BIM, IoT, big data: A vision for a data enabled built environment


Graeme Forbes, Managing Director, Clearbox talks about BIM, the Internet of Things and big data in the built environment…

The building information modelling (BIM) journey is underway and accelerating across the globe. Those now wishing to tender for UK Government funded projects are required to demonstrate their ability to work with and provide information from a BIM-enabled environment.

Some companies will now be thinking that they can rest a while having achieved ‘level 2’. However, the reality is that level 2 was not intended as the destination; it is the departure point to fuel the journey towards data, information, knowledge and wisdom. While significant value can be achieved at level 2 it is evident that significantly more value is to be found by going beyond level 2 and managing the information at a data level.

However, it is my belief that some companies are now on the wrong track, driven by software vendors who are selling what they have based on where they came from, rather than what the industry truly needs to drive efficiency. The belief that a document-centric approach will work in the future is fundamentally flawed. Of course documents are still required, at least for the foreseeable future, but it is a data-centric approach that is required to better expose and access the information required to achieve more.

Truly data driven platforms

The key question is, how else can we move towards a true data driven information platform that can be linked at object level and is ready to be used in the ‘big data’ world without the accessibility to information that is currently locked away in files?

The most forward thinking companies are already using data-enabled collaboration and are moving quickly towards working with objects i.e. construction elements like slabs, columns, beams, windows, pumps, valves, etc., and focusing on the processes for gathering information attributes in a database, rather than trying to abuse 3D design files to store lots of detailed descriptive attribute data.

The result is building a fuller representation of the asset by federating the data from multiple models, storing it in a database, and then enriching the information as the project progresses. These companies are now reaping big rewards of increasing efficiency and quality of project outcomes. Some of the outcomes and ROI’s have been significantly better than anyone predicted.

Extracting value from information

The dawn of ‘big data’ is rapidly drawing nearer for the built environment. Technologies that take feeds of data from a myriad of sensors connected by the internet – the so called ‘Internet of Things’ or IoT – brings us into a highly connected world. The technology is available now to deliver masses of data, but as an industry we still need to figure out how to extract value from the information and resulting intelligence that big data and IoT is able to provide.

Big data is all about using this vast array of data sources to identify and analyse trends. This is quite different from ‘analytics’. I have a simple view that analytics is looking for information when you know the question. Big data is about analysing data and trends looking to provide answers to questions you should or could have asked.

From a construction industry perspective, we can apply this thinking to how we design and use our built environment, and how it could automatically react to changing conditions.

Picturing a data enabled environment

Imagine an emergency situation in an inner city high street where a fire breaks out. It is important to protect life and contain the environment to stop the fire spreading. By monitoring fire detection equipment and temperatures within spaces linked to a 3D building model it is possible to assess the extent of the fire and determine the best escape paths. Access to detailed building information can provide rich information on possible danger and safety areas, fire containment strategies and rescue planning.

Now bring into the scenario anonymous cellular data feeds, linked to the building model which can indicate the location or concentration of people in the building or in other dangerous areas.

Then consider the weather. If it’s windy, sending an emergency code to sensors to close air vents and seal the building may help bring the fire under control and stop the fire and smoke from spreading.  Anonymous cellular device feeds can also inform the emergency services on the dangers of predicted debris areas based on structural information and weather conditions. Traffic systems can automatically place signals on red to avoid traffic entering the area, and corridors opened up to assist first responder access.

An effective response

Analysing trends from simulations on real time and historic data, adding in such things as detailed building models, GIS information, weather and transportation feeds, movement of people, and so on, can bring intelligence and inform us on how situations can be prevented or responded to more effectively in the future.

This kind of approach is already starting to happen in small steps through the UK’s efforts to smooth out traffic flow by introducing ‘smart motorways’.

However to move forward I would suggest that we need to have a full physical and functional representation of our built assets at an object, or element level. We cannot achieve what is required in the future with the information being locked away in 3D models and document management systems. This kind of scenario calls for a data-enabled collaborative environment that can share detailed attribute information, in context from a database platform.

Making headway

Intelligent clients are already starting to consider how they can use information to drive better decisions. The supply chain also need to focus on their systems and processes so that they can meet the growing need to share a data driven, object-based information model which contains the full physical and functional characteristics of the asset.

There are companies making real headway with a data-centric information platform that sits on a database. I am currently working with one of the leading companies, Clearbox Limited  in the UK, who are committed to driving forward a data-driven information environment. Over the past two years the BIMXtra cloud based solution has been used on over 500 projects.

Contact me with views and comments at

Graeme Forbes

Managing Director


+44 (0) 800 085 9872

Please note: this is a commercial profile


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