A journey from the virtual need to the right product

How industry-agreed standards enable a truly digital construction process

Modified on November 16, 2020

No one can dispute the fact that construction is a complex endeavour. It includes different phases, involves many actors, and must follow local and international requirements. Sometimes it spans over years, or even decades. Furthermore, during all different stages, an enormous amount of information needs to be communicated between the planning, designing, building and operating parties.

In this article, we will explore the construction world and take you on a journey from the generic, virtual, need for a construction object to the ‘right’ physical product delivered by the manufacturer.

How a typical specification process looks today?

How each construction actor understands the information he needs to deliver or request, depends mainly on his role and respective point of view in the building process. A good example is the specification process within a project. Let’s examine a typical situation where a construction object, for instance, a window is to be specified and purchased.

A building contractor applies for and wins a tender to design and build a school. His design team creates multiple iterations of the spaces. After agreeing with the client, the created model is published and shared with the project team for the next detailed design stage. The MEP engineer would be interested in what the area of the windows is and what the thermal transmittance coefficient of the whole window is. Of significant importance is also the airtightness that the window ensures, as well as the type of glass – there will be different requirements for windows on the north facades and the west facades. The electrical engineer would also be interested in the window, but more precisely, the glazing area of the window since it is important for the calculation of space illumination. The environmental assessor would gather all technical and building requirements, as well as the respective Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) in order to proceed with the Life-cycle assessment (LCA).

All the information generated by these actors may reflect on the price so it should be made available to the cost engineer. Moreover, these actors need different granularity and parts of the information. Nevertheless, in the end, they should be able to make sense of it together and finally have a fully operable asset.

But how this typical specification process could look tomorrow?

Imagine that instead of the manual process of requesting various types of information, the construction demand-side and construction supply-side are united in a common digital environment. This means that all construction actors and, more importantly, the software systems that they use, are interconnected and can ‘talk’ to each other.

As various levels of information (LOI) are needed at a different point in time, by different actors, every one of them can access the database and get the right information, for the right purpose, at the right time. After all the information is discussed and approved by the project manager, a specification with the right data needed for the purchasing process is easily submitted to the procurement manager. Instead of requesting a quote via unstructured formats in Excels, PDFs, emails, there is a common template. The procurement manager accesses the digital environment where he uses an already agreed template to find the right products either in a catalogue of his preferred manufacturers or in the global database.

Manufacturers use the same data models to connect their internal databases to the marketplace so automatic search and suggestions are possible. All irrelevant products are filtered out while the procurement manager is searching, simply because the products don’t comply with the specified requirements. Once the data is verified against the requirements and possible clashes checked and eliminated, the order is placed with the manufacturer. In the end, all data about the specified window is uploaded and stored in a digital format. From there it can connect to ANY other software system.

After the long years of operation, the information concerning the end-of-life (EOL) of the window is preserved – how to dispose of it, does it contain any hazardous materials and more. In order to promote circularity, certain materials can be recycled or reused – all data needed to do so is available and accessible.

Having deep-dived in the above example, it is clear that to manage construction objects and systems right, we need a common digital ecosystem. And ‘common’ could be achieved only through industry-agreed standards. In order to create rules and automation paths for machines that can be applied globally, we need a repository of trusted, connected data that anyone involved in the project can use at any point in time.

Paving the way to digitally-enabled construction

To achieve such a digital ecosystem, firstly, there is a need to align the ‘language’, i.e. the different terms used by different actors. Here comes the help of the ‘data dictionary’ in construction. A data dictionary translates the meaning of a ‘window’ or ‘width’ to any language in the world, including the universal ‘machine’ language. It is a place where one can find what means what, so that the same term in Italy is equal to that in France, Singapore or the States.

digital twin

Secondly, every piece of knowledge should be referenced by a credible source. The national and international standardisation bodies, such as the European organisation CEN or the American ASTM International, put forward technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. They provide a common language and a clear reference to what parameters a specific market requires. By studying these standards and applying them, it is ensured that there are no duplicates of knowledge, thus preserving the quality of the information in the cloud and helping the global community to create new knowledge according to best practices.

Third, implementing Data Templates linked to that data dictionary serves as a basis to structure the information needed to exchange. Data Templates are an essential part of such a digital ecosystem. Through them, the construction actors are able to communicate in a uniform way and obtain the specific information that they need. By using this machine-readable and language-neutral format, they can put together a compilation of properties about any construction object to fit their specific use cases.

Industry-agreed standards guarantee the smooth journey

To ensure that all properties are universally understood, both by machines and humans, the standardisation bodies CEN and ISO published recently standard EN ISO 23386. The main purpose of it is to make information machine-readable and ensure the data quality. ISO 23386 provides a rigorous system of validation of all digital content. It defines how properties and property groups shall be established by knowledgeable, trusted experts in a data dictionary, as well as how this content shall be mapped to other data dictionaries. Aligned with this, the Data Template structure proposed in the new standard EN ISO 23387, is specifically developed to serve and incorporate the various information needs of all actors in the construction industry – be it for streamlining internal processes in construction or manufacturing or information exchange.

Final words

Standardised construction data in a common digital environment allows any actor and software system to source information from any point in the world. When data is consistent, unambiguous, structured and based on sources of credible truth it becomes a powerful business asset.

Ultimately this leads to a better, smarter and more efficient built environment and taken from there – the opportunities are truly limitless.


If you would like to learn more about Cobuilder’s software solutions or you need а consultancy, do not hesitate to contact us.