Case study: How the University of Birmingham digitised its estate

The University of Birmingham is digitising its entire estate to streamline capital project delivery and control vast amounts of asset information spanning the university’s premises. Richard Draper, BIM and digital assets manager in the Estates Office at the University of Birmingham, talks through the project.

With a history extending over 100 years, the University of Birmingham is one of the UK’s foremost and prestigious research-led institutions, delivering superb experiences for its staff, students and visitors. To continue delivering excellent services, the university is undergoing a £1bn development programme designed to create outstanding new facilities across the Edgbaston campus in Birmingham and the university’s international base in Dubai.

To improve decision-making and ensure its assets are fully reflective of its world-class status, the University of Birmingham has deployed a common data environment (CDE) to enhance management and control of digital information, and drive bottom-line improvements across every stage of a project’s delivery and an asset’s lifecycle.

Investing in data

The University of Birmingham desired a solution which would digitise the estate and underpin the university’s capital investment programme over the following five to 10 years. To form the foundation for this programme a CDE was selected, as it would ensure single, secure access to all documents, drawings, 3D Models and data regarding the university’s circa 250 buildings.

Becoming all the more commonplace in day-to-day business operations, an asset information management-focused CDE is transforming the delivery, function and maintenance of built assets and entire estates; mitigating risks, improving the availability of secure data and ensuring projects can be completed on-time and to budget. 

A CDE will provide the university with the capability to securely connect and maintain both project and asset data, giving it and its supply chains access to each asset’s entire information from one accessible resource. With collaboration at the core, the CDE will ensure everyone is on the same wavelength and can access shared information appropriately. This has really come into its own in recent days, supporting a campus operation almost wholly managed remotely in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Taking a closer look: the process

The University of Birmingham collaborated with asset information management provider GroupBC to identify a CDE that worked for it. It was crucial for the university to identify what the technology had to achieve, as these demands would then feed into how the CDE would help the university operate.

Prior to the implementation of a CDE, project and asset information resided in multiple disparate legacy systems and was held by the university’s external supply chain, which was unreliable to say the least. A CDE, however, will enable the university to streamline project governance, portfolio and information management, and ensure we own our data.

A CDE will enable the university to streamline project governance, portfolio and information management

Hosted by GroupBC, the CDE can be utilised by the university, its design teams and contractors to track and report upon milestones, changes and key decisions for project governance purposes. This will drive efficiency within the existing estate and the delivery of capital projects, and improve the visibility and control of important information and data across the estates department.

The university has hundreds of thousands of files, and this new CDE will assure the safe storage and access of this data, while being fully compliant with the university’s security requirements, including ISO 27001, a specification for an information security management system. The CDE also supports ISO 19650, ensuring compliance to BIM standards and futureproofing the system to ensure data is accessible and maintainable for years to come.

Rather than wasting time identifying the right information to inform decision-making, the CDE will provide us with all information at the click of a button. Not only will the university have a solution which gives it the flexibility to deploy its own processes, the system will also have the right gateway approval processes to keep things secure – something which is of high value to higher education organisations. 

Information security? Check

As well as allowing staff and the supply chain to find information easily, the CDE will assure the information is protected.

In February 2020, the University of Saskatchewan in Canada narrowly missed a targeted cyber attack, which could have severely impacted its staff, students and its operation. Lost or compromised data can cause significant disruption to an entire university, not to mention the supply chain which might require asset information at any point in time.

It was only recently that the collapse of Carillion sent its supply chains into disarray and like most organisations, the University of Birmingham relies on its construction partners to retain important information. Yet, should any one of these companies meet an unfortunate fate, the repercussions on the university and its data would be significant.

The university’s international base in Dubai is also undergoing a development programme

Where cyber security and information protection is critical, therefore, a CDE will prevent any problems and allow universities to mitigate the risk of information loss in the event of an attack and a supplier dispute, or insolvency during the design or construction phases. With a CDE, there can be no missing links in the chain.

Such data reliability and accessibility become all the more essential when bearing in mind the catastrophe that is Grenfell. As well as bringing into debate quality control, it also brought Dame Judith Hackitt’s Golden Thread into the limelight. The Golden Thread is now being championed across the industry and its adoption will mitigate risk, improve building quality and ensure information can be identified.

Up to 200,000 contractor documents had to be located ahead of the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The implementation of a CDE, owned by the asset owner, will complement the Golden Thread of information, creating an unbreakable chain where every piece of data regarding a built asset can be acquired at any time. With a clear audit trail of all asset data and changes made, the asset owner can question and query a trusted data store to answer everyday enquiries about assets in the estate at any stage, even if a project is momentarily suspended or if a business involved in the delivery collapses.

For the University of Birmingham, GroupBC’s CDE is already enabling better planning, enhanced communication, real-time information sharing, easier document management, smoother handover and maintenance of assets once the buildings are operational. It is providing the university with the foundation to connect documents and data, making it easier to link, interpret, find and manage information.

It is evident that this type of technology is strengthening the University of Birmingham’s position as a world-leading institution, and its success will hopefully encourage fellow universities to consider adopting a CDE for more efficient asset information management.

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