Monday 2 July 2012

The End Of Babel - IFC promotional video

I managed to get a copy of the first ever IFC promotional video "The End of Babel" from 1994 *. Fascinating to watch it nearly twenty years on. The Tower of Babel biblical story states that the building failed as those working on it could no longer communicate properly. This theme is developed into the need for a single object orientated database language in the AEC industry...
Part 1 of 2 - the first ten minutes

Part 2 of 2 the last seven minutes

Some selected quotes...

"The Tower of Babel, one of the biggest construction projects undertaken. Designed to reach the heavens. But the engineers couldn't finish the job. Halfway through everybody working on the job was stricken with inability to understand what the other fella was saying. They were all still talking...
...but they weren't communicating.
That incident was supposed to have taken place in around 5,000 BC. And we've been trying to understand each other ever since."

Patrick MacLeamey
"The important thing about the alliance [AT&T, HOK, Honeywell, Carrier, Tishman and others] is that it represents a cross section of companies that deal across the cycle of the building industry. People who design. People who engineer buildings. People who build, manage, maintain and then recycle buildings... order for this to be successful, we all have to be participants.
If you really think about buildings, and things in buildings, furniture, equipment and so forth. You are really talking about objects not lines on paper."

Jeol Koppelman
Primavera Systems
"For our customers, interoperability means that they'll be able to take information and expand and enlarge on that information as the process moves forward. So as information is derived from design that moves into detailed design then that information can be moved forward... as changes are made along the way then those changes can be incorporated, quantified, schedules adjusted and everybody informed as to what is going on."

Further reading:
- buildingSMART website -
- IFC Wikipedia page -

* Thanks to Keith Snook from BRE who made me aware of this video. I was really impressed with the activities that BRE are working on and at NBS we hope to continue to work closely with them.


  1. A small addition or clarification. This was really the starting point of the global industry interest in BIM - or Building Product Modelling as it was called at that time - and IFC development. However, the basic idea was introduced by Chuck Eastman already in early 1970s. So coming to the point where we are has taken quite awhile...

  2. I remember seeing this when it was news - and the presenter James Burke was the voice of science and technology television on both sides of the Atlantic.

    But who wrote the script ?

  3. Can I deduct from your reply that it may have been a young gentleman from England going by the name of Nicholas?


    If you have any other things (videos/photos) from the start of the "building modelling" period and want them on the web - please send them through Nick and I'll post them up for the world to see.


  4. Stephen - Not so fast ;-)

    Duncan - here is some history. (btw - I am sure you got permission from Autodesk to host this on your site .. right?)

    The script for "The End of Babel" was written by AEC industry and video development groups at Autodesk in early 1995.

    Ian Howell was recruited by Carol Bartz to lead the group and he recruited me to lead the "Interoperability Project". Other contributors to the script included Kate Degnan, AG Lambert, and Johnny (?can't find last name - sorry?) (who also produced the video). Much more important than the video, was the proof-of-concept software that was demonstrated on the show floor of AEC Systems in Atlanta (June 1995). These POCs were developed by a collection of 12 companies (6 Autodesk development partners and 6 large customer organizations). They demonstrated interoperability, based on a library of common base class objects developed by the Autodesk team in the previous 8 months. FYI - this is what led to the name Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) (in the same way Microsoft did for UI objects in the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC)).

    Each of the POC applications added vertical market extensions to these objects that delivered the 'value add' for that application, but all of the applications could recognize, display, and edit the objects using the base class behavior and data. Note: two cycles of such development were completed in less than two years. This rapid progress, from concept to software, was possible because partnered with and trusted Autodesk to provide the foundation for this interoperability in software form. It could be argued that we have yet to see the same level of promise in the 18 years since. Why? Because the group (then Industry Alliance for Interoperability (IAI), now buildingSMART) was opened to any and all software companies. After this transition, none of the platform providers would trust Autodesk to provide a foundation that provided equal opportunity to all. As a result, the 'foundation' transitioned from a concrete software library to an ambiguous set of specifications that would be implemented (differently) by any vendor. This process (for defining a standard) was patterned after, and even borrowed from some existing specifications from, the Standard for Exchange of Product models (STEP) projects in the manufacturing industries.

    The twenty years versus two years is unfortunate for end users, yet very easy to understand. Each BIM authoring platform has, at its core, a building object model, which has a proprietary implementation. They are all different, even if many/most of the concepts (i.e. wall, door, and window) are the same. In order for the original approach (shared library of foundation classes) to work, all of these vendors would need to significantly change the object model core of their applications. This is the current foundation for their application feature set, so it is not reasonable to expect this will be done with a core developed outside their organizations.

    Still, it is unfortunate, from the end user perspective. I believe the original concept is still achievable, but it would be much more difficult when applied across multiple BIM authoring platforms. Such an effort (the Sable project) was started in the BLIS consortium about 10 years ago, but it failed to achieve critical mass.

    1. Thank you very much for the additional provenance information and historical context, Richard!