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How Blockchain Technology Will Transform the Built Environment

January 4, 2022
blockchain technology concept

Buildings today are complex ecosystems built by millions of decisions; a series of bespoke applications of standard systems, prefabricated components and material applications to solve a business problem in three dimensions.  

The balance between budget, schedule and quality drive that decision making, many times without immediate access to all the information required or available.  

These ecosystems would benefit from an integrated approach where information is shared in real time, where there is trust among the parties involved and that ensures the information available is current and represents the desired outcome. It is currently filled with silos where information is protected and allocated sparingly.  

How the AEC Industry is Evolving 

Traditionally, design and construction were linked by a common purpose—to create the greatest buildings in the world. It is only in the last 75 years that the allocation of risk has transformed a once collaborative process into an adversarial and siloed system where interpretation of design intent creates complexity and increases the potential for error.  

The cost for the owner is efficiency throughout the process. The current push towards pre-fabrication and modularization as mechanisms for improving efficiency are meant to break down some of those silos, but they also create new challenges that will require greater collaboration—something the system is not designed to provide. These processes will drive improvements, but they are unlikely to generate the substantive advancements needed to drive real change.  

Further, an increased emphasis on operations and building performance after construction, as well as the integration of more complex technologies into the built environment, bring about the potential of additional points of fragmentation. 

The AEC industry is evolving, shifting to allow digital files as the “instruments-of-service,” to use the parlance of standard contracts. That said, these digital files, or “assets,” come in different formats, technologies and standards, from building information models (BIM) (in whole or in portion), material specifications and fabrication files, to name a few. Each of these digital assets also include other supporting data in a variety of formats.  

The roadblock to full integration is a mechanism that builds trust—a mechanism to break down the silos—where a permanent record of each transaction lives, has the capacity to certify the information provided and automatically records actions to an independent and immutable ledger. 

[Related: 3D Modeling Workflow Improves Communication for Smarter Project Delivery]

That is why at Concert, we have developed a tool that pays particular focus to this challenge in the AEC industry. 

We started with a simple premise—how do we move an industry that is dedicated to paper documentation to a fully digital platform?  More simply put—how do we sign BIM as an instrument-of-service and trust that we can identify, authenticate and certify what we are signing?  

To answer these questions, we first needed to clarify what foundational requirements would be needed in this shift from paper documentation to digital assets. We arrived at the following foundational components:   

  • The data-sharing ecosystem must be independent of individual ownership 
  • The versioning system can authenticate shared data, one that can be trusted 
  • The capacity to place an indelible date stamp to the digital asset(s) with capacity to permanently record each interaction 
  • A means of attributing the data author’s identity that is secure and authentic 
  • A mechanism for a digital signature and application of the professional seal to portions of the data or the data set as a whole 

Fulfillment of these criteria means that all design information can be issued digitally as professional instruments-of-service, regardless of the format of that information. It also means that changes made along the way can be tracked and the data owner can unequivocally authenticate what information is theirs. No longer is there ambiguity—certainty becomes the norm. 

The backbone for all of this is blockchain.  

What Is Blockchain? 

Why blockchain? Simply put, blockchain provides the most secure, most reliable and most trusted mechanism to share digital information.  

It is perhaps most widely known as a common part of cryptocurrency transactions—for example, it is the fundamental, self-verifying system on which Bitcoin relies. This distributed mechanism for authenticating data revolutionizes the capacity and certainty in a data-sharing environment. 

So how does it work?  

The technologies behind this mechanism created a system where multiple parties (or nodes) could freely join or leave. The nodes would create a ledger which would be agreed upon as authoritative through various cryptographic techniques.  

The common structure of these technologies is to continually write agreed-upon blocks of transactions on top of each other, and then to cryptographically ensure that the blocks cannot be altered in any way once they are linked to each other.  

This ledger of transaction blocks is called the blockchain.  

The mechanism and use scenarios for the AEC industry are simple. It can start at the very beginning of the design process, as the client defines their business problem. Registering the project on a platform such as Concert creates the backbone of all information shared through the life of the building. The project’s business purpose is shared and distributed on the platform to the design team.  

Project renderings using blockchain technology
Cunningham Architects utilized the Concert platform to share perspective drawings, 3D renderings and construction documents over the blockchain to ensure safer and more efficient communication among the project team. Images courtesy of Cuningham Architects.

Each time information is shared, acknowledgement is required, and a secure historical record of project decision making is created. As the design progresses, the design team shares digital representations, VR/AR models, details and product information through the platform. The client provides their feedback and input back through the platform.  

As the construction process develops, information is shared back and forth between those responsible to build the building and those who developed the design concepts and details.  

This two-way street of information sharing facilitates more efficient communication and decision making. Solutions can be tested for their capacity to provide the best value and are assessed in the context of all previous decisions.

Along the way, at significant mileposts, members across the system memorialize the progress by signing and certifying what is shared. These certifications provide trusted markers in the process, markers that record important decisions and applications.  

Designers, contractors, sub-contractors, vendors and material suppliers all share information back and forth, whether to clarify their scope of work, communicate the interface of their system with those of other trades, or document the changes that are inevitable in such a complex process. Bockchain platforms can fulfill the need of every member of the ecosystem to maintain the linkages that balance the outcomes for all.  

Post construction today, owners and developers are more interested in building performance, and the potential for meaningful returns for their tenants, operators and users. In this “new age” we are now exploring “smart” or “connected” buildings that make use of automations such as analyzing air quality, metering energy use, or monitoring occupancy and use. What’s behind these breakthroughs is the Internet of Things (IoT), connected sensors and the associative technologies that aggregate their data onto a common platform.  

Because of the blockchain record of the building design and construction process, platforms like Concert provide owners with the critical information and access to data, decisions and models created along the way.

The permanent record of those millions of decisions lives on and provides future generations the knowledge and basis to transform the built world. Blockchain is here—and it is a valuable tool for design, construction and building operations that ensures easier and safer information sharing.

About the authors: Tim Dufault is the co-founder and president of CONCERTvdc, a digital workflow company serving the design and construction industry. Adam Wilbrecht is co-founder of CONCERT, and a principal and director of Design Technology at Cuningham. 

Listen next: Technology Part 3: The Future of Design Is Virtual

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