The Boring Stuff is Important: Adoption of IFC and COBie

The construction industry loves something to have a good moan about. The latest target is COBie. It is little understood in the UK and the reasons for its use are not clear, making it an excellent target for a good rant.


It is further confused when its mixed with a little IFC (Industry Foundation Class) some Uniclass (or is it Omniclass?) and a new plan of work! When people don’t really understand something the barriers go up and they fight against it.


I personally believe the work being done by the Government is a really good effort to align all of the various parts of the industry. This is somewhere where so many others have tried and failed. You may have noticed that many of those who are currently developing the standards have grey hair, which clearly suggests this is something they have been pursuing for many years.


The author of PAS 1192, Melvyn Richards, was awarded an OBE for his input and I believe this was well deserved as whilst very important work I certainly wouldn’t want to dedicate a career to such a subject.


I believe much of the confusion is the lack of explanation of why the Government is putting such an emphasis on COBie. This would go a long way to help those involved to see the bigger picture and to understand why we are going through such pain. The construction industry is very good at getting on with things however are not great at investing up front.


COBie is in effect a report from a project database. As with any database you need to invest first before you see the result. As our industry is currently a little disjointed sometimes it can be a challenge for everyone to appreciate the bigger picture.


Fundamentally the Government wants and needs consistency of data in the future. For them to achieve this they need to get the construction industry all pointing in the same direction and speaking the same language. 


COBie is no more than a framework which sets out what information a client wants at pre-defined stages (COBie drops). An export from the database (or model) is required at the stages defined by the Government. At each stage there are a series of questions asked and the answers have to be supplied.


Through the design and construction phase this is a check that everything which has been asked for is in the model.


Whilst the private sector is struggling to understand I believe the biggest challenge will be for the the public sector. Much of the early information required in the COBie drops needs to come from the Government department. From experience often some of this information is missing at the early project stages. The COBie approach structures and monitors the release of information, and means the reporting on what is there or not is objective rather than subjective.


There is also an issue around who will check the COBie drops for content. At present the tool to review the drops seems a little sketchy. Even if the tool is available the the government will need the skills to review the information in 2016 if this is going to be a contractural requirement.


If it’s a contractual requirement and the data is incomplete because of missing information from the client, who is liable? I’m sure the lawyers will have a field day.


We then move onto IFC. This subject really polarises opinion. Some think it is an Autodesk v Open BIM debate. This is a naive position as IFC has a far greater influence.


IFC was developed again to allow the sharing of information as well as interoperability between software. All of the major software vendors support it as do many of the academic institutions.


The focus must be on what IFC is trying to achieve. Whilst IFC carries geometry and data it does not allow the intelligence which is embedded in the native files. In some case this intelligence is critical to the designer and in others it may not be required.


The use of IFC does allow the development of open source tools which has to be a positive aspect to allow low cost use of the data.To move data from a native file to an IFC clearly, the fields need to be mapped. It is in this mapping not IFC itself where things can be lost providing one of the biggest criticism. I believe the software vendors will ultimately resolve these issues and the debate about IFC should not be one of ‘either or’ but a ‘one of both’.


The native files and software may have a use for one particular aspect and the IFC may have another. Provided IFC can easily be produced as an export from the authoring software that should not be an issue as long as the limitations of re-importing are understood.


Whilst I have been reviewing the alignment of parts of the industry I could not ignore the RIBA Plan of Work. The industry has had so many different plans of works. The RIBA Plan of Work has been the foundation of many projects.


Again the Government and the construction industry council have been keen to get a standard approach. They suggested a numbered system which has been reviewed and has formed the basis of the new RIBA Plan of Work.


Most people will know that I am not the RIBA’s biggest supporter however on this occasion I must applaud them. They have been the first institution to respond and have clearly set out their intentions. I think the change may seem small to move from letters to numbers but I believe it marks the beginning of a new future for the industry.


We are clearly becoming far more aligned and are focusing on how together we can improve value for our clients. The Digital Plan of Work will be issued in the coming months which will give a template for data management for construction projects.


Whilst COBie, IFC and the new Plan of Work may all seem frustrating and unclear at present, I applaud those who are pushing change. It is never easy to change but doing something is better than doing nothing.


I will continue to support the adoption of COBie and IFC and will work hard to make it work for all of the right reasons!