The Protracted Ending of Babel

The Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) data model has reached past March the level of an international published standard, ISO 16739:2013, but its development started almost 20 years ago when Autodesk promoted the creation of an industry consortium to advise the company on the interoperability of digital information in the AEC market.

The late affirmation in the Building and Estate management sectors of the BIM technology now strongly associated with IFC is a good example too of their characteristic resistance to innovation. It is worth to mention that while professionals are often reported to still have difficulties to understand and accept the changes in their workflows implied by the implementation of BIM systems, ArchiCAD, the first software to provide BIM functions, was first launched on the market on 1987 and Revit, now the most popular software for BIM, was first released on 2000.

Stephen Hamil, Director of Design and Innovation at RIBA Enterprises, has published past Summer on his youtube channel the first IFC promotional video realised in 1994 - The End of Babel. In this video (split in two youtube videos) the biblical archetype of the inability to communicate among different groups is compared to the need for a single object orientated database language - IFC.

As it has been argumented in a remarkable paper by Mikael Laakso and Arto Kiviniemi in the Journal of Information Technology in Construction, the IFC development has been characterised by a hybrid standardisation process - in its early years pursuing the standardization of a technical specification through a top-down approach and then expanding to include and standardize the processes of its use as well but in a minimalist fashion. From 2006, in particular, the rebranding of the IAI consortium into BuildingSMART brought emphasis in the initiative on the business benefits of an interoperable integrated design and construction process and inaugurated the 'useful minimum' approach to data exchange. An outcome of the minimalist standardisation approach was the IFC Model View Definition Format (MVD) that was aimed at finding a balance between the wishes of users/customers and the possibilities of software developers. In more detail, MVDs narrow down the complete IFC model specification, documenting how data exchanges are applied between different application types, so for example a software application can implement one or several MVDs depending on the scope of its domain.

While the holistic promotion of the IFC initiative was aimed at attracting the demand of the AEC sector, the democratisation of the standardisation process through MVDs especially addressed software producers trying to compensate the previous lack of the industry involvement and commitment. Apparently, IFC, as an anticipatory standard for the BIM technology, suffered along its history for the software vendors delay implementing the format probably as a result of both the companies' concerns over the loss of competitive advantages caused by the falling prominence of their proprietary formats and the scarce demand for innovation from the AEC sector's users.

Since 2008, in numerous countries worldwide, Governments have resolved this latter impediment for the affirmation of IFC by inducing with new legislations the AEC professionals active in public works to couple BIM technologies and open exchange formats for their service documentation. Laakso and Kiviniemi have foreseen that this demand-inducing phenomenon, together with the release of IFC4 as the ISO 16739:2013, will facilitate the implementation and use of this standard, which in turn should generate valuable project reports demonstrating the potential benefits of IFC-based interoperability thus causing BIM software developers to prioritize IFC-related features in their products.

In a paper on the journal of Computer Aided Design published in 2008, Gielingh has noted that "if applications have the same scope and the same view on a Domain of Discourse, and if scope and view equal that of the standard, the risk of information loss will be minimal'. This remark arise the question over the fitness of IFC into contexts loosely related to the AEC sector, such as for example Built Heritage Management and Archaeology.

Actually, other communities of practices have demonstrated to be either interested in adopting BIM technologies or testing IFC as export format, such as for example respectively Estate Managers and Digital Archivists. Without the public bodies support, is the IFC going to be considered pertinent and functional also in these contexts?

POSTED BY Ruggero Lancia