Common data environments: know the risks

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Common data environments are widely used in construction, but there are risks involved in using them, says Marcus Roberts, head of Atvero.

As a project progresses through its lifecycle, multiple revisions of documents and drawings will be created, capturing the most important decisions made by stakeholders. Common data environments (CDEs), although an ideal solution to retain such crucial information, contain significant challenges associated with access control that can expose firms to risk of litigation.

First, let’s consider the lifecycle of a document, for example, a drawing:

Work in progress

The initial stage of a drawing’s lifecycle is commonly referred to as work in progress. When a file is newly created, whether it’s a simple Word document or a complex design file, it acts as the place where architects and engineers piece together the basic structures and ideas that are still taking shape in their minds. As such, work in progress is a solitary process that is not yet ready to be shared for external viewing or collaboration. 


The shared process begins when work-in-progress files are ready to be disseminated among team members for internal reviews and feedback. It is at this stage that a document moves from being in a solitary state to a more collaborative one. This collaboration process can be facilitated by a document management system, such as Atvero, where documents can be tagged and labelled with revision numbers for efficient tracking. 


After documents are internally reviewed, they become ready to be shared with external parties outside the organisation. This stage is usually called publishing information. As files pass through different stages with collective feedback from internal and external stakeholders, they’ll go through different revisions. Maintaining a complete history of revisions and having it readily available is crucial, since it serves as a comprehensive record of every decision made throughout the lifecycle of a project. 

The challenges with access control

A CDE is an ideal solution for storage of published project information. Within its secure repository, a CDE meticulously stores all the revisions of project documents that have been made accessible to external parties.

One of the main challenges of CDEs is that they can be complicated to manage because of access control. The complexity lies in guaranteeing that the correct individuals have access to appropriate information tailored to their specific project needs.

However, the greater challenge is the fact that a CDE is usually run by the lead contractor of a project. While everything may run smoothly during a project’s active phases and all team members can maintain access to their crucial project information, the question arises as the project approaches completion: who will be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the CDE system? Will it continue under the extension of the current contract, or will the building owner take over control to ensure all project information shared within the CDE will be available in the long term? 

Risks of litigation

Given the lead contractor has access management of a project team’s CDE system, it is perhaps a sensible strategy when litigation looms for the contractor to remove the team’s access to that CDE. Suddenly, all the crucial information that the team may need to defend themselves against a claim has now become unavailable. As ironic as this may seem, the information inside the CDE belongs to the team, but the system that stores it belongs to someone else, and the team may lose access to their own work. 

To mitigate this risk, it is important for firms to maintain ownership of their project information independent of what the lead contractor manages. Moreover, firms need to ensure such information can become accessible and available throughout extended time periods. With the introduction of the Building Safety Act of 2022, this need has become more crucial than ever.

Firms should consider using a document management system that assists them with maintaining compliance with quality standards such as ISO 9001. That standard comprises a series of checkpoints, guidelines and audits to ensure that projects are conducted in the right manner.

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