Did you know that over 96% of all data captured in an engineering and construction project goes unused?  Moreover, 30% of initial data created during the design and construction phases is completely lost by the time the project closes out! [1] Well, this is the reality of the construction sector today. Like many industries, construction deals with exponentially increasing volumes of diverse data from different sources. In fact, by 2025, the amount of data predicted to be in the world is an unfathomable 175 zettabytes [2], with the construction industry alone processing over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data [3] 

Data in the construction industry

Let’s paint a quick picture: some of the largest infrastructure developments require, on average, 130 million emails, 55 million documents and 12 million workflows [1]- that’s a lot of pain points! To make matters more complex, each stakeholder often uses and prefers particular software and methods to manage and store their own data, creating fragmented workflows and unreliable and segmented data sets.

From simple retrofits to mega-projects like the world’s longest underground railway tunnel, astronomical amounts of data are created and shared throughout a project lifecycle. And with so many megaprojects happening globally it should be no surprise that key stakeholders are looking for better ways to deliver proposals and forecast accurately. 

Studies have shown that 52% of all rework during the design and delivery of a construction project is due to poor data and communication [2]. Often, information shared between teams, internal and external stakeholders, managers, authorities, asset owners, and clients is unstructured, poorly coordinated and hard to find. This results in an estimated 20-25% added cost on project delivery.

Closing Data Gaps

So, how can this data be better managed, and what kinds of steps should we expect to take forward? Well, what is needed most is more uniformity and integrity in how data is structured, managed and distributed so that rework, timescale blow-ups, and budget blow-outs are a thing of the past. Essentially, effective project delivery should rely more on the following principle: provide the right people with the right access to the right information at the right time. That’s why we need more Common Data Environments or CDEs.

Governments and key members in the construction and engineering sectors are keen to establish CDEs to achieve consistency and better data collaboration across project teams. In this article, we’ll provide a case for the wider adoption of standardised ways of structuring data and collaboration through CDEs but also where there is room for improvement in their usability.

Connecting construction: what is a Common Data Environment?

Suppose you’re an engineer working on a major civil development. Your day’s probably jam-packed with planning designs, drafting, onsite visits, gathering information, and taking phone calls. You might have to schedule meetings with clients and asset owners to ensure technical requirements are implemented and aligned with designs. You might be working with architects to exchange design solutions or with estimators and surveyors to discuss associated costs and potential design risks. You’ll probably also have to navigate through hundreds of submittals, RFI’s and an insane amount of elements in a BIM model. In short, you'll consume, provide and generate a great deal of data. Sometimes, this project data is not yet formally delivered to clients, owners or stakeholders; when it is, it might come back to you to be reworked, changed or manipulated. 

So far, your day is looking a lot like this:

Put yourself in anybody else shoes, and you’re still facing similar issues!

Now, add an online centralised management tool of all key digital assets that provides a single source of truth for collecting, managing and sharing information amongst your team; your day might now look like this:

This is essentially what a Common Data Environment is. It is an online repository that combines all project data, teams, workflows and documentation into a coordinated database. 

Generally, a CDE would establish a central source of truth for works in progress, an accessible platform where team members can easily find information they need. The data isn’t copied or duplicated; a check-in and check-out system is facilitated, enabling version control, quality assurance and audit trails. Members will be confident that they are always working on the latest information, minimising the risk of rework, duplication, and mistakes.

A CDE can take many forms depending on the size and type of project; it can be a project server, extranet or a cloud-based system. In any scenario, teams and key stakeholders can consume, develop and edit approved-to-share information that they require before it is formally delivered. Once approved and ready to share, data is moved to another state within the CDE where additional stakeholders can consume the information but not manipulate or change it. If edits are needed, data returns to the work-in-progress stage for updates and re-approval. Once project data is authorised and signed off, it can be issued from anything to formal delivery, tender, milestone delivery or construction. Teams, authorities, asset managers and owners can access finalised and delivered digital assets here.

Data sets in the ACE industry after often extremely complex, varied and fluid and not all CDEs are compatible with managing all kinds of data. So industries often create an ecosystem of CDEs to meet the needs of the industry. For example, a separate CDE might be created just for Revit users to collaborate, and then revisions of this sub-CDE are exported to an umbrella CDE. Either way, organization-wide data flows should achieve interoperability among systems so that companies can efficiently store, track, manage and transfer data without duplication.

Benefits for built assets and projects

Simply understanding a Common Data Environment can give you insight into its importance. Namely, being able to consolidate all project data from graphical to non-graphical models in design and all the way through to construction into one common CDE is a big disruptor. All schedules, forecasts, estimates, contracts, drawings, 3D models, handover documentation and reports are digitised, and everyone on the team has access to it, depending on the level of authorisation or contractual obligations, creating a collaborative and well-managed space to share work. Here are some major benefits of implementing common data environments on construction projects:

  • Establishing an audit trail of digital assets through a secure, set, undeletable, and collaborative platform.
  • Improved coordination and teamwork across internal and external teams because of a centralised system. 
  • Project time and cost are reduced due to coordinated information and access efficiencies.
  • Access to real-time project plans and leads facilitates better decision making, understanding of the whole project landscape and accurate project and business insights.
  • Reusing and sharing information for downstream project activities aids in more accurate cost planning and estimates, facilities management, and construction.
  • Ease of rework, reviews, checks, information reissue and version control
  • Reduced risk of error, rework and time wastage.

Obstacles to CDE adoption

The paradox is that many of the challenges facing the construction industry are obstacles to CDE adoption but are precisely what a CDE would help solve. Whilst executing projects through seamless workflows and enhanced collaboration sounds impressive, the execution is challenging due to:

  • Unintegrated software: most pieces of engineering and construction software do not work well together, and it becomes a challenge to integrate information from these programs across all platforms and channels.
  • Data loss: as information is moved between project phases, files can become incompatible, details can be lost due to human error, and data may be lost.
  • Inconsistency: individual stakeholders, project teams all have their own workflows and processes, and when it comes to information being shared, inconsistencies, conflicts and misinformation can occur.
  • Standardisation: different teams and companies have different standards for project success, and the ways projects are carried out and evaluated vary.
  • Organisation: In many AEC firms, organisational processes cannot accommodate advances in data analytics. Companies struggle with frontline managers and field staff that do not understand how to implement and participate in new data-driven processes or are resistant to data-driven business models.

Final Thoughts

CDEs are an important step forward in the construction sector; not only do they create a shared language for participants to use across a project, but they are seen as the most effective solution to the data issue that has plagued the feasibility, efficiency, and productivity of construction projects.

Platforms like TrimbleConnect, Autodesk Drive, Oracle, Sage or CMiC should be evaluated and defined in a data strategy so that all data sources and repositories are counted for and to allow interoperability among systems to optimise data flows. 

Right now, industry professionals see the value of BIM methodology in the built environment, and it has become a common and useful way to deliver construction projects. The data provided to teams from a BIM model can reduce the risk and cost of rework and poor designs by providing all key stakeholders with a visual model of a project throughout its lifecycle. A CDE platform provides that extra ease, efficiency, and security to record, distribute and resolve project evolutions and challenges at a lower cost. 

New technologies are also driving changes when it comes to sustainable outcomes. Harnessing data can lead to cleaner and smarter projects. Technologies can shake up the traditional development, construction and operation lifecycle of a building and recompose it in ways that bring sustainable benefits throughout the project lifecycle. Hot technologies, like digital twins, do not only provide a visualisation of physical assets but can help the construction sector visualise how sustainability evolves and what it looks like throughout all the building stages, both using predictive analysis and real-time data.  With more efficient delivery and a better-informed client, CDEs can help engineers and construction professionals bring enhanced control, productivity and insights to projects.

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References

[1] FMIcrop “Big Data = Big Questions for the Engineering and Construction Industry” 

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