Bring Your Distributed Team Together Using Collaboration for Revit and BIM 360 Docs

By Matthew Anderle and Ron Allen

Using Autodesk Cloud Services — BIM 360 Docs software and Collaboration for Revit cloud service — the opportunity to interact with team members located across the globe is reaching unprecedented heights. We will explore the new possibilities provided by these two Autodesk services to move your project to the cloud and manage team member access, model design review, and published documents through the web interface and mobile applications. Looking at the functionality each cloud service brings to the project, we will walk through the new project workflows and management capabilities, and discuss the best approach for migrating your next project to the cloud.

Collaboration in BIM has surmounted several obstacles in the past decade and where we are today is best understood by first characterizing workflows which are otherwise lacking with respect to contemporary data environments. These previous workflows are categorized in one of the following four diagrams.

Historic Distributed Team Collaboration Workflows

Static File Sharing
In recent history, sending files from one location to another was the only way to overcome the disconnection of team members working in separate office locations, both internal and external. In some cases, this workflow is still enacted to alleviate data sovereignty restrictions and extreme security measures. While this process was successful in providing information to other team members, the shared information immediately suffered from data decay as the authoring team continued to make additions and revisions to active data. File sizes, methods of transferring, and frequency all limited this workflow and the realized success achieved by the team. Security was also a concern because restrictions could not be maintained once files were distributed and no longer monitored by the authoring company.

Figure 1. Static file sharing.

Network to Network with Accelerators
Hosting data on a universally accessible file share within a company’s network has several advantages, but not without challenges. While this method did not improve external collaboration, it did make the active project data accessible to all internal team members without delay. Significant infrastructure improvements were required to support this connectivity, and while those standards are common today, a decade ago the costs for Internet Service Provider (ISP) speeds to connect offices with low latency were exponentially higher. Wide Area Network (WAN) accelerator appliances such as Riverbed helped with this latency, but did not truly solve large project collaboration challenges. Often, access to project directories was controlled through Active Directory Groups, which provided the appropriate security, but were tedious to manage.

Figure 2. Network-to-network file sharing with external consultant.

Centralized Data with Local Caching Appliances
Revit Server, along with similar solutions from other software vendors, leverage a Centralized Host-to-Local Accelerator relationship which caches project data localized to team members at each office, while managing permissions and file-locking at the Central Host location, typically in a data center. This data environment was a critical step toward cloud-based solutions because it opened the door for centralized data with localized access, with the opportunity to also invite external team members into the system. The Revit Server environment introduced a three-tiered file replication using a Central File, Cached File, and Local File. This hierarchy was invisible to most users but did require management of the added complexity of synchronizing files for large teams. This system also required additional resources to accommodate the demand of not only a Host Server, but also Accelerator Servers at each office where team members were connecting to the Host.

Figure 3. Centralized data with local caching appliances.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure
One competing strategy to centralize data is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) which brings the team and project files to one location. Using a small desktop workstation, each team member connects to a Virtual Computer within a data center using Remote Desktop. Now the team and the data are co-located and can work seamlessly on a project from anywhere. Distinct advantages to this system include automatic software roll-outs, direct connectivity to data and file linking, and centralized security measures.

Figure 4. Virtual desktop infrastructure.

BIM 360 Team and Collaboration for Revit Overview
BIM 360 Team provides project teams with centralized access to project data through a cloud-based platform. BIM 360 Team can be accessed outside of Revit via users’ web browsers to review and explore the project. Both models and users for these two cloud services are managed through BIM 360 Team.

Autodesk Collaboration for Revit (C4R) works with BIM 360 Team to provide direct multi-user collaboration via the cloud. The software is optimized for project teams that are distributed across multiple organizations and disciplines, while providing review and comment capabilities to stakeholders that are non-Revit users. Project team members work from the same central Revit file to develop a design, make suggestions, provide mark-ups, give approvals, and participate in real-time reviews.

Designs, iterations, and reviews are conducted in a central workspace, eliminating data silos and delivering projects efficiently. This improved flow of communication allows for better project transparency, accelerated project timelines and greater flexibility on large-scale projects, which results in efficient, cost-effective project delivery.

Autodesk BIM 360 Docs Overview
BIM 360 Docs software allows design and construction professionals to collaborate more effectively, resulting in reduced project risks and greater communication. Architects, engineers, contractors, foremen, and document managers are provided with real-time access to current versions of digital plans and details allowing for better coordination between disciplines and ultimately ensuring a better work product. Autodesk BIM 360 Team and Autodesk Collaboration for Revit are two different, but related services that work together for enhanced efficiency. Versions of a Revit model are published to BIM 360 Team which acts as a hub for Revit project workflow.

Many of the expected workflow functionalities which exist in local-server model work-sharing are maintained when moving to the C4R environment. The features which set this cloud service apart are classified in three categories of enhanced capabilities.

Connectivity of Team
C4R accomplishes the paramount task of bringing the team together in a work-sharing environment focused on team interoperability. The Communicator application provides the tools required by complex projects to enable team members to interact with each other in a chat-like interface, to preview synchronizing operations, and to view team members assigned to the project who are active in the model.

Figure 5. Autodesk communicator application panels.

Data Consolidation
Hosting project models in a common data environment is one of the more challenging obstacles in live-design collaboration. While VDI and Host-Accelerator are options that also store data in a centralized location, C4R does this without the complexities of network mapping, or expensive capital investments into server and accelerator appliances. The only infrastructure required is an Internet connection, which greatly improves data accessibility.

Data Accessibility
With the elimination of file servers and accelerators which typically operate in a closed company network, cloud-based collaboration opens the opportunity for any invited team member to access the live authoring documents from anywhere they have an Internet connection. Data accessibility is not limited to just authoring documents. The C4R environment opens access to the published version of these documents through digital devices beyond computers. Devices such as tablets and smart phones now have connectivity to the project data through web viewers which allow team members to navigate and mine information directly from the model without risk of disrupting active model changes.

Figure 6. C4R common data environment.

There are four key concepts to understand when preparing your team for a C4R hosted project. As outlined below, assigning access level and Autodesk ID entitlements, preparing for a single-directory live-design environment, Revit versions, and comprehending the difference between C4R authoring models and published models, are the key elements to a successful C4R team integration.

Assigning Access Levels and Autodesk ID Entitlements
Permissions for your C4R projects are all maintained through the BIM 360 Team website. Team members can have one of three access levels which include:

1. Viewer — Allows a team member to view and browse information on the BIM 360 Team website only and restricts downloading files or creating mark-ups.
2. Editor — Permits the team member to view, manage, and mark-up documents on the BIM 360 Team website along with rights to access authoring models through Revit in C4R.
3. Project Admin — Provides full rights to the project to add and remove team members and change project settings, along with all the rights of an Editor.

Permissions are just the first step; Autodesk ID entitlements are also required for a team member to fully utilize the access roles of Editor and Project Admin. While access to the BIM 360 Team website can be extended to any team member with an Autodesk ID, only those with C4R entitlements applied to their Autodesk IDs will have file-listing and authoring rights within Revit.

Figure 7. BIM 360 Team access levels.

Preparing for a Single-Directory Live-Design Environment
The first stage of planning for C4R is to convey to your team the difference in model organization and how your team will prepare to move from a typical Windows folder structure to the single-directory file storage for live-design authoring models. C4R does not use folders, therefore a strong naming convention is crucial for model organization and sorting. One recommended naming convention is defined as ProjectNumber-AuthoringCompany- RevitVersion-CampusName_BuildingName-Discipline-(optional: ModelDissection).rvt, which may seem long but is better illustrated with actual data such as 12345678-ACM-R17-AU_ VNTN-AE-SPOLO3502.rvt. This will enable your team members to locate files in a long list of models. It is recommended that models be grouped as follows:

1. Authoring company
2. Campus and building
3. Discipline
4. Dissection models grouped by discipline

The second stage is to discuss model authoring etiquette in a live-design environment. Because permissions are universally broadcast across the entire C4R environment, when a team member is provided access to author in Revit, that user has access to all models in the project. Proper authoring etiquette must be maintained to limit your model interactions only to the models your company is authoring. The advantage is that all model content is located and linked from one location — live as the entire team evolves the model through design — and is consumable by each team member as information is added or modified.

Revit Versions
C4R project sites are compatible with all versions of Revit starting with Revit 2016 (C4R Add-In required this version only) through Revit 2018, including all sub-version releases. Once a C4R project has been created, you will notice it is visible in all versions of Revit until the first model is published to the site. Once this occurs, the project is locked to the primary year version of Revit for the duration of its use, and will only be visible in that version of Revit from this point forward. There should be an emphasis on all team members using consistent versions of Revit to ensure model compatibility and to minimize the potential for model or element corruption.

The Differences Between C4R Authoring Models and Published Models
As illustrated in Figure 6, team members interact with models in Revit only through the C4R cloud environment. Although model publishing is a function of the C4R Add-In, the models published to BIM 360 Team are not tethered to the live authoring models in any way. When the team publishes a model from C4R to BIM 360 Team, the system will replace that model automatically on the website with a new version, and maintain a version history that can be viewed and/or downloaded at any time.

When a team member downloads a model from BIM 360 Team, it acts as a detached version and has no connectivity to active authoring models. The system tracks these models by the GUID which allows for unique editing and managing tools, such as renaming the models on the fly which auto populates in Manage Links and will show the new name when each team member synchronizes with the Central model. Almost all model management activities should be performed in Revit using the Manage Model tools found on the Collaborate ribbon. Use Publish Settings to select Views and Sheets to be made available within the online viewer in BIM 360 Team; all model content is maintained when published and downloaded through BIM 360 Team.

Matthew Anderle is the BIM director for the Buildings+Places business line of AECOM, with focus on the Americas. He is a BIM and technology evangelist with over 16 years of experience establishing global BIM workflows and standards around content, training, interoperability, and BIM consultation as a service. He serves AECOM as a leader in the advanced and efficient implementation of BIM processes for a variety of project types. He manages and directs large project teams on interoffice BIM collaboration workflows, enabling continental offices to work as one entity.

Ron Allen is an Arc IV/BIM manager with AECOM through Buildings+Places in the Greenwood/Denver Office. His professional career started in architecture in 1998. In 2006 he started using Revit which changed everything. Since 2006 he has worked production and BIM management on several projects across many Architectural Business lines from interiors, through residential, production housing, commercial, low/mid/high rise, hospitality, medical, military, industrial, themed, and transit.

Want more? Read on by downloading the full class handout at AU online: Using Collaboration for Revit and BIM 360 Docs to Bring the Distributed Team Together.

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