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  • Writer's pictureAnders Olofsson

The Evolution of Building Documentation and the Future of Architectural 3D Technology


With Web3, the metaverse and digital twin concepts, many companies are racing towards releasing new apps and digital experiences of buildings. Will one or a few of them succeed in creating a solution for all current and future needs or are we on the path tangling ourselves up worse than what we have done with architectural 2D?

2D drawings have been around for thousands of years but we never reached a unified global standard for drawings and how they are produced. Will we achieve it now with the democratization of architectural 3D that is currently taking place?

Are we capable of taking a step back and looking back at our multiple 2D formats and standards and making sure we learn from the past mistakes and phase them out in a controlled and comprehensive way?

Why are we using 2D drawings to document 3D spaces

When you’re limited to a pen and paper, it’s not efficient to use 3D techniques to sketch 3D drawings of buildings. Measurements can’t be derived with accuracy and the technique is much harder to master for several reasons.

Apart from being harder to understand, 2D is limited in how much data and information you can fit onto a drawing. A common solution is to use various information containers such as a floor plan legend to explain the abbreviations and symbols used in the drawing. It’s often this detailed data, rules and regulations, formats, and level of detail and level of information that differs from country to country and there are even differences from region to region. For example, Sweden has different snow zones from the north to the south. The snow zone dictates the minimum required slope for the roof to prevent them from caving in under the weight of heavy snow loads. It makes sense that local regulations manifest in unique drawing requirements.

When you are limited to a 2D framework you need to prioritize and select only the data you need to display.

You need to create multiple pages to show all the required information. They are typically combined in a pdf binder with the following pages and information:

  • Site Plan: This layer shows the layout of the property, including the location of the house and any other structures, such as garages or sheds, and the position of any outdoor amenities, such as patios or decks.

  • Floor Plans: This layer shows the layout of each floor of the house, including the dimensions of each room, the location of doors and windows, and any other features, such as stairs or fireplaces.

  • Elevations: This layer shows the exterior views of the house, including the front, back, and sides. The elevations show the dimensions of the building, the location of doors and windows, and any other architectural details.

  • Sections: This layer shows cutaway views of the house, typically at key points such as along the centerline of the building. Sections are used to show the relationship between different levels of the house and the details of the framing and construction.

  • Details: This layer shows close-up views of specific areas or features of the house, such as window or door details, roof eaves, or wall sections. Details may include notes and dimensions to provide more information about the construction.

  • Schedules: This layer includes lists of materials, fixtures, and finishes used in the construction of the house. Schedules may include information such as quantities, sizes, and colors.

  • Legends and Notes: This layer includes notes and symbols used in the drawings to indicate important information or to explain the meaning of symbols used in the drawings.

The language barrier, use of symbols, lines and measurement units can also create complications with 2D technology, particularly in international context.

Standardization of drawings

This situation has led to the creation of multiple 2D standards across the globe. One of the most used standards is the ISO 128 series. Another widely used standard is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Y14.5 standard. Many countries have their own standards, for example, in the United Kingdom, the British Standards Institution (BSI) provides guidelines for technical drawings of buildings.

Here are some organizations that works on standards for architectural 2D drawings

  • American Institute of Architects (AIA)

  • National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS)

  • National CAD Standard (NCS)

  • Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)

  • Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore

  • Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)

  • Canadian Standards Association (CSA)

  • Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB)

  • European Committee for Standardization (CEN)

  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

It’s important to note that the use of standardization is not mandatory, and some organizations choose to develop their own standards or guidelines. From personal experience I can say that development of such unique guidelines for a large organization is complicated and time consuming.

Ideally there would be a single agreed-upon global standard for how we document buildings.

So why don't we have that yet? Is the reason due to that physical buildings and requirements are so different across the world that it isn’t possible to accomplish representation of documentation using common 3D tools and methods?

Or, is it the inherent limitations with 2D technology that has created and continues to hold us in this state of global fragmentation? Personally, I think it’s the latter and I see an opportunity to remove these legacy issues with existing and emerging technology. If you have a use case that you think can’t be replaced with 3D tech then please share it so we can explore the requirements and how they can be solved.

How is the switch from 2D to 3D going?

Nuts and bolts made of metal were developed during the first industrial revolution. In the early days of production, there was no standardized size of the parts or the thread pitch, making it impossible to mix and match bolts and nuts from different manufacturers. It’s easy to imagine the frustration of the house builders and the issues this must have caused back then.

Ultimately, the nuts and bolts compatibility issues led to the development of standardization, but it took over 50 years from the first attempt of standardization was made until global standards were agreed upon and implemented in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Something similar has happend in the 3D industry: multiple companies and organizations competing to develop a solution to the same problem, and doing it in slightly different ways. However, instead of the relatively simple and few parameters of nuts and bolts production we stand before much more complex opportunities and limitations with architectural 3D technology.

Due to different functionality and capability in 3D creation tools we have evolved to use specialized software for different areas such as categorizing and structuring data, real-time point cloud rendering, adding simulations and avatars to 3D environments, 3D scanning, CAD editing of materials and furniture and volumetric calculations and endless other niches, tools, and processes. Does it still make sense to keep this segmentation?

With this as the current 3D foundation I see a big risk of us ending up in the same situation as we have been in so many times before including with architectural 2D. Fellow industry veterans all have memories of nightmare 2D pdf binders with annotations at various stages flying around in multiple email threads and stakeholders who can’t seem to get on the same page.

We could now very easily end up with multiple 3D digital twin versions of the same physical building existing in multiple platforms with functionality, comments and annotations locked into silos. If interoperability between these platforms isn’t secured we might not be able to realize the clear potential of the opportunity we are now presented with with 3D drawings.

So how do we take a more holistic approach towards this development for the greater good and reduction of waste and improved sustainability it will bring?

For the past decade or two there has been a lot of work done in this area by several organizations involved in the standardization of 3D through Building Information Modeling (BIM) using AutoCAD Revit. Here are some of the most well-known:

  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO): ISO has developed several standards related to BIM, including ISO 19650 which provides a framework for managing information over the whole life cycle of a built asset using BIM.

  • BuildingSMART International: BuildingSMART is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the built environment through the use of open standards and BIM. They have developed several open standards related to BIM, including the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) standard.3

  • National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS): NIBS is a non-profit organization that focuses on improving the built environment in the United States. They have developed the United States National BIM Standard (NBIMS), which provides guidance and best practices for implementing BIM in the U.S.4

  • Construction Industry Council (CIC): CIC is a UK-based organization that aims to improve the construction industry through collaboration and innovation. They have developed the UK BIM Framework, which provides guidance and standards for implementing BIM in the UK.5

  • American Institute of Architects (AIA): AIA is a professional organization for architects in the United States. They have developed the AIA BIM Protocol Exhibit, which provides guidance for creating BIM documents and models in accordance with AIA contract documents.

These are just a few examples of organizations that are involved in the standardization using Autodesk Revit and BIM. BIM is widely respected and regarded as the way to go for the AEC industries, but I have had the opportunity to talk to multiple senior BIM industry veterans who are not afraid to bring up limitations. Even the founding fathers of the BIM framework can see it with some of them working towards more open-source formats. BIM and CAD technology has been leading the way for many years but with new and more accessible technologies we have gotten new opportunities.

The most recent developments

In recent years, another group of companies and organizations have emerged following technological advancement with Browser-Based 3D and data structuring. These companies are combining with or standing on the shoulders of BIM but delivering it in a way that is much more accessible. Here is a list of 5 of them.

  • IFC.js: is a company that provides an open-source JavaScript library for working with Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) files. IFC is a widely used data model for describing building and construction industry data, and IFC.js aims to provide a way for web developers to work with IFC files in a browser environment. The library supports loading, parsing, and visualizing IFC files, as well as extracting data and creating custom visualizations. IFC.js is actively maintained on GitHub and has a growing community of users and contributors.

  • xeokit SDK: xeokit is a JavaScript-based 3D model viewer and toolkit for building browser-based BIM and AEC applications. It supports IFC, Revit, Navisworks, and other file formats, and includes features like real-time collaboration, measurement tools, and annotations.

  • BIMx: BIMx is a mobile and web-based viewer for BIM models, including IFC files. It includes features like 3D navigation, sectioning, and annotation, and can be used for both design and construction workflows.

  • 3D Repo: 3D Repo is a cloud-based platform for managing and collaborating on BIM models, including IFC files. It includes features like version control, clash detection, and visualization, and can be accessed via a web browser or mobile app.

  • Verge3D: Verge3D is a WebGL-based toolkit for creating interactive 3D web applications, including BIM visualizations. It supports a wide range of file formats, including IFC, and includes features like animation, physics, and scripting.

A Global Roadmap to 3D

In conclusion, the discussion around the future of 3D technology in the AEC industry is ongoing and constantly evolving. As we look ahead to a world where LiDAR 3D scanners are built into everyday devices and the metaverse becomes a reality, it's crucial that we come together to create a global roadmap for the future of 3D. We need to find ways to break the status quo and work towards a more sustainable, collaborative, and efficient industry.

To that end, I encourage industry experts and those new to the topic to contribute their thoughts, tips, and perspectives. Together, we can drive change and ensure a brighter future for the AEC industry. Let's continue the conversation and work towards a shared vision for the future of 3D technology in the built environment.

We take an agnostic approach to developing architectural 3D models. We start at the foundational level and customize deliveries depending on the use case. We are happy to get to develop unique services for our customers that works today. We also remain hopeful that the future will see a more streamlined and unified way of working with 3D and digital twins of buildings.

Thank you for your time and your thoughts.

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