Interview: Kath Fontana – COBie and the art of ‘know before you go’

With the government set to make BIM mandatory for all centrally-funded public sector buildings from 2016, it’s certainly here to stay. Nevertheless, it’s still early days for BIM and its accompanying facilities management data capture system COBie, or Construction Operations Building information exchange. 

To complete BIM’s circle of beneficial effects, facilities management professionals will need to make the most of COBie to reap operational savings during the lifecycle of an asset. Fortunately, good practice is starting to emerge thanks to early adopters, says Kath Fontana, managing director of BAM FM.

Fontana has used BIM and the COBie data collection system since mid-2012 when she moved to BAM from Interserve, where she was business transformation director. Fontana, a RICS-chartered FM surveyor and a member of the RICS professional group for facilities management, has also worked for Serco and Aspire Defence Services, managing major accounts across multiple sectors.

Fontana says that BAM FM, part of BAM Construct UK which is itself part of the Netherlands-based Royal BAM Group, has put BIM and COBie at the core of its business. Thy have been rolled out on projects including new-build and refurbishment in the commercial office sector, healthcare buildings and schools. 

In its simplest form, COBie is a way to “suck data out of a building”, explains Fontana, and make it useable for anyone who needs to access information on a built asset’s performance. She acknowledges that even she needed time to fully understand how COBie – the categorisation and data ordering conventions that sit behind a spreadsheet – could best be used. But the system’s real value lies in what you do with the data, and that’s what makes it valuable to the FM team.

“FMs are process-oriented people and needn’t be afraid of COBie,” says Fontana. “Facilities managers don’t need to be software designers or experts because in the end, it’s just a spreadsheet. Cast your mind back to when emails were a new technology. BIM and COBie are not about doing more things, but about doing better what you already do.”

The strength of COBie is that it reduces risk, she says. “We usually get asset information from a client and it may not have been verified. So the outsourced FM provider must do their own survey to ensure accurate data and decide on any risks surrounding delivery of FM based on that data.” But with COBie, there’s confidence that the data has been drawn directly from the as-built record.

COBie also simplifies the uploading of data into computer-aided facility management programs, or CAFM. Last year, BAM FM announced it had completed the automatic transfer of data from COBie to a CAFM platform at its UCL Academy project. The academy is a London secondary school sponsored by University College of London and built under a long-term public-private partnership. BAM FM now maintains the academy’s premises.

At UCL, BAM FM also used BIM 360 Field, a construction field management software from AutoDesk that uses tablets with cloud-based field data collaboration and reporting. “The transfer of data between BIM 360 Field and Concept Evolution – CAFM software from FSI – was done using COBie in an xml format, so it was a one-off activity to populate the CAFM system,” she says. 

Once an FM has operational data on a building, the facilities team can then go back to the 3D modelling features of the BIM design model. Sites, buildings and areas can be visualised to pinpoint physical obstacles or access issues before the FM teams need to go in to do work. Teams are aware of any health and safety issues such as ceiling heights, type of ladders if required, clothing and so on.

As Fontana says, BIM allows teams to “know before you go”. She estimates this has helped BAM-FM teams to save on average 25 minutes per job. At four jobs a day on average, that’s getting up to two hours saving daily.

She reckons there are still some issues around the ease of use of COBie and so the system only gets seven out of 10 for usefulness at the moment. But refinements are taking place and COBie in its present form likely won’t be around forever, she says.

Useful web resources on COBie can be found on the websites of the government’s BIM Task Group, CIOB, RICS, CIBSE, and the British Institute of Facilities Management. And Fontana also recommends YouTube videos by Bill East, an American engineer and consultant who has pioneered the use of BIM in the US and abroad.

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  1. Very interesting piece. Great to hear from the experts in the field!

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