Opinion

COBie: The Long and Winding Road

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From BIM Journal. Click Here to Read Issue 3

From BIM Journal Issue 03 – here

The relevance of COBie when it comes to infrastructure has been hotly discussed, debated and poured over for years. This article seeks to capture the journey so far and to shed some light on the whole thing while hopefully dispelling one or two myths.

First things first and COBie as a “schema” should really be relegated to something that developers and vendors need to worry about when it comes to its technological implementation. For the rest of us, in practical term, COBie generally means that “of all of the IFC information that has been captured, just shown me the information that relates to facilities management (FM)”. A glorified filter of sorts that allows owners to ensure that they have been provided with the information that they have asked for (should have asked for) in order to run the facility. As a result of this, object geometry is not part of the COBie output/deliverables. The reason being that you can full well see what an object looks like once it is installed. What owners really need is the warranty information and the installation date and other things like that.

Importantly, COBie does not specify which items or information to include either. For want of a better explanation it is merely the format that this information has to be in, so to speak. Subsequently all of this information can then be accessed through any interface fit for human consumption. However, the spreadsheet has largely been adopted to be the most appropriate vehicle in this regard, so far, as it is spectacularly easy to navigate and does not subject untrained personnel to navigating around models or having to get to grips with modelling software. This is why COBie is most often shown as a spreadsheet with a lot of tabs - such is the richness of the data format needed. Indeed a COBie file or workbook (collection of many spreadsheets) contains information about one single facility only, to keep it nice and ordered and simple, relatively speaking. What is telling, is that a spreadsheet has its own limitations when applied in this manner as well, but more of this later.

The Debate

Other than street lighting and signage it is hard for people to see just what needs to be maintained in a similar fashion to a building when it comes to (economic) infrastructure. After all, a “standalone” asset is not delivered. Rather a long continuous meandering entity that frequently occupies several miles is produced instead. But COBie is still mandated by clients, not least the UK government and certification bodies. So let us look in more depth at what has gone on over the years and what has happened since.

History

Originating in the USA COBie is an information exchange specification for the life-cycle capture and delivery of information needed by facility managers.[14] Other “ie” information exchanges exist but these have nothing like the prominence of COBie[19]. As the UK BIM Task Group then identified in their 2013 study “COBie for All” the expectation is that the spreadsheets themselves would be written and read by software, as spreadsheets are easy to read by humans.[13] The report does goes on to qualify that all of this is somewhat relative however, as COBie spreadsheets are not especially easy to read, not least for the novice. But even so.

Purpose

It is generally accepted that COBie has two main purposes, a data exchange format and a checking tool in the design process. Data is exchanged by extracting information from a native BIM model or IFC and placing it into a standard COBie schema ready for import into another product.[15]

Typically then, COBie information exchanges or “data drops” are required at five defined stages in the project, to enable progress checks and to facilitate the next stage;

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  • Data Drop 1: Model represents REQUIREMENTS and CONSTRAINTS
  • Data Drop 2: Model represents OUTLINE SOLUTION
  • Data Drop 3: Model represents CONSTRUCTION INFORMATION
  • Data Drop 4: Model represents OPERATIONS and MAINTENANCE INFORMATION
  • Data Drop 5 (and subsequent drops): Model represents POST OCCUPANCY VALIDATION INFORMATION and ONGOING O&M[16]

In a collaborative BIM project the output from all participants’ models must be merged. The resultant single model then populates as much of the COBie spreadsheet as possible automatically, to save on manual entry. As each stage progresses more of the fields and tabs are filled in ready for operation and maintenance.[15]

A closer look at this by way of example can be found here.

Above all, it is to be acknowledged that this “information delivery approach” will effectively insulate public clients from the complexity of the process, technology change and competitive issues that will remain in the supply chain[17] where they belong.

Details

Within each spreadsheet the columns are pre-defined and color-coded to signify whether any content is required or if a reference to another sheet or pick list or external reference is needed. It is possible to add columns for other product specific data to the right of the standard template but this information is not checked by everyday quality assurance programs.[13]

The devil really is in the honouring of the standards and the conventions here, as different project participants will need to add information as the project progresses (as ever, the model and its associated information is a baton in a relay race). Yes, different tools are used to do this along the way; the designer adds their required information in their authoring software, the contractor and client using field applications or spreadsheets or the like and on it goes. You get the picture.

Manufacturer’s Product Data Sheets (and PAS 1192-7) will greatly assist this because the information needed by other parties will already be known. As will AD4’s, the Asset Data Dictionary Document - essentially an infrastructure based database that captures the functional aspects that any particular item needs to honour. Effectively setting out the “questions asked” of an item, which the manufacture PDS information will then “answer”.[18] This is to aid clients when looking at what characteristics are needed, such that the selection of a product from many differing manufacturers may be considered.

So, the general gist of the COBie format can be felt when we look at the FACILITY tab of the spreadsheet for example. This can only contain a single row because multiple facilities must each have their own workbooks. When we look at a FLOOR however, this can contain multiple SPACES, but each SPACE can only exist on a single FLOOR.[13] That kind of thing. There is rhyme as well as reason.

Software (free) exists to check/audit COBie delivered information as well, which is critical as well. People forget that information verification and validation is just as important as geographic validation - of which great strides have been made over the years.

Spread-too-thin Sheets

By spreadsheets I of course mean Excel, Calc, Sheets, Gnumeric, Calligra (there are more) and due to their overall similarities they also share overall limitations. As a result of the sheer amount of data involved, many of the spreadsheets may be too wide and too long to be readable on screen or in print, unless columns and rows are filtered or hidden. Furthermore, related information may be spread out across multiple spreadsheets. So to find all of the information relevant to a single COMPONENT for example, it may be necessary to visit up to ten other sheets: CONTACT, SPACE, TYPE, SYSTEM, ASSEMBLY, CONNECTION, IMPACT, DOCUMENT, ATTRIBUTE, and ISSUE[13]. Which is a necessary evil when it comes to the spreadsheet format here. Not an impossible mountain to climb, but not essentially “swift” and other COBie favourable tools exist which you should spend time to investigate.

Indeed, as different kinds of data may need to be entered in multiple places, and if human data entry and review is to be supported, then a more intuitive user-friendly front end is important. After all COBie is a model view definition based on IFC and it should be treated as such. In the same way that accounting departments tend to use dedicated accounting software, even though a spreadsheet could be used, it is not always the most appropriate.

Also, as noted on the Bond Bryan BIM blog, it should be acknowledged that not every component is required within COBie. Even though more data on the face of it sounds good, if that data will not be used, then this simply introduces waste - which is something that BIM is striving to remove of course.[20]

“COBie for All”

Going forward, and making sense of how this is implemented the UK BIM Task Group  report duly identified that, where possible, COBie content should be generated by the contractor’s software and then read by the owner’s software with minimal direct human intervention. Before the report discusses the use of XML and COBieLite and other issues[13].

Critically, in relation to this article, the report presents and discusses the following key points when it comes to COBie and its application in relation to infrastructure:

  • Problem 1: COBie Spreadsheet Format - the issues above as discussed.
  • Problem 2: COBie Schema - adjustments regarding certain naming and mapping conventions.
  • Problem 3: COBie Versions - from COBie 2.26 to 2.40
  • Problem 4: COMPONENT Geospatial Location - GIS/location considerations.
  • Problem 5: COMPONENT Linear Location - linear referencing considerations.
  • Problem 6: Continuous Objects - how/ where to split them.
  • Problem 7: Variable Asset Values - attributes can change along any given length, speed limits can change etc.
  • Problem 8: IFCs - missing Civil/ Infrastructure specific IFCs
  • Problem 9: Classifications - missing standardized classification taxonomies.
  • Problem 10: Schedules - pavements and the like based on line drawings are neither scheduled nor easily discernible from models.
  • Problem 11: Stakeholder Requirements - discussions of other issues identified by key stakeholders in the report.
  • Problem 12: Software Products - software support (of the above) and associated testing procedures needed.[13]

The full report can be downloaded here.

BS 1192-4:2014

As a result of the substantial work undertaken, the creation of BS 1192-4:2014 “Collaborative production of information Part 4: Fulfilling employers information exchange requirements using COBie – Code of practice” was completed. So established to define the expectations for the exchange of information through the lifecycle of a facility. The stated goals being that the use of COBie ensures that information can be prepared and used without the need for knowledge of the sending and receiving applications or databases. It also ensures that the information exchange can be reviewed and validated for compliance, continuity and completeness[21].

Putting this into context, COBie is the UK Government’s chosen information exchange schema for federated building information management, alongside BIM models and PDF documents, with the aim of integrating commercially valuable information with other parts of the employer’s business. As a result, it can be used within less structured projects (UK level 1) and may have a role within integrated BIM (UK level 3) alongside a fuller building information model.[21] So it is future-proofed, somewhat, and anybody uninformed or unsure should make the time to get up to speed.

The code of practice then goes on to express in detail how it assists the demand side, including employers with portfolio managers, asset managers and facility managers, to specify their expectations while helping information providers, including the lead designers and contractors to prepare concise, unambiguous and accessible information.

A copy of PAS1192-4:2014 can be obtained here.

Conclusion

It has already been said that if everybody uses COBie and every piece of software understands how to read and write to it then we are starting down the road of interoperability. Also, that COBie really can deal with infrastructure and linear assets, which had been proven through the user case studies conducted as part of the overall BS1192-4 initiative[22].

It is also acknowledged that BIM level 2 and COBie drops are a stepping-stone to a more elegant solution.[15] Indeed the use of BIM for new construction is becoming more common but it is not yet an established industry practice. Also the use of BIM for maintenance and engineering departments is in the very early stages of industry adoption as well. But it firmly holds the promise of helping to increase organisational effectiveness while reducing cost[23] and then some.

Is COBie too difficult to embrace? A mature and accurate industry that is moving into a data-rich era understands that COBie is 100% convertible with IFC, and is entirely usable on every computer and every smart device[24].

While there are other disadvantages to COBie captured here, it will seemingly be around for quite a while yet and for infrastructure too. Although it has been a rocky road for some so far.

From BIM Journal Issue 03 – here (for all references see BIM Journal)

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