Layer: Capturing and Organizing Building DataAECbytes Review (November 27, 2019)
Layer is a new AEC application that was launched close to six months ago to address what seems to be an obvious need in the industry—organizing and integrating the vast amount of disparate data that is typically collected on site during the retrofit or construction of a building project.
You would think that with all the applications we have for BIM, design coordination, model checking, project information management, construction management, document management, and project collaboration (just see the product list on the AECbytes Reviews page), there would be an application that could be used to easily connect notes, images, videos, task lists, etc., to their related building element. Surprisingly, there wasn’t, as the architectural firm, BVH Architecture, discovered while working on a multi-year, multi-phase rehabilitation project of the Nebraska State Capitol (Figure 1), which required the team to document more than 1,300 rooms with nearly 60 data points in each room. They looked hard but could not find a good solution for organizing and coordinating the vast amount of building data that they had collected—the number of photos alone was over 40,000. There was also no way to view the captured data efficiently in Revit, the BIM application they were using. They ended up developing a software solution in-house and, given that the need for such a solution was so compelling but still unmet in the marketplace, they spun it off as a separate company, Layer.
The name of the application—which is also Layer—comes from its ability to layer contextual data on top of building elements. While the starting point for Layer’s development was connecting all captured data with a Revit model through an add-in, it has now evolved so that it can even work as a standalone system for collecting, managing and sharing building project information independent of BIM. While its Revit integration continues to be enhanced in every release, Layer can also be used as a project management tool in and of itself, which enables multiple team members to collaborate on a project, create notes, assign and manage tasks, document issues, mark up drawings, and add documents, photos, videos, etc., all of which can be attached to specific building elements, custom reference locations in a building, or even the building as a whole.
How It Works
Layer is a web-based app that can be accessed through a browser on a computer (Mac or Windows) as well as through an iOS app and Android app on mobile devices (Figure 2). For the Windows version, you can also download and install the Revit add-in to connect a Layer project to one or more Revit models. When a project is created, multiple team members can be added to it, and as with any cloud application, all the members can access the project data as well as edit it if they have the necessary permissions. For the team members in the field, they can use the app to add photos, videos, notes, etc. to the project repository, address tasks, report on issues, etc. If the Revit add-in is being used, all the changes in the project data can then be synced with Revit using the Layer app on a Windows computer in the office.
Given that the main function of the tool is capturing building data on site for a project—which can be potentially humongous, such as the 40,000 photos alone for the Nebraska State Capitol project mentioned earlier—how well this data is organized is critical to the usability of the application. It needs to be logical without being convoluted, so that it can be navigated easily to add, edit, or retrieve data. In Layer, this organization has been implemented using a hierarchy of projects, categories, elements, and fields. Elements are the basic building blocks of Layer, single buckets of information that can be physical entities like rooms, windows, equipment, etc., or intangible things like issues, RFIs, work orders, etc. Elements can be grouped into categories, and there would typically be multiple categories within a project.
The individual properties of an element are collected using fields—these can be defined for the entire category that the element belongs to, so that they are available for all elements in that category. For example, Figure 3 shows the fields for a room element that was created for a Facility Audit project such as the team member assigned to it, the date it was audited, general condition, etc. Once created, these fields are available for all the elements in the Room category and can be used to capture the specific properties of each individual room.
In addition to the values specified for defined fields, Layer also includes the ability to add files, notes, and tasks in a dedicated “Contextual Items” palette that has three different tabs for each of these items. Each of these contextual items can be created at different levels—for the entire project, for a specific element, and even for a particular field of an element, as shown in Figure 3 above. Each item comes with tools specific to it; so, for example, the Tasks interface allows a task to not only be created, but scheduled on a calendar, assigned to a team member, and the ability to be checked off when completed, as shown in Figure 4.
Additional features for using Layer as a collaboration tool include the ability to markup drawings (Figure 5), which can be seen in real-time by any member who is logged into the project because the application is cloud-based; an activity log that provides a complete audit trail of the project and also allows any older version to be restored; and the ability to create custom reports with specific elements and fields to capture required aspects of the project.
As shown in the previous section, Layer can be used as a standalone project documentation and management tool to keep all the data related to the project in one place, properly organized, and accessible to everyone who needs to work with it. What makes it even more compelling to those using Revit for BIM is that it can integrate bidirectionally with Revit. This happens through a Revit add-in which can be installed on a Windows computer that has a copy of Revit and the project model. Through the add-in, you can link the current Revit model with a Layer project and choose which categories of Revit elements you want to sync and work with inside Layer (Figure 6). All those elements are then automatically pulled into Layer and can be used as the basis for its data capture, organization, and collaboration capabilities. Additional categories from the Revit model can be added to Layer at any time. It is also possible to attach multiple Revit models to one Layer project.
Once the Revit model is attached to a Layer project, any changes that are made to the Revit model within the selected categories will be pushed automatically to Layer. For example, if a wall that is moved affects the size of four different rooms, those four room changes will be synced to Layer. If a room is added to the Revit model, that room will be added to Layer. There is no need to manually sync, publish, or refresh the data as the Revit model changes—those changes are synced automatically.
A recent update to Layer’s Revit add-in has made the integration more powerful. Navigation is bi-directional, which means that as you navigate the Revit model, you can see all the associated rich data and files in the dockable Layer panel and make any additions or edits. Conversely, if you select an element in Layer that has been linked to Revit, that element will automatically be selected and highlighted in Revit, as shown in Figure 7. So, for example, if a user is assigned a task in Layer that is associated with a specific room, they can click on the task and the corresponding room is instantly selected in the Revit view. This “Live Link” between Revit and Layer is enabled by default, but can be turned off or on at any time, either within the Revit add-in or the Layer app.
In addition to viewing, you can also conveniently make actual changes to the Revit parameters of the synced elements using Layer. A common use case for this is when the model needs to be updated with data that was collected in the field and captured in Layer. This can be done by first setting up the rules to map the Layer fields to the Revit parameters that will be modified (Figure 8), after which a Sync Parameters tool in the Revit add-in can be used to bring all the changes into Revit (Figure 9).
Another recent enhancement to the add-in allows a reference to be created in Revit that is specific to Layer. Once the reference is created, it works as a tag, and more detail can be added to it (Figure 10). For example, it can be used to capture a design issue and can be assigned to a specific team member to look into. These Layer references are only visible with the Layer plug-in and do not affect the model in any way. They allow the rich contextual data captured in Layer to be added to any part of the model without relying on Revit geometry to attach it to.
I found Layer to be a well-designed application that is very intuitive to use. Being a new application, it has the advantage of being developed using the latest web technologies, which you can tell from its fluidity and ease of use. I was surprised to find that among the plethora of software applications we have in AEC, there was no solution for capturing and organizing building data, let alone one that does it as simply and elegantly as Layer. While it can be used as a standalone application, the Revit add-in is a huge plus for projects that are modeled in Revit.
Applications that are born out of necessity and created by domain experts typically get it right. No AEC firm would want to re-invent the wheel and get into software development, as that is not their core competency. From that perspective, Layer inspires a lot of confidence as it was developed by an architectural firm to solve a technology problem for which they couldn’t find a solution. I especially appreciated how lightweight it was and devoid of superfluous features—which I hope it can retain as it is further developed.