Last month, I provided an overview of the latest technology developments of the Speckle platform that were shared by the Speckle team at the recently held SpeckleCon 2023 online event. Speckle is an open-source AEC technology cloud platform that uses cutting-edge database technology — instead of a file format — to create an open central repository for AEC project data, which can then be used to exchange data in real-time between multiple AEC applications using “connectors.” With connectors to over 20 of the most common AEC applications as well as more in development, Speckle is able to facilitate synchronous collaboration between the multiple team members working on a project from a wide range of disciplines, allowing the data to be pushed and pulled easily as required.
Being open-source as well as data-driven — where the building data is not locked into proprietary file formats — there is understandably a lot of excitement among AEC firms eager to explore Speckle’s technology for their work and break out of vendor lock-ins. There are also many third-party developers building add-on tools for Speckle, both for brand-new use cases or for being able to connect and contribute to existing workflows more easily. An overview of several of these initiatives, as presented at SpeckleCon 2023, is captured in this article.
SpeckleCon 2023 included presentations by several leading AEC firms showing how they were deploying Speckle as their data backbone for enabling connectivity and collaboration.
Arup, one of the largest engineering firms in the world and well-known for its advanced use of technology, had two presentations. The first was from its offices in Milan and Melbourne, and it showed how Speckle was being used across multiple projects to unlock data and achieve interoperability, convert a building analytical model (BAM) to a building information model (BIM), and maintain parametric workflows in its structural design workflows. Arup has developed a custom Rhino app that allows users to assign and tag custom properties to geometries in Rhino, all of which — the data as well as the geometry — are then quickly available to many different applications, including Revit, via Speckle (Figure 1).
The second presentation from Arup was from its London office and highlighted the use of Speckle on its Siu Ho Wan Depot (SHD) project located in Lantau Island in Hong Kong. The project — which is currently in the detailed design stage — involves the property redevelopment of an existing train depot, spanning an area of 30 hectares, to provide 20,000 housing units and includes two bridges as shown in Figure 2. Arup’s presentation focused on the design of these two bridge structures and how Speckle was used to support the interdisciplinary workflows that were required. It starts with pushing input information such as alignment, site constraints, clearances, building envelopes, and other required boundaries into the Speckle platform for the use of geometry creation in Rhino/Grasshopper. When completed, this geometry, in turn, is pushed to Speckle through a Grasshopper plug-in, from where it is available for structural analysis, multidisciplinary coordination, BIM modeling, and 2D documentation (Figure 3). The project data can be accessed by anyone on the team via a web browser without the need for any software, and any project changes that are made and pushed to Speckle are automatically updated in all the applications receiving the data.
Another large engineering firm, Bollinger+Grohmann, which is distributed across 19 locations in Europe and world-wide, provided an overview of how its Design Technology Group is leveraging Speckle to transform the design processes in their engineering departments. The firm was already using advanced AEC technology workflows that were fully parametric (Figure 4), and these have been further evolved with Speckle. This was demonstrated by revisiting a sample project, the Elbtower in Hamburg, Germany, for which Bollinger+Grohmann is doing the façade engineering. Prior to Speckle, the design process was fairly linear, with parametric geometry development in Rhino/Grasshopper and detailed BIM modeling and documentation in Revit. With Speckle, information can flow freely between all the different applications, including the initial outlines and grids for the conceptual design, the façade elements and curtain walls, and the detailed parameters of each element, allowing the design to be optimized and making the process easier, faster, and more accurate (Figure 5).
A different perspective on the use of Speckle, this time from a construction rather than a design standpoint, was provided by the firm, John Sisk and Sons Ltd., a construction company that is headquartered in the UK and Ireland and works on projects all over Europe across a range of sectors. The company emphasizes a lifecycle approach to construction, which makes tracking and reporting of construction data a critical component of its workflow. It showed how it was using the PowerBI connector to Speckle to transform the reporting process for offsite manufacturing using the example of a specific project — a new housing development at Wembley Park in Northwest London (Figure 6) — that required over 1700 precast panels to be installed. The traditional process of monitoring the fabrication and installation of the panels was manual tracking in Excel, which would typically take several days across multiple projects to compile, update and report. With Speckle, all the project data from multiple applications was fed into a central hub, which allowed it to be unlocked and tracked with PowerBI, reducing the time to create reports by as much as 98%. Additionally, it also provided real-time project insights, which improved the QA and production processes significantly (Figure 7).
And finally, the engineering firm, Atkins — part of the global, publicly traded SNC-Lavalin Group, which has recently been renamed as AtkinsRéalis — showed how they were using Speckle as the central data backbone to connect the large number of tools they use, many of which have been developed internally (Figure 8). Prior to Speckle, they were also trying to develop the connectors to the different applications themselves, an effort they can now abandon thanks for Speckle and focus on other value-added tasks. They have also cut out the use of database tools like MongoDB and SQL as they have transferred all the data to Speckle. All the tools they use are now interconnected through the use of Speckle and are able to communicate with each other, improving the designers’ experience using the tools as well as the design process itself.
In addition to implementations by AEC firms, SpeckleCon 2023 also included presentations by several third-party developers showing how they were building on top of Speckle to create innovative applications. These include NodePen, which runs Grasshopper on the web (Figure 9); Karamba3D, which is focused on interoperability for structural engineering workflows and collaboration; Real-Time LCA, which provides real-time data analysis of projects to reduce carbon emissions and encourage sustainable design practices (Figure 10); Brainpool.AI, which is also creating tools for carbon estimation, but which are focused on the early design stages and use AI; Assetz, an asset tracking application developed by the Danish design firm, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, that is now part of Perkins&Will; and PrismArch, a virtual reality design and collaboration platform built using Speckle's connector to Unreal Engine (Figure 11).
Many of the tools that were demonstrated seemed like full-fledged, fully functional applications. For example, I saw what seemed to be a CIM (City Information Modeling) application (see the recent article, “What Happened to CIM?”) called Giraffe. It is a web-based platform that brings in the GIS data of a selected area, with access to the available free data layers for that location that can be turned on or off as required. It includes simple sketch tools for creating buildings, roads, parks, and other urban design elements, and displays the corresponding analytics in real-time to guide the design (Figure 12). It also includes a small, functional Grasshopper-style editor for creating design scripts, and of course, the ability to connect with other applications via Speckle.
Another application for urban design that was demonstrated was Infrared, which provides real-time climate simulations at the city scale. The simulations are AI-driven, which means that they are much faster and cost a lot less (90% accuracy for 0.1% of the cost), and the business model is “simulation as a service”— a new take on SaaS (software as a service). The objective is to make climate simulations more accessible to everyone involved in the design of buildings and cities, helping in the effort to fight climate change. Infrared connects to commonly used design applications like Grasshopper and Revit using Speckle — it no longer needs to write its own APIs to connect with these applications. Interestingly, Infrared also connects to Giraffe — discussed above — to provide real-time AI-driven simulation within it (Figure 13).
And finally, there was an overview of Topologic, the fundamental idea of which is to capture a building representation as a topological network, in which nodes are building elements and the relationships between elements are captured by lines connecting the nodes (Figure 14). Such a model can succinctly capture all the information about a building, including its semantics. Not only is this topological representation of a proposed building design much easier to analyze to ensure quality, efficiency, sustainability, and value, it includes all the necessary information to be automatically converted to a fully-detailed BIM model when needed. Topologic connects to several design and analysis applications though Speckle, one of which is the Pollination Cloud application for energy analysis (Figure 15).
It has been amazing to see how Speckle’s radically different approach to AEC technology — it stores project data in a database rather than a traditional file, and it is open source — has generated so much excitement in the AEC industry, with trial implementations at leading AEC firms as well as a whole slew of third-party developers eager to harness the technology to develop computational tools for the AEC industry without being forced to write their own APIs to connect to individual applications.
If the level of interest in SpeckleCon 2023 — as well as the response to my first article on the event — is any indication, AEC professionals are chafing to adopt a more open, collaborative, and non-proprietary approach in how they use software for their work.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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