Current common data environments have a number of shortcomings. What needs to happen for them to better support efficient information-sharing in our industry, asks Paul Wilkinson?

Invicara is marketed as a data platform for the entire lifecycle of a building

When it comes to defining a common data environment, or a CDE, confusion abounds. If we want an ‘official’ definition, we might look to the UK Avanti Project, which ran between 2001 and 2005 and drove the development of BS 1192:2007. This describes a CDE as, “a repository, [...] a project extranet or electronic data management system.

” Two years later, PAS 1192-2:2013 defined a CDE thus: “A single source of information for any given project, used to collect, manage and disseminate all relevant approved project documents for multidisciplinary teams in a managed process.” This could take the form of “a project server, an extranet, a file-based retrieval system or other suitable toolset.”

In other words, at different times, the industry has talked about documents and file repositories on one hand and data management systems on the other, as if they were the same thing.

“In looking to move away from clunky reliance on emails and attachments, which was simply a digitisation of a clunky paper process, we seem to have confused our aspirations to share data and manage BIM processes, with specifications about exchanging files,” says Turner & Townsend BIM consultant Shaun Farrell. “As a result, our processes often tend to focus on manually exchaning, checking and approving file-based deliverables.”

Farrell believes that CDEs should be more integrated with the authoring platforms used to create information – not just BIM tools, but also other digital tools including Microsoft Office, Oracle Primavera and costing and estimating platforms, giving seamless support for time-based simulations, cost and asset/ operational management data.

However, he recognises that industry inertia, current information management practices and the widespread familiarity of managing documents and folders make this a challenge.

Evolution, not revolution

In an earlier article, I outlined how, since 2011, the UK industry focus on BIM has offered a wealth of opportunities to software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers specialising in construction collaboration. Most of these now provide a CDE as part of this service, to enable the sharing of modelbased information and related workflows by teams looking to comply with the UK BIM Level 2 requirements. These include Aconex, Asite, Autodesk BIM360, Bentley ProjectWise, GroupBC and Viewpoint. But the shift to providing CDEs has been an evolution, not a revolution.

When Farrell digs into the detail of CDE use, he says, compliance with the BS 1192:2007 process (see box below, The BS 1192 process in a nutshell) is pretty patchy, often breaking down at the very first ‘check, review, approve’ gateway.

The BS 1192 process in a nutshell

BS 1192:2007 outlined a four-step process following the life history of information. This starts with initial design ‘Work in Progress’ (WIP), then progresses through ‘Shared’ to ‘Published’, with any outdated or superseded information going to ‘Archive’.

Typically, WIP-stage information is only viewable by those involved within a company, but it still needs to be captured in the CDE as it will be subject to checks and approvals that might need to be audited later.

Once WIP is ‘Shared’, other members of the design and construction team can see the information – it might be used for coordination and clash detection, for example – and once these processes are completed, it may be ‘Published’. This means the work now constitutes a specific client deliverable: a planning application, a construction status document, model or drawing are common examples.

A lot of information is also given ‘Client Published’ status, meaning it becomes part of the client’s asset information system.

Most of the current crop of CDE platforms do not handle the transition from ‘Work In Progress’ (WIP) to ‘Shared’ particularly well, he says, due to lack of integration with the authoring platform and the fact that few authoring platforms integrate with collaboration platforms, except when they are vendor-specific solutions designed to do exactly that.

“Designers are making some key early decisions here, and yet we are often only capturing the final output from their decision-making, then uploading that deliverable to the CDE. I’ve yet to see many CDEs that allow source information and references to be tracked and linked back to WIP. Clear and auditable change management between information exchanges is still a human activity, or specialist platform-based activities based on file-by-file comparison, rather than information progress over time.”

One solution that potentially bridges the gap is Opentree’s Cabinet. Teessidebased Opentree provides an internal document management application that connects via APIs to several CDE platforms (Viewpoint, Aconex and Viewpoint are among early partners), allowing the sharing of CAD, BIM, MS Office and other files. Importantly, Cabinet enables sharing of both files and their related metadata, and then ensures metadata is synchronised if, for example, a Revit model’s suitability status is changed.

Nottinghamshire-based contractor North Midland Construction recently turned to Viewpoint and Opentree to help it demonstrate PAS1192 compliance processes to its clients. “As NM Group provides both design and project delivery services, it is doubly important for us to have a strong platform to connect our backoffice information management to the daily needs of our project teams,” explains Gary Ross, head of BIM at the company. “Cabinet will demonstrate to our customers in highways, civil engineering and utilities that we satisfy the BIM process requirements they and their supply chain partners increasingly demand.”

Client ownership

But should a CDE be something provided by a contractor or by a project manager? At Turner & Townsend, Farrell believes not:

“Very few of our clients are actually in the construction industry – to them, the industry is often a necessary evil that they have to deal with in order to procure the products produced by that industry,” he says. While the CDE focus has been mainly around PAS 1192-2, project delivery and multi-party information creation, this often isn’t key to the company’s clients, he explains.

“Their ‘business as usual’ tends to focus on asset operations, including minor and major works, recognising that operating and maintaining built assets can represent up to 85% of their whole-life cost. So we need to be thinking more about, and supporting, their long-term information and data needs – or the needs of the people undertaking facilities management for them.”

In an ideal world, a CDE should be owned by the owner-operator, he says, with suppliers invited into it for the duration of their inputs. “However the reality is that we often have multiple CDEs, duplicating data for different businesses and for different parts of the process — design, procurement, construction, operation — and little agreement on how long these environments need to be set up, secured, stable and accessible.”

This is a good point, because there has already been at least one court case relating to a dispute involving one party blocking a contractor’s access to a CDE, namely Trant Engineering v Mott MacDonald.

Farrell is not the only observer frustrated by over-concentration on the delivery phase. Anand Mecheri, CEO of BIM data platform provider Invicara, says the full potential of BIM has not yet been fully realised: “Nobody was building the platforms, and no platforms will succeed if the base data is bad. Garbage in, garbage out. BIM, particularly at Level 1, has been too focused on drawing deliverables rather than data.”

Mecheri continues: “Data still isn’t a high priority for everybody; supply chain interest in data only materialises when the client demands delivery of data to agreed standards. We need more aware owners and more mature practitioners. So it’s early days for BIM. It’s a marathon not a sprint.”

According to Mecheri, Invicara provides visibility of how products are incorporated into designs, assembled into systems, and operated in buildings. It provides a data connection from manufacturer right through to the asset owner-operators’ data needs. In January 2018, the company announced a $10m investment from construction products giant Kingspan, which will be helping Invicara pilot solutions.

Mecheri claims that Invicara takes a different approach to the current generation of CDE vendors. “They come from an EDMS background; we come from a world of data,” he says. “We start from validated data and then enable clients to put good data on top of that, and to then get actionable intelligence from their built assets. As our entry point is different, so our approach to APIs is different.”

Invicara provides application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow data to flow between the systems of all the participants in project design, delivery and operation. Its first product, BIM Assure, created a plugin for Autodesk’s Revit to share data to its cloudbased platform. “We are the only vendor providing rules-based BIM data validation in the cloud. Solibri does BIM validation but on the desktop and the future is all about the cloud,” says Mecheri.

Connecting data

A focus on data could help towards the achievement of the ‘Digital Built Britain’ vision. First articulated in a February 2015 report, this gained new impetus from the establishment in November 2018 of a new £5.4m Centre for Digital Built Britain at the University of Cambridge.

The centre is intended to lead the combination of BIM with the Internet of Things (IoT), advanced data analytics, data-driven manufacturing and the digital economy, in order to enable the UK to plan new infrastructure more effectively, build it at lower cost and operate and maintain it more efficiently.

Mark Bew, former chair of the UK BIM Task Group, is a strategic advisor to the CDBB and says: “Level 2 was all about doing the existing model better. The future is about doing something different. There is going to be a lot of inertia. The status quo – the ‘we’ve always done it like this around here’ – is the first hurdle to overcome. There is a general lack of understanding of why we need to change and this must be addressed.”

Steps have already been taken; for example, connecting BIM and smart cities thinking to create a Level 2 ‘City package’ of guidance. “What we will be doing over the next year,” says Bew, “is gluing our BIM and City standards together. The alignment of end-to-end data is not perfect by a long way, but we’ve taken the first step in standardising data services for the entire life cycle of assets, including service provision.”

Bew’s own company, PCSG, for instance, has already helped develop a platform that enables teams to rapidly access open and licensed third-party GIS data and combine it with projectspecific BIM data to improve planning and decision-making (see box below, Introducing GeoConnect+)

However, such examples are currently rare. As Invicara’s Anand Mecheri says: “Construction is the biggest, most complex and least digitised industry on the planet. But data will grow in value, particularly when asset owners start to analyse their business operational metrics and see how better economic, environmental and social performance is related to how their built assets perform.”

Meanwhile, CDEs are, it seems, a c lass of technology compromised by industry processes still based on the exchange of files and on version and status control of those files.

Technology providers could then be creating applications that exploit such data services. Shaun Farrell says: “Change management is the biggest challenge – we still can’t track changes easily in something a ubiquitous as Excel for example – as evolution of our technologies has been slow. We still insist on uploading and downloading files when data synchronisation is where we need to be.”

Some CDE vendors are trying to facilitate industry change by integrating with other tools to cut data duplication and speed up processes. Aconex and US vendor Procore, for example, are building communities of technology partners connected by APIs. Mecheri welcomes this: “A ‘network of systems’ must replace the idea of a single CDE application. Duplication of data is a huge problem.”

Introducing GeoConnect+

Consultancy PCSG worked with Reading-based GroupBC and Ordnance Survey to develop a service called GeoConnect+, launched at the GeoBusiness event in London in May 2017.

GeoConnect+ connects BIM information with geospatial data in a way that helps large asset owners and operators manage large, disparate estates better. Datasets include OS open data, OS mapping data, land and property data, flood, river and road network data.

The map or satellite imagebased interface is accompanied by a menu of ‘layers’ that can be switched on, singly or in multiple combinations, as required. Users can, for example, view all listed buildings or sites of special scientific interest, in a specific area, and even identify the number of households, complete with addresses and postcode data, that may potentially be affected by a development.

Sussex-based regional contractor Mackley undertakes a wide range of civil engineering projects in marine and river environments. Technical services manager Trevor Mossop, said: “GeoConnect+ simplifies document access and ensures that all of the available documents, pertinent to a geotagged location, are bound together and returned from any device without reliance on understanding the search criteria. This is a massive step forward in the usability of the CDE, where accessibility and ease of use dictate buyin by staff on any project.”

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to AEC Magazine for FREE