Are you ready for a digital future?

Published:  02 February, 2017

CIBSE, BIM, Building Information Modelling, Soft Landings, building performance

All that data which is an inevitable part of digital engineering could easily be overwhelming — or engineers could get to grips with it to deliver buildings that perform better and help clients use them more effectively. Matt Snowden of CIBSE reviews options expressed at a recent event.

When we take a step back and review the engineering industry it’s easy to take a look at the past and the future. We can look at the decisions and plans we made a week, a month or a year ago and take lessons about what worked well and what was less successful — and promise to learn from them. That’s all part of planning for the future, where we’re confident that these experiences will help us to avoid making mistakes and achieve our objectives.

What is much harder is examining what we are doing right now, particularly where technology is concerned, mostly because of a lack of data. At a time when new technology available to the engineering sector promises to revolutionise our jobs as much as when the computer replaced the slide rule and the drawing board, it seems impossible to imagine that this might be holding us back rather than pushing us forward.

That problem was discussed at a recent CIBSE event* in a session entitled ‘Are you ready for a digital future?’. Rather than focussing on the technology itself, the session focussed on those in the supply chain that are trying to use the technology. What emerged was what the supply chain actually wants from digital engineering, and how companies can overcome their own shortcomings to take full advantage.

Mike Darby, CEO and co-founder of Demand Logic, made a great point about the sheer volume of data available to engineers in the modern world. A lot has been said about big data in just about every industry there is, but built-environment professionals are at the forefront of the biggest connected devices in the world — the buildings we live and work in.

He calculates that there are over 170 000 BIM (building information modelling) data points in a new building like 20 Fenchurch Street (the ‘Walkie Talkie’) alone, bringing in spreadsheets worth of data every day, but that the human interface with this data creates a bottleneck. Every byte of data is wasted, along with the resources expended to gather it, if it is not formatted, stored and used correctly at the user end. This amounts to a lot of waste, both potential and actual, and a lot of money thrown away as a result.

Panellist Dave Matthews, a partner at Hoare Lea, said that we’re just not designing user-friendly systems that give simple feedback about their performance. This is an obvious problem, because users can’t act on what their building is telling them about its performance if they can’t understand what it’s telling them. This part is the responsibility of engineers, who can demonstrate their value to a project by working with the other stakeholders and the occupants to explain how a building works and why, and how data can help to manage and enhance the experience of actually using the building.

The job of the engineer doesn’t end when the keys to the building are handed over and everybody has moved in. Alex McLaren of Heriot-Watt University was on the panel and believes that it’s her responsibility as an engineer to revisit the project periodically to check up on the tenants and to see what lessons she can learn from the project in use as well.

According to Mike Darby, those in charge of maintaining the building and its performance just aren’t trained to a high-enough standard to get the best use out of its systems.

By sticking with a project to make sure that everybody has enough information to run it properly afterwards, an engineer can ensure that issues that aren’t picked up in the commissioning period don’t come back to haunt them later on. This can simply mean a handover period to explain why certain systems exist and how they work, or it can mean a more in-depth training period to bring the maintenance staff up to speed. This sounds like a lot of work but, of course, there’s something in it for the engineer too. Alex McLaren posed the question, ‘Who remembers the engineer after the end of a project?’ You may not have your name stamped on the building like an architect would, but you can demonstrate continuous value to the project way beyond delivery by ensuring it works well.

CIBSE, BIM, Building Information Modelling, Soft Landings, building performance

To help solve this issue, Soft Landings has been developed. Soft Landings requires the client to set aside a small amount of the project budget to allow the architect and engineers to continue their association with the project in a pre-defined manner for a period of up to three years. This is to assist in training the occupants of the building and to provide troubleshooting for the systems they have designed. This should make sure that the building is run in a way that is more in line with how it was designed.

A second issue is what we actually do with the information itself. On this point Dwight Wilson of Imtech noted that, whilst we have the technology to capture the information digitally, it is still processed manually at a computer by a person, and the decisions are still made by people. This might become urgent sooner than we had thought if, as theorised by Casey Cole of Guru Systems, this data stops being a matter of reputational problems caused by alleged poor performance and becomes a contractual and legal issue further down the line.

One solution to this is to exchange data in a pre-defined and structured way that does not rely on any proprietary format. COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange) is a format that may be used for this purpose. As it is an open format, often visualised in spreadsheet form, it can be used to exchange data between the harvesting mechanisms, be they model files or sensors outputting data, straight into a facility-management system, removing the need for manual handling.

This needs to be tackled throughout the supply chain, because it’s a case of both skills and process. Engineers need to be more familiar with the technology so we can be sure we understand it, and we’ll also need to make sure that everybody else involved has the right processes in place to manage it. Information is no use if it’s not consistently named and formatted and saved in the right place or accessible to everyone who needs it, so the processes by which it is stored need to be robust.

It was heartening to hear from panel chair Les Copeland that WSP has hired more coders than engineers recently, because integrating those skills into what we do as engineers will be crucial to fixing this problem. But not every company has access to these resources, so it’s something that we must help everyone to do better. There’s an opportunity for a reputational bonus here too; as Casey Cole said, one reason why we can make such improvements in building performance now is because of poor performance in the past. Clients have had their fingers burnt before, so we’ll need to be in a position to give them better data to help themselves if they ask for it.

As computers get more powerful and buildings get better connected, ‘big data’ is only going to be more pervasive, not go away. All that’s going to change is who is accountable for it. As of now it’s a tool to help demonstrate performance, but it could easily come back to bite us later if we don’t get the building right. It’s much better to harness data effectively now, and make sure we have a positive and consistent approach all the way through the supply chain from the BIM modeller to the clients themselves.

Matt Snowden is communications executive with the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

* Building Performance Conference & Exhibition, 17 to 18 November 2016.

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