An exciting interview of Richard Petrie, Chief Executive of buildingSMART International – Accelerating the digital transition thanks to openBIM

With BIM mandates expanding all around the world and a vast majority of projects being developed, built and managed in BIM, openBIM has become an important and strategic subject in the AEC Industry. Founded in 1995, buildingSMART is the international organization in charge of creating and developing open digital ways of working for the built asset industry. buildingSMART standards like IFC and its differents schemas help owners and the entire supply chain work more efficiently and collaboratively through the entire project and asset lifecycle.

Today, we have the extreme honor and pleasure to welcome Richard Petrie, Chief Executive of buildingSMART International who will answer our questions for our readers.

Hi Richard and welcome on ABCD Blog. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background in a nutshell?

Hi Emmanuel, sure:

  • A leader from the built asset industry with business experience across the value chain and insights into the strategic importance of open data standards for the entire industry
  • Engineer (1st degree) and a businessman (2nd degree)
  • Practical, pragmatic and focused on successful outcomes.

Everybody knows buildingSMART International in the AEC Industry but its focus has widely evolved in the last few years. Could you present us your organization and its goals and objectives?

buildingSMART is the worldwide industry body driving the digital transformation of the built asset industry. buildingSMART is committed to delivering improvement by the creation and adoption of open, international standards and solutions for infrastructure and buildings. buildingSMART is the community for visionaries working to transform the design, construction, operation and maintenance of built assets. buildingSMART is an open, neutral and international not-for-profit organization. At its core, buildingSMART is developing the ecosystem needed to accelerate sustainable goals to meet an ever-increasing demand during a time of real industry need and challenges.”

Personally – to make a real and meaningful difference to the industry we serve. I believe our sustainability agenda should be at the fore and enabling digital workflows could help us tackle this agenda.

What is your role as a Chief Executive and how is the board organized?

My primary brief has been to professionalize buildingSMART. I also strive to make us a welcoming and attractive organization to work with and one that is respected as the industry body of the future; both driving digital transformation and a safe and secure party to maintain industry standards with a long-term view.

The bSI Board is elected by our Chapters. Board members are elected for 2-year terms. There is a maximum of 9 board members and they provide a critical role in the governance and direction the community takes.

How many chapters do you have worldwide? Is it a centralized organization or does each chapter has its own independence and strategies? Do they play the same role as the International Chapter?

We currently have 28 Chapters and this list is growing. We are keen to reach key geographies where we are still underrepresented and have had a lot of expressions of interest from emerging markets and we are keen to support them in getting started.

Chapters are independent organizations set up in their respective countries. They play a critical role in supporting the creation and implementation of openBIM approaches and standards both internationally and nationally. Essentially, Chapters are bSI’s most senior governance body, our ‘owners’ if you like. Individually bSI has specific operational agreements with all Chapters which allow us to operate as a connected and coordinated body. The community benefits from a strong Chapter network and a professional center with bSI. We coordinate on many activities such as Summits, Councils, User Guides and, much more.

Who are your members? Do they include all the typical AEC stakeholders like owners, architects, engineers, contractors? And what is the importance of Software Vendors in that organization?

We have about 60 members today; members are the backbone of buildingSMART in that our ability to lead and organize is dependent on engagement. Membership is often a big step for companies but members allow for a strong and professional core. Growth in membership has been steady, but the agenda to transform the industry requires more members to engage to make it happen. The ecosystem requires everyone to weigh in and help shape the future.

Our members are approximately a third owner-operators, a third AEC actors and a third software vendors with additional members in education and research companies. It’s a good balance which I want to maintain as it also reflects the whole community we serve.

Switching to the AEC Industry, why openBIM and open data standards are so important? And according to you, why has it evolved so rapidly and dramatically these past years?

The need for openBIM has grown immensely and I put it down to a few reasons. Firstly, there are strategic drivers impacting this. The future is data and the drive for digital transformation requires the adoption of open standards and the benefits it brings. There is a need for economic improvement to drive greater productivity and performance enhancements that can only be derived through better digital workflows. There is also a huge drive for a more sustainable way of working. This could include the construction industry being carbon neutral for example of better understanding the emissions impacting our environment. There is of course a final and critical point: the concept of interoperability which is fundamental to the vision of openBIM. Without these principles, we cannot accelerate the digital transformation or provide confidence in the long-term data management needed to manage the built asset industry into the future.

You can see this displayed in our Awards Program and our recently published Yearbook. The growth in number and quality of submissions is pleasing to see and the need to demonstrate openBIM principles. One such project is the Auckland Airport in New Zealand who put openBIM at the center of their submission. I would highlight the quote from the case study that “openBIM enabled us to do more with less by being free to work between multiple tools as needed, without having to work within the constraints of one software. It puts the output at the centre, which in the reality of a client organization is what matters most.”

It is also worth noting that clients and governments have recognized the need and opportunity and that the industry is too fragmented to change by itself and are therefore pushing the concept of openBIM to reduce fragmentation.

Finally, bSI added linear infrastructure domains to our work which has demonstrated the importance of expanding to new areas of focus. This has been a step-change to our scope and future plans and has helped generate more awareness of the strategic importance of openBIM.

We know that the Construction Industry is laggard and that it hasn’t evolved for more than 50 years now and didn’t make its transition. Do you think that the AEC Ecosystem has completely understood the digitalization challenges and the importance of BIM and open standards?

No, not really but the industry is huge, clients often don’t recognize they are part of the industry so it’s highly fragmented.

Also, there is a lot of structuring to be done – once that is done, we will be able to reduce the complexity for most actors – so we need visionary leaders to engage and help set a common direction.

One thing that is really important is for all those in this space to work together. We need to be aligned rather than see ourselves as competitors and to avoid reinventing the wheel. One of the biggest risks to progress is fragmentation amongst the proponents of new solutions.

How do you work with Governments and the Industry to make that change?

It varies around the world and we have to be engaged on a global level. Governments are both policy leaders and clients in their own right and their input can help shape the agenda.

We position ourselves to help and support governments in whatever way is best and most appropriate. Typically, our chapters are the primary contacts with governments as you would expect. But behind the day-to-day BIM program engagements governments are driving the demand for open standards and recognizes that organizations such as bSI are essential. Open standards will only deliver the expected value when they are international.

We’ve seen your involvement spanning from software certification till people and organization certifications recently, white papers and documents redactions, working groups, seminars organization to nurture the openBIM community, as well as solutions developments like the buildingSMART Dictionary. Why did you decide to diversify this way and is it going to be even more in the future?

This goes right back to our mission ‘to deliver the full value from open digital ways of working’ We can’t do that by standards alone they have to be digitally usable (hence the bSDD etc), things must be reliable so the quality must be enforced (hence certifications) and the scope of the technical solutions available is too narrow (hence the need to grow the breadth of our community).

These ideas about the needs are the reasons behind our three programs; User, Solutions and Standards and Compliance. I don’t expect to change that framework, but I can see it growing to include more topics, more domains, more investment in new initiatives to support the growing demand.

You cover many market segments like Infrastructure, Building, Rail, Airports, Roads, Tunnels, etc. But what are the most important rooms for you? Are they treated equally or is there a notion of priority between all of them?

buildingSMART doesn’t prioritize one room from another we respond to engagement and ‘market’ demand. The domain extensions in infrastructure were a huge gap 5 years ago and government clients made that very clear. I am very pleased we have been able to respond to that need. The industry also needs a modern agile basis for our standards, so we are working on the technical development in parallel and welcome any new extensions to domains we aren’t currently focused on such as Water or Power.

The one area where I feel we haven’t made the progress I expected so far is building out the functionality and use in the Buildings domain. I think this is because this sector is extremely fragmented. We have recently introduced the Use Case Management Tool (UCM) which allows all stakeholders to collaboratively develop their projects in a co-creation space and subsequently publish them on the UCM website. This is a great leap forward to be able to focus on the areas that will most benefit from digital transformation. With immediate effect, all the buildingSMART International Program Rooms and their projects are able to access to input specific exchange requirements and of course search for existing use cases to help with new Activity Proposals. 

It’s very exciting what is happening now – an openBIM explosion of interest almost! We are working hard to corral all the new domain parties to work in an aligned way and avoid fragmentation of effort with the tendency to reinvent the wheel.

IFC is at the center of interoperability in many cases but do you also think other open standards are key like BCF, GBxml, etc.? And how do you ensure they all evolve in a consistent and synchronous way?

This is a huge question! I’d like to talk about my Framework for Interoperability which I presented at the recent buildingSMART Virtual Summit. I find this a good way of describing how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. Our position is critical and so are the interrelationships needed to deal with the growing agenda. We must find modern methods to be more agile, accessible, and productive and partner with the right companies to do so.

In many ways it is the wild west for open data ideas now – that’s great but it also reinforces the need for consensus-building and a body to set leadership direction. That is what bSI is and what we are trying to do. We need people. companies and governments to buy-in to our role in the future and support us moving forwards. We have to work to build this ecosystem and buy-in to openBIM principles is crucial.

Of course, at our level, we have road maps and will continue to set direction while broadening the engagement. We need to build long term confidence behind the standards, build systems of standards and keep them relevant.

You recently signed an agreement with the ODA (Open Design Alliance) to further enhance interoperability. How do you see the future collaboration with this organization in the future? And what benefits will it bring to the AEC Industry?

I see our relationship with ODA as completely symbiotic; the more they help with the implementation of standards the better. By having a close relationship, we can accelerate both standards development (ensuring those standards work) and their implementation by vendors.

It’s not an exclusive relationship – other ‘tool kit’ providers are welcome to form similar relationships with us. The ODA has however been very quick in supporting our standards, such as IFC 4.3 which shows great agility and support to the work we do.

We also see you involved in other initiatives like the european DigiPLACE, or CEN working groups, etc.and it’s obvious that open digital standards are the way to go. Why is it so important for you to be part of these various initiatives?

I’d like to deal with this in two parts:

  • CEN is the European Standards setting body and we are formal liaison partners to CEN (as we are with ISO). This relationship is important in two ways – for new work it’s important for us to align – for standards we create adoption by CEN is vital. We need them to make our standards usable in the long run and our relationship has always been very important.
  • Secondly, the EU Research and Policy development work is an important opportunity for us to further the develop of standards. Currently the ‘rules’ of the game exclude standards bodies and much of the work done in the EU project is lost and wasted. My goal is to become recognized as the body that can help leverage and sustain the outputs from the various projects.

ISO 19650 has become a must as well for the AEC Industry and BIM. How does you organization collaborate with bsi (British Standards Institute)?

Our UK Chapter has a very close relationship and for all these types of “local” bodies we are supportive of the active role taken here.

Going back to my bullseye framework bS can’t do everything, ISO 19650 is a very important piece of work and it is I think likely that we will have an ISO 19650 implementation group as part of our User program soon. We have focused on broadening the IFC to support frameworks and adding services to help with implementation.

Why collaboration with software vendors is so important for you and how do you see it evolving in the future?

To me, it’s obvious that ‘theoretical standards’ are useless. Our relationship with vendors is crucial and will grow as the digital twin agenda grows. I see topics such as sustainability the green deal and digital adoption as something that the software vendor community has to lead. Digital workflows will enable our industry to be more efficient, more productive, and more agile. We have to support each other in this process and be open about the right ways forward.

It is also worth noting that implementation is a big deal, not only for vendors but for the whole community. I often get asked “how many software vendors are engaged with bSI” and the reality is a lot.

What did you appreciate more in your collaboration with Autodesk over the past years?

Firstly, Autodesk was one of the original backers in 1995 as is well know but they were also one of the vendors that stepped up when I first joined as the first professional lead of bSI. That was an uncertain bet at the time, but you have stuck with it and so has bSI and I think we can say that buildingSMART is much better placed to take on the challenges of the future now than it was then. I thank Autodesk for their long-term commitment and am excited for the partnership moving forwards.

I can also say that I have really noticed and experienced a real change recently – it feels like you are really behind open standards now and pushing us forward – I think that is exciting for us all. I’m aware that you are launching an “open data” campaign and this is significant – we want all our vendors to be supportive and open and help digitize our industry.

COVID-19 has been a shock for the world and for the AEC Industry. How did you live it and did it change anything in your strategy and directions for the future as it unveiled unthought and uncovered aspects of the digital transition?

Strangely the pandemic has been a kind of boost for digital working and the increased need to work remotely has I think brought broader recognition of our agenda and need. You can’t talk about “digital transformation” without taking on as much internally as you can. It has of course come at a cost and we feel the need to support others through this time. We hope things can get back to “normal” soon and businesses continue to thrive.

We have a strong team and were able to ‘go-digital and virtual’ immediately as the pandemic hit. Virtual summits have reached bigger audiences and new faces have been introduced to the work we do. We have called them a success which is of course relative, but we have managed to maintain and, in some cases, accelerate the work we do so our impact has been less severe than other industries.

This has also set the marker for how we engage in the future. It used to be 100% physical meetings, but I can see how a hybrid summit will allow us to serve the whole community. It is an exciting time, and we are looking forward to what the future holds.

With Digital Twins being more on the front of the stage, what could buildingSMART bring that would help the AEC Industry in that field?

As our thought leadership paper sets out, digital twins will help realize the concept of an “ecosystem of ecosystems”. We want to define the role of IFC, bSDD, and other future services to support the growing demand for this topic. Digital Twins can help align and inspire and we are playing a leading role. Standards are needed in and we have focused our work on three areas: standards for data models, standards for the management and integration of data, and security and privacy. There are of course other important areas, but we want to help define some useful use cases. I see IFC as the backbone and it is my desire to uncover how it can apply to digital twins. We have a very strong position and I am keen to continue our leadership here.

So, in a nutshell, the IFC Schema and its semantics it includes will provide the basis for open and neutral digital twins functionality in the future – I am certain of this and welcome all contributions from around the world.

What is the future of IFC or your vision of the IFC of the future? How should it evolve?

IFC including the data model concepts, the very substantial semantics and the workflow rules should be at the heart of open digital ways of working for the built asset industry, at the heart of DTs and fully agile and flexible to respond to future computing and data processing needs. We have published our technical roadmap and the vision for the future is bright. It means that for software vendors, certification will be easier. For standards making, possibilities will be greater, and for end-users, more services will be added to support the growing need. IFC is critical to the industry and it is critical we develop the right leadership to realize its potential.

Richard, thanks so much for this very exciting interview. We are convinced that openBIM is strategic for our built environment whatever it is. Let’s keep our great collaboration in the future.

About buildingSMART International: https://www.buildingsmart.org/

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