CDEs? As BIM standards begin to emerge, do we also need some data exchange standards to support connected rather than common data environments?
Concerted efforts to mobilise the UK built environment industry to adopt building information modelling (BIM) began around 10 years ago, but there is still some distance to go. Anecdotal industry feedback, plus data from nine annual NBS BIM surveys (the 10th, the 2020 edition, has just been launched, by the way) and other reports, suggests UK BIM adoption spans a wide continuum.
Some clients, contractors and consultants now demand BIM from all their contract partners and suppliers. Other firms are in the process of BIM adoption. But there is still a large group of late adopters and laggards for whom BIM is still unfamiliar, even unknown, and they persist largely with conventional 2D and paper-type processes supported by email and spreadsheets. As an illustration (and indicator of BIM adoption), the 2018 NBS annual BIM survey looked at adoption of ‘common data environment’ (CDE) platforms by UK-based construction businesses: the data ranged from 21% of firms using a CDE for all projects, to 28% not using any CDE at all.
Shifts in construction away from paper-based working towards electronic collaboration have been under way since the late 1990s. Construction collaboration technology providers rose to prominence during the dot.com boom at the turn of the century, and as web-based Software-as-a-Service ‘extranet’ platforms become widely used across most major projects, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be seen as part of the foundation for BIM-based working.
It has been almost seven years since the CDE phrase and abbreviation first began to be used in connection with BIM – following the publication of UK guidance in PAS 1192 part 2 in February 2013 (read more in this October 2013 Extranet Evolution post: Thinking about BIM, SaaS and the Common Data Environment). The 2013 definition of a CDE was somewhat vague, envisaging several possible combinations of technologies, but some of the former ‘extranet’ vendors soon began to use the term for marketing, incorporating it into their product branding or product descriptions, and claiming their solutions would help project teams comply with the April 2016 UK government ‘Level 2’ BIM mandate.
International BIM standardisation
Since 2013, the BIM process and its supporting sets of documents, protocols and draft standards has gradually been developed and made more international. Based on the PAS 1192 suite, the first draft parts of ISO 19650 were issued for consultation in 2017, and the first two parts (ISO 19650-1: BIM concepts and priniciples, ISO 19650-2: BIM Delivery phase of assets) were published in late 2018.
(Two further parts are expected to be published in 2020: ISO 19650-3 Operational phase of assets, and ISO 19650-5: Security-minded approach to information management.)
In the meantime, the government-appointed UK BIM Task Group was eventually disbanded and UK BIM efforts are now being led by three main organisations: BSI, the Cambridge-based Centre for Digital Built Britain, and the UK BIM Alliance.* Closely involved with the international BIM standardisation movement, these bodies have helped develop UK-specific guidance to aid interpretation and adoption of the ISO 19650 standards – there is a UK national foreword to ISO 19650-1 and a UK national annex to ISO 19650-2, while guidance documents relating to both parts have also been produced and are now updated on a quarterly basis. These form part of the UK BIM Framework launched in October 2019.
This “overarching approach to implementing BIM in the UK” supersedes previous industry guidance and the notion of BIM Levels. The guidance documents – particularly the Part 2: Processes for Project Delivery – identify key activities and outputs for all parties involved in a project (client, consultants, contractors, specialists, etc), and describe what should be documented in appointments/contracts (in terms of information activities/deliverables) and what clauses within ISO 19650-2 are particularly relevant to each party. The 2nd edition, published in October 2019, also includes some 16 pages of detailed guidance about common data environments, written by Galliford Try’s John Ford.
Towards a common approach to CDE metadata
Importantly, Ford’s guidance highlights (p.24) that, despite some vendors’ branding and marketing assertions, “the CDE is a combination of technical solutions and process workflows (later stressing “it is fundamental that workflows are developed first and solutions are selected to facilitate the workflow”). Ford notes different technologies may be involved – indeed, the CDE may comprise a combination of technologies: “document management tools for design files, contract management tools that manage commercial information, email management tools for correspondences and mobile based tools for site quality data.” He continues: “Each solution may have multiple and different workflows ensuring that information is carefully planned, shared, stored, managed and retrieved and that it is timely, correct, complete, and consistent.”
Project delivery may also involve more than one ‘CDE’. As well as the ISO 19650-2 defined “project CDE”, delivery teams may implement their own additional CDEs “which can introduce complexities into the management of information” (I have talked to project managers where, for example, different vendors’ ‘CDEs’ are being used by the client, by a contractor, and by designers). Moreover, different CDE solutions “offer varying degrees of metadata assignment” (metadata is “data that describes and gives information about other data”), but “there isn’t currently … a standard exchange protocol adopted by our industry” (p.27), complicating how information and its metadata can be transferred from one system to another – a step which, Ford suggests, is often achieved by a “manual” workaround, though I am also aware of API-type solutions such as John Egan’s interesting BIMLauncher project.
(‘Extranet’ exchange protocols were once the subject of detailed conversations within the Network of Construction Collaboration Technology Vendors during the mid 2000s, when I was at BIW Technologies. Today in Europe, Germany in particular, a standard to promote open data exchange between CDEs – DIN SPEC 91931-1 – is being developed with input from vendors including thinkproject, Oracle – through people from its Germany’s Aconex [Conject] acquisition – and Nemetschek’s AllPlan.)
Against this background, the metadata subject was raised at a meeting (the first I chaired) of the UK BIM Alliance’s Technology Group on 26 November 2019. It was pointed out that “whole-life” audit trails defining the post-Grenfell “Golden Thread” of data about built assets, their components and systems might be compromised if that data and associated metadata could not be reliably exchanged between CDEs, particularly once information ceased to be managed by contractors and designers and became part of owners’ responsibilities. The envisaged future is also about connecting ‘Digital Twins’ throughout their operational whole life.
The Technology Group will be returning to the subject at a meeting on 5 February 2020, while the topic may also be covered in a UK BIM Alliance Technology Group panel discussion at BIMShowLive in Newcastle on Thursday 27 February 2020 (so I would clearly welcome any observations from Extranet Evolution readers).
Related Technology Group conversations also covered other UK CDE guidance, notably a guide Implementation of a Common Data Environment (PDF), produced for the Scottish Futures Trust by AECOM and published in August 2018 – so predating the ISO 19650 Parts 1 and 2, and the UK guidance. Another document, from the CDE sub group of the UK Government BIM Working Group and entitled Asset Information Management – Common Data Environment: Functional Requirements (PDF), also predates the ISO standards, etc, having been published in February 2018. (This may also need to be reviewed once ISO 19650-3 covering asset operations is published later in 2020, while its observations on storage and cyber security could well also be updated once ISO 19650-5 is published).
So, we are at an interesting point in the development of BIM and of CDEs. To date, much of the standardisation work has focused on processes and information deliverables – often files. While (naturally) vendors might prefer users to rely on a single CDE or vendor silo solution, perhaps we are now reaching the point where vendors need to be thinking less about single common data environments and more about connected data environments?
(* Disclosure: This blog post was written partly in my role, since July 2019, as a member of the UK BIM Alliance executive team and more recently as chair of its Technology Group, who’s members include several vendors of CDE technologies. The views are mine alone.)