COBie outsourcing: ‘Trust but verify’

abstract image for COBie outsourcing story from Bill East
Image: Olivier Le Moal |

Managing an asset based on as-built data can improve efficiencies in operation – but only if that data is correct. So how do you ensure that? Bill East provides a few pointers.

Many companies outsource COBie data production. But there is often too little scrutiny of those contracted to do the work – whether they are qualified to carry it out or their work meets the underlying standard. So says Bill East, the inventor of COBie, or Construction Operations Building information exchange.

East, who after a 35-year career with the US Army Corps of Engineers, is now the owner of Prairie Sky Consulting, says: “With any type of outsourcing, if there are misunderstandings about the scope of what is to be accomplished, or the standards to which the deliverables are judged, the result can delay project close-out.”

COBie provides a structured format for handing over information generated in design and construction to building owners, occupiers and operators, enabling them to manage their asset more efficiently. It is an open standard and provides details about the spatial locations of the components and equipment used in the project.

COBie data begins its life in design authoring software and should be updated by contractors and subcontractors. Capturing the data as it is produced will improve the quality and timeliness of the information. The facility manager can then trust the information and directly load it into their maintenance management system(s).

Bill East

“As with any outsourcing activity you need to make sure the people working on your project are qualified and that the product produced meets the required quality standard.”

Bill East

Digitisation tool

Many UK government ministries require COBie data to enable better information management and it is referenced in the ISO 19650 information management standard (which replaced PAS 1192-2), so it remains a hugely important tool in the digitisation of the sector. As John Ford, BIM & digital delivery lead at Galliford Try Construction, wrote in BIMplus: “No matter what your thoughts on COBie and where you are in the journey in collecting and structuring data in compliance to the open COBie standard, it is still our best bet in delivering standardised data in aid of asset management cost reductions.”

While COBie data is already created and captured during design and construction, many UK contractors prefer to outsource COBie deliverable production, and this where problems can arise, says East. “As with any outsourcing activity, you need to make sure the people working on your project are qualified and that the product produced meets the required quality standard. 

“Technical aspects of the COBie standard might be seen as complex. But requiring outsourced vendors to demonstrate their qualifications, and having a commonly used, inexpensive, standards-based checking tool are simple and inexpensive steps you can take to streamline project handover.”

He adds: “The watchword with any type of outsourcing is ‘trust but verify’.”

But how exactly does a company looking to outsource the work pull this off? East provides the following advice.

BIMplus: How do you know if someone is competent to produce a COBie file?

Bill East: Unless you know what you are looking for, you may not be able to distinguish between the competence of one vendor versus another. So using properly qualified people can be a first step. That is applicable, really, for whoever does COBie activity, whether it’s in-house or outsourced. But it is critical for outsourcing because it’s all been done by someone else and you don’t have any control over it.

The gold standard qualification is buildingSMART International’s COBie Certified Professional certification. This technical examination was based on the experience of an international team of COBie experts and is published by buildingSMART International.

buildingSMART International is responsible for the IFC standard and is therefore best-placed for an international team of experts to collaborate on the delivery of IFC-based project information. No other organisation has designed their certification programme requirements based on a study of the educational and training requirements that support the production of a correct COBie data set. This COBie educational curriculum is free for any other educational vendor to use to develop and test their courses and/or certifications against.

While some outsourcing firms are developing their COBie expertise, vendors do need time to obtain the necessary skills. If your vendor does not have a buildingSMART International COBie-certified professional, you should let them know they need to start their upskilling process if they want to keep your business.

But what happens in the interim?

In the meantime, I appreciate you still need to have some way of knowing if outsourced contractors have at least some expertise, or are assigning someone to the project who must learn on the job. I recommend that anyone on the outsourcing project who will be using COBie data, and that includes the company’s project manager as well as their technical staff, has completed a qualified overview course.

The question of who is a reputable training vendor is critical. There are many whose courses were created by those without a detailed working knowledge of COBie. I recommend you only recognise courses from training vendors whose course content conforms with the buildingSMART International’s COBie educational curriculum. This educational design report was created to ensure people get the training they need, and not simply take a course based on personal opinion.

The ISO alternative to COBie

East has been working with a team at buildingSMART International to develop an international alternative to the COBie standard, known as Asset Operations Handover (AOH).

This is a new, simplified way to apply the IFC standard (ISO 16739) to project handover deliverables.

ISO 16739 is an open international standard for BIM data that is exchanged and shared among software applications used by the various participants in the construction or facilities management industry sector. The standard includes definitions that cover data required for buildings over their lifecycle. “While COBie is purely for buildings, the AOH project covers all project types, so infrastructure as well as buildings,” says East.

“The standard is published and ready for implementation, but until implementation has been completed and documented, the industry would be best served sticking with COBie 2.4, which they have already been using since 2015.”

How do you ensure the work is delivered to the required quality?

While anyone could produce a spreadsheet and pass it off as a COBie file, not everyone can produce a proper standards-based COBie deliverable. The question is how do you know the difference when you receive the data?

There is only one way to know for sure – to run the COBie file through a qualified checking programme.

There are several options for checking COBie data. Some are directly tied to requirements for delivery of COBie data in an IFC file [or to be technically precise known as an overloaded Coordination Model View Definition (MVD) Industry Foundation Class (IFC) data file in STEP Physical File Format (SPFF)]. Others are online and require users to upload project data to a third-party server. For many users, the existing tools were not helpful. That’s why we developed a new tool, COBieQC, for local testing of handover data in 2023. The COBieQC2024 software can be purchased for a minimal sum for single users, or discounted for five or more users.

In this year’s version of COBieQC software, you can also provide the contractor with rules to check for COBie-adjacent requirements, since many owners do not strictly follow the COBie 2.4 standard. In addition to testing COBie-adjacent requirements, the 2024 version of the COBieQC software allows you to include checks on space and product classification and properties. This aspect of the COBieQC software would be important if you are also outsourcing BIM development.

Where do companies go wrong?

There is a set of standard tests defining if a COBie data file meets the standard or not. These tests are published as part of the COBie standard itself. The whole point of COBie is to define a data deliverable whose format is the same regardless of the owner, project, or team. Even if you hire someone who is qualified, you also must check what they give you to make sure it is correct. The checking process could be done manually, but this is not the best way. Because there is a lot of information, it is easy to miss problems. That’s why I recommend using the quality control checker software, which is being used by many UK contractors.

Another aspect of this whole business is that many owners in the UK have developed their own version of COBie, so checking that becomes even more problematic and worse if it’s outsourced. But one of the critical aspects of this new software is that you can define the specification required by the owner and test against that.

Unless the work is tested, you have no way of knowing it’s correct – the fact that it is a big spreadsheet means people will just glaze over.

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