, and it is critical that we support these efforts.

Second, I’d encourage everyone to support the adoption of open standards and exchanges between different software applications on your projects. While there are valid criticisms of certain current open standards, it is clear that they provide the best avenue for the owner to secure data longevity.

Third, make sure that your software vendors are aware that you support open standards because open standards will help you deliver your services better to your clients. Strongly encourage them to support and advance open standards adoption within their tools.

And finally, I’d like to ask that everyone consider financially supporting the continued development of standards that will ultimately lead to better project and company success.

Don’t let “good” isolated exchanges get in the way of attaining a “great” comprehensive solution to interoperability.


John I. Messner, Ph.D., is the Charles and Elinor Matts Professor of Architectural Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University