Explainers

The golden thread: Keeping our building and infrastructure assets safe

12 July 2020 | By Rebecca De Cicco

Rebecca De Cicco, director of Digital Node and founder of Women in BIM, explains what is meant by the golden thread of information and the role of digital models.

The ‘golden thread’ is a term used across many business disciplines. For construction, the golden thread of information is used to describe an accurate and up-to-date record of the building data needed to maintain and operate an asset.

The golden thread should detail how a building was designed, built and maintained, with all project and asset data being held digitally: it acts as a live repository, linking all data about how a building is managed and operated. This record will capture the digital engagement of people, recording their decisions, thus giving a clear accountability trail to avoid risk and ultimately to save lives.

Information and data around buildings and construction projects are fragmented, incomplete and often inaccessible. For most buildings, it is unclear if the finished information shared at the completion of a project is the same as what was designed, potentially impacting on building safety and the lives of its inhabitants. This also makes it harder for the owner to efficiently and effectively manage the building and complicates renovation/operational maintenance due to the fragmented nature of where data resides.

We all know that a BIM process can support the development of the golden thread of data, but how do we ensure that the data during design, specified and then updated or revised during construction, actually makes its way to the data held within the project information model?

Improving accountability

On many construction projects it is difficult to understand where the decisions were made and who authorised what information, particularly when it comes to specification and potential changes to design or construction activities. The intention of the golden thread is that it will improve accountability as it will record who signed off information at every critical stage across the design and construction stages.

Much of the Building a Safer Future report, particularly chapter eight, discusses the need for the use of BIM to effectively manage the building and construction process more clearly.– Rebecca De Cicco

This is very much in line with the BIM process and information delivery cycle as well as the responsibilities of those who work on a project. Functions, as outlined within ISO 19650, which support both the asset and project information management responsibilities must be clearly outlined from the start, knowing the key roles and responsibilities on a project will ultimately allow us to source who is accountable for what and this is a crucial component to the development of the information on a building or infrastructure asset. 

The information models created across the project are critical to the golden thread – a series of digital models that all people involved in the project can work on, from the architect to the client and obviously into the asset management of a building. It is the digital description of every aspect of the built asset that allows the information to be useful during its operational phase so that it can be checked for compliance and ultimately safety. The models draw on information assembled collaboratively and updated at key stages of the project.

The Grenfell Tower fire in the UK was one of the worst disasters of the construction industry, with 71 people losing their lives and hundreds left homeless. As part of the government’s response to the fire, the then home secretary commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of Building Regulations and in particular their impact on fire safety. A year on from the Grenfell fire the report Building a Safer Future was published outlining key recommendations for the future safety of our people and built assets. 

The report and work undertaken by those involved include the concept of ‘duty holders’ having clear responsibilities to ensure that the golden thread of building information is held digitally, so it is available to all relevant owners/users throughout a building’s design, construction and occupation. They do not come as any great surprise following the Hackitt Review, and they are generally consistent with the government’s wider agenda to transform the UK’s construction industry as well as the requirements for BIM which are very much now globally recognised. 

To draw it back to the work that has already been achieved regarding the implementation of BIM across government the report highlighted key requirements for a digital record of an asset and to ensure the links are achieved not only in what is built and specified but also who was accountable for specification of certain products and built materials. This therefore supported the processes which were outlined within many of the British standards supporting BIM and now the international standard ISO 19650. 

Use of BIM to manage processes

Much of the report, particularly chapter eight, discusses the need for the use of BIM to effectively manage the building and construction process more clearly. It is with this in mind that the golden thread can be achieved, yet there is still much confusion and a lack of education by the government and even industry on how this can be achieved.

There must be a clearly defined authority placed on projects to enable the checking and review of the data developed on a project: while BIM is an intelligent process, there is still a lack of ‘follow through’ on the process during the entire design and construction phases. A variety of BIM uses can be implemented to support greater efficiencies but without an authority leading the process it will ultimately fail. 

Recommendations which are noted in the report not only include the requirement for key roles during design and construction, but also to ensure that the creation, maintenance and handover of all information should be a legal responsibility. It was also recommended that the government shall mandate a digital standard of record-keeping for the design, construction and during the occupation of residential buildings as well as engage with industry as to what information shall be held in these digital records. 

Although the report and the impact of the Grenfell Tower fire has helped industry understand the importance of the implementation of BIM and digital records of assets, there is still much work to be undertaken to ultimately change our current working ways in construction. In many ways the UK BIM policy was only the first step and it has taken a tragedy such as Grenfell to drive industry further with the government having to act as the leading authority in the creation of these policies.

We have some way to go in terms of education and understanding of digital working in construction and we must focus on educating industry as a whole as well as having key authority figures across government to be able to implement and then monitor the creation of these digital records.

There must be change in the way we procure, build and operate to effectively work better and ultimately specify and maintain better buildings, not only in the UK, but on a global scale. This is not just about a digital transformation but rather about saving people’s lives and keeping our building and infrastructure assets up to date.

Image: Grenfell Tower/AmandaLewis/Wikimediacommons