Our buildings, our data? Maybe not.

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This blog is about something I believe is fundamental in every aspect of our lives not just the built environment. It is about who collects, owns, controls, and sells data that we perceive as about us, or our buildings. Data which quite reasonably we think should belong to us. It has taken a long time for the world of massive data collection to reach the construction industry, but with the advent of The Internet of Things we can see it approaching. However, because construction is a little behind other areas of our lives we have the opportunity to look at how the data industry works elsewhere and ask is this going to be good for our buildings. How do we want this to work for us?

Of course, there is great potential in collecting data. Improvements in performance and operation could become easier as building equipment and sensors start to become more connected to the internet. The built environment is joining a growing part of our lives which falls within The Internet of Things. There are some big claims being made about the potential of connected ‘smart buildings’. Learning more about your built assets by automated data collection is something I would recommend to any building owner, but we have had this opportunity for a long time with modern BMS (Building Management Systems), perhaps we just don’t have a good interface with the limited data that is being collected. This is why the potential for connected devices to push data to the internet where is can be better analysed and visualised is great, but we need to ask is there a hidden trade off?

Look at smart devices. Whenever you download an app you’ll see a long list of access types you grant the app. This list often increases when you are offered updates and bug fixes. If you look closer the accesses that you grant often appear completely unconnected to the function of the app, for example access to your photos or text messages. This is because the business model involves collecting as much information as possible and then using or selling it to anyone who will pay for it, and by clicking ‘I agree’ you’ve given whoever makes the app, and probably third party affiliates, permission to do so.

Is it worth thinking about this in the context of buildings and the devices we are being offered? If you don’t this could affect your built environment, ask yourself what do you do when you arrive home one evening to find the terms and conditions of your thermostat have been changed and you can’t control the heating without agreeing to give it access to your Facebook friends or your text messages. If you use a smart device you already agree to these intrusive data gathering policies whenever you download an app.

This leads me to ask, what do we get in return for giving access? Is it good enough to get a better interface with the data, and will we even get that? Do we need the expertise of the big data crunchers in order to benefit from what is being collected? It is information collected over groups of buildings that won’t be available to the individual owner that has real financial value to the gatherer. If you get access to a trickle of data that may reduce your bills by a small amount but the device provider gets access to analyse data from hundreds of buildings and sell this on or use it to speculate in the market place who has the better deal?

I recall a comment by Paul Morrell during an NBS roundtable I participated in; when he was asked who owns the model by one of the other participants his response was categorical, ‘The client owns the model’. Of course he was talking about what we call BIM, but I would argue that collected in use data is part of that model, probably a much more important part than the skeletal geometry that a BIM provides. Consider this, if the terms and conditions that you have to agree to in order to use smart devices and sensors means that you must grant a license to collect data, including data outside the device itself but within the building’s network of other devices, do you really own the model? If you are not in control of your data it seems pretty obvious that you no longer own the model. I’d go further and say that, where data collected is from public buildings it should not pass into the soul ownership of private companies.

Let me be clear, I am not saying we shouldn’t collect data, it has huge potential, but we do need to find the best way of ensuring that free permanent access to our building data is retained in a sufficiently raw and open format that we can change data providers. In my mind the BIM protocols need a new section that covers data gathering to protect owners. After all one of the stated aims of the BIM task group is that no building data should ever be lost again. If it is contractually locked up in a private company’s bespoke system it is lost.

Should BIM time savings be invested in design time?

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I’m writing this blog after one of those fierce debates that occasionally flare up on Twitter where 140 characters just doesn’t seem sufficient to express a point. This time it stemmed from a talk I gave at EcoBuild last week where I expressed a preference to spend time saved internally by automation through BIM on refining the design or investing it in our technology strategy and implementation.

Claire Thirlwall of @ThirlwallAssoc, who many of you will know from landscape BIM, tweeted her approval of BIM enabling more design time. The ensuing debate quickly polarized into camps who agreed and those that felt any time saved should be used to shorten the design period instead of allowing more design development in the project programme. This second position seems short sighted and demonstrates a lack of understanding about design process and the merits of quality in design. Why would it be desirable to relentlessly shorten the planning and design of a project by weeks or months when a building may stand for 50 years or more? Process needs to be appreciated, ideas tested and design allowed to develop even on the most commercial of jobs. Design quality is an aspect of sustainability that is too easily forgotten in favour of all things green and fluffy.

Design time may be often limited on projects but some of us still hope to be hired because at least in part we are known for paying attention to detail at every level of a project. This comes through in so many ways in a piece of architecture that has been well thought out. Good design can look effortless, even obvious, after you’ve seen the solution to a complex problem and it is rarely the result of anything other other than hard work and long hours. Is it that people don’t understand what designers mean when they use the phrase ‘high quality design’? Do some people mistake it perhaps for simple aesthetic over indulgence? Perhaps, but let’s think about the big issues that make a project work well or fail dismally. Take for example the spatial planning of a project with a complex brief on a constrained urban site that has a huge number of varied end users, such as a hospital or University. Without even too much consideration of what things will look like there are immediately a host of complex relationships that need exploring, structuring and communicating to kick start the design development and without time there can not be proper testing and proper feedback from stakeholders. Much of this is really the development of a detailed brief, the foundation of any successful design must be the briefing, imagine how wrong the building could be if this is rushed. Sure it may look glossy and expensive but does it work for the users? Sure we want things to look great and we enjoy the process of testing that out too, but without time there is no process.

For me this is why design consultants should defend strongly their right to spend the time they save internally on producing a better quality building, because these will surely be longer lived, longer used and longer loved buildings.