Chicago atwitter in wake of 1st AEC Hackathon

by TODD STOLARSKI, with ROB McMANAMY | March 10, 2015

A brisk Friday evening in early March and the great digital pirate ship had completed its maiden voyage to Chicago, docking at BuiltWorlds for the port city’s first-ever AEC Hackathon.

The three-day, two-night event began with an unmistakable sense of anticipation as over 100 architects, engineers, project managers, coders, hackers and tech trouble-shooters, competitors all, filled our third-floor auditorium. Except for a handful of students and volunteers, most attendees had arrived from their day jobs –some from as far away as San Francisco and New York– yet now were prepared to devote their weekends to work.

Our own Ian Manger lets the crew from Bluebeam try out one of our VR headsets. (Look up!)

Our own Ian Manger lets the crew from Bluebeam try out one of our VR headsets. (Look up!)

BuiltWorlds managing director Matt Abeles and AEC Hackathon co-founder and executive director Damon Hernandez welcomed the crowd and noted that the turnout was already twice as large as the crowd that had attended the most recent AEC Hackathon in New York City, just weeks before. Hernandez then handed the stage over to fellow cofounder Paul Doherty (aka the “Recovering Architect”) and Hackathon board member and event judge Steve Holzer. Speaking to a standing room only audience, they instructed everyone not to approach the weekend as individuals out for themselves, but as a community collectively hacking for solutions to shared problems. “At the end of the day, this is your event,” Holzer stressed. Doherty ended his own pep talk with the venerable Latin proverb: “Fortune favors the bold”.

“This is about community, bringing the industry together, making it better.”

— Chris Jervey, BlueBeam

Whiting-Turner's Tyler Davis proposes the challenge re Navisworks that would yield the winning hack.

Whiting-Turner’s Tyler Davis proposes the challenge re Navisworks that would yield the winning hack.

For a brief moment Friday, however, it seemed that the timid might prevail. After Hernandez asked the audience to propose real problems for attendees to tackle over the weekend, there was an awkward silence for several seconds, enough to give local organizers a gut-check. “This happens every time,” reassured Hernandez. “It’s like any group. No one wants to go first.”

Sure enough, the floodgates then opened.

Tyler Davis of Whiting-Turner stood to propose a suggested hack to improve the collaborative performance of Autodesk Navisworks. As he spoke, many heads in the crowd nodded, and several apparently decided right then and there that this was the team they wanted to be on. In the end, the diverse team that formed around this hack would draw participants from Clayco, Mortenson Construction, Walsh Construction, Thornton Tomasetti, and Kristine Fallon Associates, among others.

Others also proposed problems on several topics, resulting in teams working on hot work permits for site safety; improving communications with multiple levels of subcontractors; enhancements to Revit and Oculus Rift, and more. Six teams then formed organically around the individual problems, based on each member’s specialized abilities to code, hack, calculate, extrapolate, solve, etc. Those wild cards who didn’t immediately join teams acted as “free agents” and were able to align their services with any roster. Before long, teams had gelled, camped out in neutral corners and begun hacking well into the night. “This is when the fun really begins,” said Doherty.

Day 2: Everything is awesome, when you’re part of a team!

Saturday morning, and doors to our West Loop offices at 1130 West Monroe opened for hacking at 8 am sharp. Even before 7:30, hackers had gathered outside the door, chomping at the bit. Whether they were here for our esteemed lineup of presentations throughout that day, or simply for hacking, one thing was for certain: they were not messing around. Throughout the day, individuals dived into and out of their team work spaces. Occasionally, if someone felt the need to come up for air and take a break, they could even duck into BW’s recreational Minecraft lounge. Truthfully, not many did. Fueled by coffee and energy drinks, most were motivated machines, focused on the task at hand.

Our sign-in wall... Can you find John Hancock?

Our sign-in wall… Can you find John Hancock?

Meanwhile, throughout Saturday, our stellar lineup of experts presented on a number of cutting edge topics. Speakers from Autodesk, Bluebeam, SWC Technology PartnersMaster Graphics, Pepper Construction, Engage Civil, and Mortenson speaking about gaming technology in construction. Miss any or all of it? Don’t worry, we will soon have all the presentations up for you to view on our BuiltWorlds website.  A full index of speaking engagements from the weekend is listed below.

“Gamers are the new Hollywood”

— Paul Doherty, The Digit Group

As the teams worked late into the night, the 1995 Angelina Jolie classic Hackers was projected on one wall of an enclosed rest pod. Walking the floor among the teams, one could easily group them into three distinct categories: the Confidents went home to get some well-needed rest for their final push;  the We’re So-o-o Close bunch pushed on, trying to crack their problem’s code; and the Let Me Just Try This crew, which swung for the fences in hopes of making a connection and staving off the impending delirium this arduous weekend was demanding.

Day 3:  Judgment day

Not sure what this team was up to, but... Way to go!

Not sure what this team was up to, but… Way to go!

Lo and behold, there were even more hackers waiting at the front door again on Sunday morning, well ahead of opening bell at BuiltWorlds. (Maybe they don’t actually sleep; who really knows?) But the group remained incredibly enthusiastic about hacking, and they even seemed motivated to reap the accolades and glory promised to whomever won this historic hackathon. As the teams tinkered and toiled away until the final buzzer sounded, it was entirely evident that what they lost in sleep over the weekend they had traded for hard work in creating positive and lasting change in the AEC environment. With the last grain of sand now dropping to the bottom of the hour glass, judgment time was finally upon us.












Our three judges for this hackathon were former City of Chicago CTO John Tolva, now president of PositivEnergy PracticeMolly Rossow, co-founder of Chicago Women Developers and chief scientist at educational gamer Kadho Inc.; and the aforementioned Steve Holzer, a principal at Ann Arbor MI-based eM8s LLC, an open-source BIM provider for homebuilders. Before presentations began, Tolva briefly addressed the audience and reminded everyone how appropriate it was for Chicago to host such an event. “Historically, we have always been leaders here in architecture and construction,” he said. “So it is only natural for Chicago to take this step in applying broader and even smarter use of technology in the built environment.”

Guidelines for judging followed three distinct criteria:

  1. Industry – What big AEC problem are you solving? Can your fix be implemented on tomorrow? 
  2. Technology – How much of this code did you build this weekend? (Technical difficulty) 
  3. Overall – General impressiveness 

And the envelopes, please…

  • Best Open Source Award went to T2TRVT for creating a general notes editor for Revit;
  • 1st Place for Biggest AEC Problem to Solve went to 3 Board Guys & a Girl for their improved trade level communication & information fix;
  • 2d Place went to SafetyCL for its solution in sharing and prioritizing “hot” work permits;
  • Bonus Category created by the judges for Best Use of Leap Motion Devices went to Team Oculus Miffed for its attempt to fill coverage gaps in Oculus Rift headsets…

…drumroll, please…

The winner of the Best Overall Award at the 2015 Inaugural Chicago AEC Hackathon went to The Clash, for making Navisworks adapt more easily and perform better for users.

Congratulations to The Clash (see below), a nine-person team whose members coincidentally represented more participating companies than any other competing group. Win or lose, though, everyone who entered our digital arena walked away with more than just a smile on their face, and the satisfaction of knowing that they had helped our stubborn, old industry to be at least a little easier, less frustrating and more accessible. As they left BuiltWorlds some 48 hours after they had arrived on Friday, strangers were now friends, and questions were now answers. All of our teams proved that when you code together 0s and 1s, sometimes, you get a lot more than 2.

The Champions. Plunder included t-shirts, a loaner hat, and $750. (Queen wrote a song about them, too!) Of note, this group --aka The Clash-- was also the most diverse, boasting members from Clayco, Mortenson, Walsh, Thornton-Tomasetti, and Kristine Fallon Associates, among others.

The Champions. Plunder included t-shirts, a loaner hat, and $750. (Queen wrote a song about them, too!) Of note, this group –aka The Clash– was also the most diverse, boasting members from Clayco, Mortenson, Walsh, Thornton-Tomasetti, and Kristine Fallon Associates, among others.

Speaker List

Chris Jervey, BlueBeamHonoring the Hack

Brad Kreiger, Hard Had HubFinding the Right Talent with Technology

Ricardo Khan, Mortenson ConstructionGaming Technology in Construction

Paul Doherty, The Digit GroupBig Data, Big Deal

Jamie Rosales, AutodeskA360

Damon Hernandez, Idea BuilderDigital Fabrication & Advanced Manufacturing

Kelsey Taylor, Engage CivilA Brief History of Engineering…and Tech

Kristen Schmid, SWC Making a Digital Imprint

Kevin Carr, Master Graphics3D Printing and Laser Scanning

Kevin Bredeson, Pepper ConstructionReality Capture in AEC


Background header photo credit: Howard Davis, CEO Assemble

Photography gallery credit by Benjamin Goldman for BuiltWorlds.

BuiltWorlds also thanks Comcast Business, the Official Internet Provider of AEC Hackathon 2.1.