Digitising construction data: classification systems and data templates

Modified on September 4, 2020

In recent years, different organisations have developed data models that are gradually being adopted across the construction sector to facilitate data exchange and accelerate the digital transformation. In this article we will compare the two most prevalent approaches and consider the pros and cons of applying them on industry level. The first approach is the use of classification systems to digitise information about construction objects.  The second alternative is Data Templates proposed by the standardisation bodies ISO and CEN for use in Building Information Modelling.

Defining the universal data model

The main aim of data models is to provide the definition and format of data. According to West and Fowler*, ‘if this is done consistently across systems then compatibility of data can be achieved. If the same data structures are used to store and access data then different applications can share data.’

This is why, the adoption of a common data model across the entire industry is key to enable construction to enter the digital age.

Simply put, if both machines and people are to freely exchange data, first we need to agree on how the data should be structured.

*Matthew West and Julian Fowler (1999). Developing High Quality Data Models. The European Process Industries STEP Technical Liaison Executive (EPISTLE).

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Classification systems in construction

Classification systems help us organise information in a specific order for a specific purpose, and they are widely used across the construction sector. In fact, they are a necessity given the complexity of the construction process itself. Moreover, in recent years, some classification systems have evolved beyond their basic purpose, aiming not only to classify information, but also to provide a structure for exchanging information about construction objects. So, can modern classification systems serve as data models as well?

Diverse classification ecosystem

Many classification systems are incorporated in national frameworks. As such, they are often based on the cultural, technological or legal particularities of a given country or region. This is why, they are very helpful to provide an industry-wide system for organising information at the national level.

However, this can pose disadvantages when it comes to structuring information about construction objects. Adopting an approach that restricts the use of the data to certain geographical regions, can prove to be a temporary solution that might require further efforts to rework and adapt to the changing needs and technologies in the sector.

Adopting an approach that restricts the use of the data to certain geographical regions, can prove to be a temporary solution that might require further efforts to rework and adapt to the changing needs and technologies in the sector.

Fit-for-purpose data 

When discussing data, it is important to consider how it will be used – who is the requester and what is the purpose. This is where construction data gets complicated. A typical project involves a number of different stakeholders who have various information needs to be able to perform their tasks. Many classification systems are developed to serve a specific purpose – specification, cost estimation, facility management, etc. Can these be successfully applied to meet different information needs?

Although today many classification systems incorporate different properties, they don’t necessarily ensure that information can be correctly interpreted and used by all actors.

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Although today many classification systems incorporate different properties, they don’t necessarily ensure that information can be correctly interpreted and used by all actors. If a property is not clearly defined according to a credible source, and connected to important attributes, such as test methods, values, units, then the information that it carries has no meaning. Furthermore, it can be misinterpreted causing costly mistakes.

Emerging business models in construction

New commercial models such as global digital marketplaces have already changed dramatically many industries worldwide. They can be a real game changer for construction as well. Being able to compare, select and order construction products, materials or systems based on their properties can bring huge benefits to optimise time-consuming processes, such as specification, cost estimation, purchasing, etc.

However, if the data models for these construction objects are only applicable in certain countries or regions, the global marketplace remains just another great concept for the future. Yet, the digitisation of construction data that we are working on today is the first major step towards this digital future, and we need to think big.

In fact, we need to think global

The need to establish a common data structure that can be used universally within the construction sector has already been identified by the standardisation bodies CEN and ISO.

The need to establish a common data structure that can be used universally within the construction sector has already been identified by the standardisation bodies CEN and ISO. As a result, in the last few years they have been working on developing a standard – EN ISO 23387 – for structuring information about construction objects in BIM. The standard was recently published by both organisations, thus providing the necessary guideline to make construction data universally understood.

Properties and data templates

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. By using data templates that are machine readable and language neutral, actors can put together a compilation of properties about any construction object to fit their specific use cases.

Properties created according to EN ISO 23386 are compiled into data templates according to EN ISO 23387 to fit specific information needs.

Properties, such as thermal transmittance or burglar resistance, that describe a construction object and are incorporated in such data templates are based on regulatory requirements defined by relevant product and industry standards. Other properties are developed to meet market and industry-recognised requirements or even user-specific needs. To ensure that all these properties are universally understood, both by machines and humans, the standardisation bodies CEN and ISO published recently another standard, EN ISO 23386, that is fully aligned with the Data Template standard. The main purpose of EN ISO 23386 is to make information machine-readable and ensure the quality of the data. This is done by giving each property a unique digital signature (a piece of code called a GUID) linking the properties to the credible sources (such as harmonised European standards) so that meaning can be kept no matter the local context. The standard also provides guidance on how to do this by establishing a strict data governance process.

The purpose of the new standard ISO 23387 is to further facilitate the use and reuse of data, by providing the structure to group the properties created according to EN ISO 23386 into data sets that address specific information needs, such as ’What data do I need to declare to comply with European regulations so that I can sell my product on the European market?’. Data templates can be used by a client to create his Asset Information Requirements or by a specifier to provide value ranges for the properties of construction objects and distribute them as data to the other stakeholders in the project.

The application of the two standards EN ISO 23386 & 87 ensures not only that nothing gets ‘lost in translation’, but it enables fully automated information exchange between any actors in the entire construction industry worldwide.

The way forward

At Cobuilder, we believe that industry standards are the way forward to propel the digital transformation in the construction sector. This is why, our platform of integrated solutions is developed in line with all relevant standards for data management, and data templates are at the core of it.

Ultimately, all digitisation efforts, including classification systems, should be aligned to ensure that data can be exchanged freely between any stakeholders within the industry. This is in fact one of the main goals of EN ISO 23386 and ISO 23387.

There are many roads that one can choose in their digital journey but trusting in standards is the safest and most straight-forward way to take you through the digital shift.

Cobuilder’s Consultancy service can also help you develop your own digital data strategy and then implement a solution that will be tailored to your company’s size and data management ambitions.