Why is COBie so complicated and how can it be improved?
When considering the question whether the industry is “ready for Construction Operations Building information exchange (COBie)” this journal will consider what ‘the industry’ is and the potential issues surrounding adoption based on the current status of the industry. Further to this, defining what COBie is and whether it is a ‘complicated’ schema will be reviewed to ensure that the premise is correct. Finally, whether COBie can be, or needs to be, improved will be considered and options for promoting its adoption within the United Kingdom (UK) proposed.
COBie is an information exchange specification for the life-cycle capture and delivery of information needed by facility managers. This means that COBie can be viewed in asset management and maintenance software as well as in simple spread sheets, which building managers require to when effectively managing their facilities. This versatility means that COBie can be used all projects regardless of size and technological sophistication (East, 2015) for the benefit of the building owner. However, the construction industry traditionally has not provided this information in a structured way and this appears to be in part due to the how the industry exists currently. The construction industry within the UK is made up of 280,000 businesses which includes around 2.93 million jobs, this equates to ten per cent of total UK employment (Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013, p. V). However, this large industry is also very fragmented when compared to European competitors and includes large amounts of subcontracting within this total. This means that a cohesive and coordinated approach to construction project information handover has been difficult as there have been competing demands and approaches across the supply chain, and little coordinated need from clients. In particular the Department for Innovation and Skills identifies that within the construction industry there is a “lower proportion of firms in construction provide training and have established training plans than in other sectors on average.” (Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013, p. V). When considering whether the construction industry is ready for COBie, this context needs to be taken into account. The same report goes on to illustrate that the construction industry appears to have low levels of Research and Development innovation when compared to other sectors (Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013, p. VII).
As COBie is a relatively new innovation the perception that the industry is not ready is understandable. However, without a constant requirement to improve any the deliverables for clients, companies that make up the construction industry as Luda (2015) states is at risk of disintemediation, particularly now that the Government has focused on modernising the industry to gain better value and long term benefits within the Government Construction Strategy (Cabinet Office, 2011). COBie is a “subset of BS ISO 16739 Industry Foundation Class (IFC) documented as a buildingSMART model view definition (MVD) which includes operational information” (BSI 2014, p.4). This can be explained as an exchange schema, internationally agreed, for exchanging facility information between client and their supply chain. However, what this means practically requires greater definition to assist those unfamiliar with this terminology. Further research has revealed that within PAS 1192:4 (BSI, 2014) there is no reference to the technology that creates a COBie file, which appears to be unhelpful if an organisation wants to produce this information. Additionally, if the Government requires COBie then it has to ask for this within their Employer’s Information Requirements (EIR) more often, and also ensure that it is not difficult for an interested party to discover more about a practical approach to creating a compliant COBie spread sheet. An area for development will be further dissemination, training and sharing of COBie in the future to allow the construction industry to better understand the process.
When considering whether the construction industry can use COBie and whether the technology can manage this, the National Building Specification document “The IFC/COBie Report” (2013) states that “getting to grips with new technology is always a challenge, with BIM (Building Information Modelling) it is overcoming cultural and process changes that it brings”, this appears to align with the appraisal of the construction industry already discussed. In addition to this there are further cautionary words; “despite being well defined the limited and in many cases non-existent practical knowledge of COBie amongst clients, designers, contractor and manufacturers is alarming” (2013, p. 2). Reflecting on this against the initial question it appears that, across a range of disciplines, COBie was not widely understood at the time and therefore will be unlikely to be requested by a client and this will impact on whether a supply team will be then have to offer this. It appears that this perception prevails currently.
In order to achieve successful implementation of COBie the construction industry appears to need help and support to manage this. Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) appears to promote the ability to work together with a shared aim as well as considering the whole project lifecycle aims, not just the stage a particular consultant or subcontractor is working on. Teicholz (2013) identifies; “The new focus in IPD is the final value created for the owner, the finished building. Rather than each participant focusing exclusively on their part of construction without considering the implications on the whole process, the IPD method brings all participants together early with collaborative incentives to maximize value for the owner.” (Teicholz, 2013).
He goes on to argue that closer collaboration and cooperation will eradicate the large amount of waste within design and will promote greater data sharing, which COBie is an attempt to achieve. This will particularly apply when considering the integration of facilities management into the team to ensure that the information they receive is useable, manageable and useful for the future operation of the facility. The BIM Task Group website states that “COBie allows the team to document their knowledge about a Facility in both its spatial and physical aspects … Usually the information needed to complete the COBie deliverable will be available already, either in your BIM models (sic) or in reports and schedules and in other material prepared for handover” (Bimtaskgroup.org, 2015). COBie is a subset of IFC, and IFC has become the new standard to share Information by consultant and contractor teams whose use of COBie in conjunction with IFC is clearly a sensible and useful step for the management of structured information upon handover and wider adoption of IPD would facilitate this process.
When reflecting on why COBie is considered complicated within the construction industry East states that all COBie consists of is a “performance-based specification for facility asset information” (East, 2014). Therefore, East (2014) explains that existing deliverables such as electronic Operations and Maintenance manuals, can be imported into the Computerised Maintenance Management System at no additional cost (however further evidence is required for this claim). East goes on to state that “while the technical details of COBie can appear complex, COBie files are not intended for end users”. He argues that the interface and use of this information will be completed by professionals who are well practiced in this, and the people who delve into this deeply will be programmers, not construction industry operatives or the end users of the facility. Therefore, it appears that overcomplicating COBie and how the information is presented and what is contained within this may be misleading. East goes on to say that as COBie is an open and shareable and people required to produce COBie can test this with a range of tutorials online (East, 2014).
In contrast to East, the National Building Specification (NBS): The Industry Foundation Class (IFC)/COBie Report (The NBS, 2012) states their own findings that corroborate the concept of a perceived complex system, initially stating that understanding new technologies is difficult and the result is a need for “cultural and process” change (The NBS, 2012, p. 2). The findings of this report reveal that there were some questions that were outstanding, these included; defining the level of detail fully as there is a risk of losing data or a spreadsheet with too many lines of data. Additionally, all items must have a Globally Unique ID (GUID) which remains unchanged throughout all the information exchange points and that file naming should conform to British Standard 8541 (British Standards Institute, 2011). Further recommendations focus on Classification (agreement of Uniclass 2, which is now complete), and, interestingly, that the authors felt that “the industry and Government need to continue to make it clear that Microsoft Excel is a means to present COBie information. It is the simplest form and it allows all of the supply chain to engage in and work with structured data” (The NBS, 2012, p. 11). This illustrates that at the time there was an understanding of the limitations of how the construction industry will connect with COBie and this required support from the within the industry as well as from Government, it appears that three years later this issue is still a cause for concern. Since this publication, further efforts have been made to communicate this by the groups such as the BIM Task Group, however it appears that further work to is required to improve understanding and adoption (Bimtaskgroup.org, 2015).
Therefore, to improve the perception, understanding and adoption of COBie three areas are critical; closer collaborative approach to projects utilising contractual systems such as IPD, clients confirming their requirements for COBie within their EIRs and training within the construction industry to expand the knowledge and application is needed. The use of IPD has been shown to offer benefits across a project for mutual benefit and this will be the starting point to enable a useful handover of information. The EIR will enable a client to specify their needs from the project, and raise awareness of how to achieve this through case study examples etc. In relation to asset management systems if COBie is clearly requested from design teams and contractors they will have to start to up skill to meet this need. The production of a better template for an EIR has been identified by Building SMART and Nick Nesbet is creating a template EIR which will align with UK and international standards (Elaine, 2015). In addition to this training for COBie is being supported by the Building Research Establishment and they have one day course that provide examples and exercises to support industry adoption – although there is a fee which could be prohibitive to some organisations (Bre.co.uk, 2015)). It could be argued also that sharing of Case studies and methodology would be helpful for adoption of COBie.
In conclusion the research has shown that the construction industry may not be ready for COBie, however much of the information it produces should be able to be integrated as it exists already, but closer collaborative approaches, wide spread training and a broad programme of communication is required to support the construction industry.
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Elaine, K. (2015). BIM+ – puts COBie, EIRs and BIM libraries on trial. [online] Bimplus.co.uk. Available at: http://www.bimplus.co.uk/news/buildingsmart-puts-cobie-eirs-and-bim-libraries-tr/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2015].
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