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The AEC Hackathon, which took place Nov. 8-10 at the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif.,  was part educational workshop, part networking and part competition.

The spirit of the event was to disrupt, innovate and break traditional processes of the AEC industry in a safe zone; one that protects the individual while celebrating the result. The hybrid hackathon hit on all cylinders with the right people at the right place and at the right time.

Planning

With the recent entry into the AEC industry of technology giants like Oracle (Primavera) and Google (Vannevar), Facebook seemed an unlikely choice to host a potentially important AEC event. Behind the scenes, members of the hackathon's organizing committee were working on a sustainable home for a Facebook employee who loved the idea of bringing the lessons he had learned and exposing it to a bigger community; thus, Facebook became the host.

During three months of planning, the organizers benchmarked the event against other successful hackathons, but continuously looked at the opportunity to bring together the elite technology developers of Silicon Valley and match them up with the best minds of the AEC industry. The result? More than 100 registered AEC Hackathon “Pirates” with more than 50 “observers” who witnessed a rite of passage and intervention for the old, stodgy AEC industry. Like someone blowing dust off an antique, the minute people walked into the hack room, they knew this was a different event -- one the AEC industry should have experienced before now.

Day 1

The tone was set on the Friday night kickoff when the organizers etablished the areas on which the hackathon focused:

  • design;
  • construction;
  • big data;
  • smart buildings/smart cities; and
  • GIS/3-D.
During a lightning round of introductions, participants had 15 seconds to say what they needed with technology, what they had with technology and what process they wanted to “hack” over the weekend. Next, people roamed through the hack room to form teams. What was supposed to be a 20-minute exercise to wrap up the evening wound up being a 90-minute process that defined the structure of the hackathon.

Day 2

Having teams form overnight between Silicon Valley technology experts and the AEC professionals proved to be beneficial, as the participants began a design process that both sides understood. Schematic design,  design development and construction documents are similar for both industries. Whiteboards, easel pads and hi-speed WiFi were all employed, and the development teams had more than  5 GB of data sets and digital resources.

On Saturday, the hack room was a buzzing hive of energy surrounding teams of workers who were passionate about making a change to the process (i.e., a hack) to the tired, but proud, AEC industry. On the periphery of the room were new technologies like 3D Systems’ Cubify 3D Printers, Oculus Rift (Virtual Reality), Leap Motion and Google Glass, each seducing the development teams to use their products as part of their hack.  Each team used its time on Saturday to define its hack and begin to produce a solution to present on Sunday.

The concurrent workshops of world-renowned experts in both the AEC and tech industries provided rich resources for the hackathon teams to draw from. The AEC workshop track provided educational sessions on smart buildings, smart cities, geodesign, digital fabrication, big data in AEC and future-tech, while the tech track covered augmented reality, web 3-D, hacking the AEC industry and additive manufacturing. (The workshops, along with other highlights of the event, will be on the AEC Hackathon YouTube Channel)

The teams took the disruptive nature of the event to heart and adopted team names like “The Devils of AEC Disruption” and “This Is How You Do It Pirates,” capturing the essence of this event. All the teams worked deep into the evening, thriving on the energy of innovation.

Day 3

As time ticked away to the deadline, teams prepared for their presentations, each of which covered very different solutions:

  • Building Life Cycle Measures & Reporting
  • Color Code Scheduling and Work Breakdowns
  • Parametric 3-D Scheduling for Horizontal Civil Engineering
  • Parametric Web-Based Schematic Design for Structural Engineering
  • Citywide Per-Building Energy Analysis for All of Manhattan
  • Web-Based Real Estate Valuation for Washington, D.C.
  • Building Automation System 3-D Web-Based Analysis
Due to the first-of-its-kind nature, the organizers decided each team would win its own category and the AEC Hackathon trophy, a pirate ship with the AEC Hackathon flag, printed by 3D Systems.

Outcomes

The organizers found out during the course of the weekend that the majority of the participants came on their own dime and did not inform their firm they were attending. When asked, almost every attendee had the same answer: They felt that the promise of the AEC Hackathon was good enough for their own money and time.

Industry veterans of 40-plus years described the event on Sunday as “one of the best ever” and "an absolute game changer.” Another participant said: “I have a book to write about one of the most incredible weekends of my life where I was privileged and blessed to engage with incredible minds that truly cared about making a difference.”

Each of the presentations are on the AEC Hackathon website and will remain an open source, community-policed solution for the industry to use. The goal is to continue the community of open source solutions, focused on improving the built environment. Click here to see a sample solution.

Other interesting outcomes from the AEC Hackathon include:

  • one submitted hack solution already has secured its first customer;
  • 3D Systems showcased its just-released 3D scanner to rave reviews on the hackathon floor;
  • a video montage is available on YouTube; and
  • proceeds were given to the Wounded Warriors and Vets in Tech programs.
The next AEC Hackathon will take place March 14-16, 2014, in Menlo Park. Registration will open in early 2014.

Editor's Note: Paul Doherty is one of the founders and organizers of the AEC Hackathon.
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