Q&A: Sarah Davidson – from Gleeds to academia

Sarah Davidson is director of education and student experience for the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at Nottingham University (photo above), with a remit for digital information management and modelling. An associate professor, since she left her position as director and head of research and development at Gleeds two years ago, Sarah talks with Denise Chevin about her new working life and her role on the UK BIM Alliance executive team

You’ve made a very successful career switch, but what prompted it?

I’d always entertained the idea of an academic career, and it was something that I explored when I left university after studying quantity surveying. But then life just goes off in different directions, and I ended up going into practice.

For about 18 years, I was a practising QS, and also a project manager. I’ve got a masters in construction procurement management.

I had a really exciting career with Gleeds. But I’d been head of research and development for nearly 12 years and when the opportunity came up at Nottingham University, I thought it would be a new challenge in a new environment, so I took the leap!

What is your role at Nottingham University?

Since January this year I’ve been director of education and student experience for the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, which is part of the engineering faculty. It’s a student-centred role and is about making sure that there’s oversight and consistency within the department and across the faculty.

I also teach on two undergraduate modules. One introduces architecture students to elements of information management and modelling. This is their first opportunity to design using geometrical modeling software. When they go into year two, they take a design that they’ve developed in year one, and we’re moving it up to the next level, so we’re developing their ability to critically reflect on design that they’re producing. I’m introducing them to software that they haven’t used before.

The other module I lead is on information management using BIM for students in architectural engineering; these students have more of a building services-based interest. I spend a lot of time looking at what information management processes are and how you implement them on a project. And we also look at creating geometrical models of building services.

I also teach elements of practice and management, particularly looking the principles of cost management for architecture students.

It’s a science and an art, developing effective learning material. And that’s been something that I’ve had to learn all about, even though I’d lectured in the past.– Sarah Davidson, University of Nottingham

What are some of the main differences from your time in practice?

Working at Nottingham University is hugely different to my previous position. It’s an enormous organisation, and it’s very dynamic

Because there are so many people, there’s a lot of processes and governance, which is important because we’re trying to uphold academic standings. Gleeds was a large organisation and it had its processes in place, but this is taking it to another level.

And it’s technical in ways that I hadn’t really anticipated. And that’s just about understanding the rules and regulations. It’s a science and an art, developing effective learning material. And that’s been something that I’ve had to learn all about, even though I’d lectured in the past. It feels like there is a proper framework, and I’m keen to make sure I can work to that.

The priority is to develop comprehensive learning content, particularly around information management and modelling. That’s the area that I’m really interested in, and that is absolutely fundamental to the success of the construction industry, and the asset management industry.

That’s my priority, but I also want to look at how we can develop CPD content as well. People working within organisations need information that’s not biased, that’s independent from a manufacturer or a sales organisation.

Are universities able to keep up with all the changes that are happening in the industry?

Because of all the research that happens at universities as well as the teaching, there are definitely some areas where universities are exploring areas that construction hasn’t yet seen. So in some respects, in terms of research, universities are ahead. But you want to teach practical and useful knowledge to students, and to do that you’ve got to have insight into the industry, and engagement with it. I see us as having a partnership with the industry. And if it’s a partnership, sometimes you’re going to be slightly ahead, and sometimes you’re going to be slightly behind industry. It’s a matter of keeping that engagement and making sure you remain relevant.

Is there the opportunity for more digital studies in the architecture courses?

I think that potentially there is. Architecture courses are quite demanding anyway, and I think it’s about how you get that digital content in, and how you make sure it’s in the context of the wider architecture subject area.

When I’m teaching second year, I’m introducing students to geometrical modelling, and they can take that and run with it for the rest of the year and into next year and beyond, if they want to.

By geometrical modelling, I’m talking about what we would normally call BIM or 3D modelling. I’m not keen on the term BIM, because it can mean lots of different things.

You don’t want students to be distracted by the software. You want to give them enough knowledge to use it, and to explore it if they’re curious. You’re trying to create that curiosity – show them what the software can do, so they’ll want to explore what else it can do.

When we’re teaching, we use packages that are commonly used in industry, so that when students go into industry, they’ve got that basic knowledge that they need.

Fundamentally, clients have got to be able to find the information. So they’ve got to be able to find a report, or information around a heat emitter. And classification will help you to find that information, without having special knowledge.– Sarah Davidson, University of Nottingham

What is your wider involvement with industry and what are you working on at the moment?

I’m a member of the UK BIM Alliance executive team, and I’m a co-lead of the implementation team, along with three other co-leads. We manage and help industry get BIM-related projects off the ground.

My big role over the last two years has been the development of the guidance supporting the UK BIM Framework. The UK BIM Framework is a collaboration between the UK BIM Alliance, the Centre for Digital Build Britain (CDBB) and the BSI.

We are supporting the adoption of the standards for BIM, particularly the ISO 19650 series. I’ve been working with a big team of people for the last 18 months or so, developing guidance to support the ISO19650 series.

Another project I’m working on is with the CDBB and the BIM Interoperability Expert Group.  This is looking at interoperability requirements of UK clients and the wider construction industry.  I’m working particularly with Sarah Delany from NBS, who is leading the classification workstream.

Does that involve looking at interoperability, which of course is a big problem at the moment?

Yes. There’s two sides to interoperability. The technical side, which is about how you exchange information between systems, and then there’s the other side of how do you actually use it. Classification is concerned with how you use information, because it helps you to find it in the first place.

The problem is that contractors and consultants give clients a huge volume of information that they’ve got to get in to their operating systems so that it can be used.

Fundamentally, clients have got to be able to find the information. So they’ve got to be able to find a report, or information around a heat emitter. And classification will help you to find that information, without having special knowledge.

The easy way to think about classification is if you go into a supermarket looking for a loaf of bread. It doesn’t matter what supermarket you’re in, you know you’ve got to go to the bakery section. That’s one means of classification.

So if you can apply consistent classification to all information, it will help you to find it. And it also means that you can exchange it with other organisations, which is important, particularly for public sector organisations.

Our current programme takes us through until March, and one of the things we want to do is raise awareness of classification, so that people have a general level of understanding. And then we want to look at how we can make sure classification effectively supports the national annex to ISO 19650 part 2, as that’s where it’s referenced.

What other areas of research are of interest to you at the moment?

One of the projects I’ve just started working on is a three-year project looking at the development of machine learning, or AI, for cost management. I’m working with Gleeds and the Knowledge Transfer Partnership. It’s looking at what the parameters are that will affect cost and have the greatest impact on cost in order to create a machine-learning-based cost estimation tool.

The challenge with software that relies on machine learning or AI is that you’ve got to have quite a high volume of data sitting in the background in the first place. That’s not a problem with organisations like Gleeds that have exposure to lots of different projects and therefore lots of data which they utilise.

Do you think machine learning is going to have a big impact on construction?

I think there’s significant potential for machine learning because we develop a huge amount of information in the construction/design process. We have to work out how we can harness that information in order to support machine-learning activities.

Is the take up of digital processes continuing to rise in the sector?

I think that the adoption of technology naturally evolves, because people are curious about what it can do and will push it to evolve.

The problem is how you use tech not just for your own benefit, but for wider organisational or project benefit. That’s where you need things like the guidance we’re working on because what ISO 19650 is doing is asking you to work very collaboratively, and asking you to work with other organisations in mind.

That’s where you need the encouragement. And it requires investment in knowledge and time, and it requires some effort. So that’s why the guidance is important.

Technology will continue to evolve, and we need to make sure it’s pushed along with collaboration in mind, not just organisational requirements.

Image: 149951799 © Guydasymoes |

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