BIM compliance needs more than a common data environment

Effective digital working requires familiarity in working with data (and metadata), trust in that data, and trust within project teams, says Daniel Taylor-North, director of software developer Opentree.

Since 2011 many businesses in the UK construction industry have been working towards higher levels of competence with respect to BIM.

The April 2016 BIM mandate concentrated people’s minds on achieving compliance with the requirements of BIM Level 2, and many businesses are still engaged in this process today, with the UK BIM Alliance aiming to make BIM business as usual across the majority of the industry by 2020.

Some people’s initial perceptions of BIM focus on choosing and using BIM software tools rather than thinking of BIM as a collaborative process supported by technology (sadly, some software vendors have done little to discourage such perceptions).

BIM involves more than proficiency at using Revit or selecting the right common data environment (CDE). For design businesses in particular, BIM can mean fundamentally rethinking internal information management processes and procedures so that professionals are applying the right digital approaches from the moment they start a BIM project – and before they even start sharing data via a CDE.

CDEs were originally conceived as file repositories or electronic document management systems. PAS 1192-2:2013 defined a CDE as: “A single source of information for any given project, used to collect, manage and disseminate all relevant approved project documents for multi-disciplinary teams in a managed process.” It added: “A CDE may use a project server, an extranet, a file-based retrieval system or other suitable toolset.”

The terminology is already confusing document and file repositories, and data management, but this is not surprising. For decades, architects and engineers have routinely issued, tracked and controlled paper-based drawings, documents and forms: email and electronic collaboration systems have simply accelerated the exchange of “electronic paper”.

Considerable industry inertia will need to be overcome if we are to move from being document-centric to being data-centric – no longer handing over volumes of paperwork upon completion, but developing and maintaining the built asset’s “digital twin”.

First steps

However, we can start to be more data-centric if our deliverables are created and managed using BS 1192:2007 naming and numbering conventions which then allow electronic management of data about those files (metadata). And good practice starts within design businesses even before information needs to be shared with other project team members.

If we are serious about whole-life asset data management, designers should be applying BS 1192:2007 principles from day one to manage their work in progress (WIP).

Designers are often making some key early decisions during this stage, but if we only capture their final outputs when they make the transition from “WIP” to “Shared”, useful source information and references can be lost. And status changes to “Shared” deliverables will not be synchronised with the design practice’s internal systems.

Opentree has developed an internal document management application called Cabinet which helps users to bridge the gap between WIP and the CDE. This is integrated with several CDE platforms (Viewpoint, Aconex and GroupBC are among our early partners), allowing the sharing of CAD, BIM, MS Office and other files.

Importantly, Cabinet enables sharing of both the file and related metadata, and then ensures metadata is synchronised if, for example, a Revit model’s suitability status is changed. (Nottinghamshire-based contractor North Midland Construction recently turned to Viewpoint and Cabinet to help it demonstrate PAS1192 compliance processes to its clients.)

CDEs are, I think, potentially powerful technologies hampered by industry processes still based on the exchange of files and on version and status control of those files.

Much as we might be tempted by talk of “sharing a single source of the truth”, the reality is that many projects involve multiple islands of largely duplicated information – design teams, constructors and asset owner-operators may all invest in their own separate CDEs, mindful of the need to record and protect their contractual positions in an often litigious and adversarial industry.

Trust issues

The reality is that we need to be promoting new levels of trust: trust in our technologies and data, and trust between project team members. In our daily personal lives, we increasingly trust our mobile devices and the data they present to us. But for similar levels of trust in the information technologies we use as construction professionals, process and cultural changes will be needed.

It is encouraging to see some of the progressive thinking on construction procurement (long-term alliances and integrated project insurance, for example) and the benefits identified from projects which have applied these more collaborative and integrated approaches alongside BIM deployment.

Having worked extensively with customers in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, I know the importance they place on working with their supply chains to share data almost in real time, and their focus on adding value rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Client leadership based on delivering best whole-life value coupled with appropriate use of offsite or pre-manufactured approaches could help construction make some of the process and cultural changes needed.

A digitally transformed construction would then be well placed to achieve the productivity gains that we have seen in aerospace and automotive industries in recent decades.

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