27 Jul 2020

Whilst the world continues to struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs that the construction sector is beginning to operate once again, albeit within strictly regulated parameters. Obviously, from an economic perspective this is a good thing but also there are a number of issues which are pressing for the construction sector and which should be progressed as swiftly as reasonably possible even in these difficult times. One of these is the Grenfell Inquiry, the ongoing review of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 and its consequences. In this article I would like to review a number of developments that have occurred over the last few years (which I have, for obvious reasons, called "threads") which afford the construction sector an opportunity to address the pressing issues raised by the Grenfell tragedy. This is an opportunity which the construction sector should not let slip through its fingers.

First thread: The Hackitt Report and after

As is well known, the tragedy at Grenfell Tower led to, amongst other things, the review carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt the findings of which were summarised in Building a Safer Future, the final Report published in May 2018. One of the proposed package of reforms recommended by the Report is to establish an obligation on those who procure, design, create and maintain buildings to be responsible for ensuring those buildings are safe for those who live and work in them. Linked to this obligation is the requirement to create a regularly updated digital record of information for new higher risk residential buildings. This record is now, famously, known as the "golden thread" of building information.

Following on from the Report, a consultation paper Building a Safer Future: Proposals for reform of the building safety regulatory system was issued by MHCLG in June 2019. This adopted all of the Report's recommendations. The paper also emphasised that the "golden thread of accurate and up to date information about the design, construction and ongoing maintenance" of the relevant buildings would have to be stored digitally using a common data environment, allowing different parties to work collaboratively on developing and maintaining the information. Information would need to comply with BIM/information standards.

A subset of the golden thread of information is the key data set. This is required to enable the building safety regulator to analyse data across all relevant buildings. It is likely to include details such as unique building identifier, location, size, building type/purpose, years built and refurbished, façade and structural information and minimal information on safety. It is to be held in a specified format, likely to be maintained by Government with detailed data standards that will specify the formats and naming conventions for the variables and the key data set and the file formats in which the data set should be shared. It should be publicly available by default.

The first steps in the primary legislation needed to implement the proposals in the consultation paper were referred to in the Queen's Speech on 19 December 2019, which included a Building Safety Bill intended to put in place new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products. This was to apply to "in scope" buildings with a storey above 18 metres and which contain one or more dwellings or an institution or a room used for residential purposes (but not a hotel, boarding house or hostel). Consequently, this would include residential blocks of flats, student accommodation, care homes, sheltered housing, hospitals and dormitories in schools. At the time of writing, the Bill is awaiting a date for its second reading. 

Prior to this, the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 came into force on 21 December 2018. Broadly, this bans the use of combustible materials on external walls of the sort used on Grenfell Tower (ACM cladding) on buildings which are in scope as described above. 

Earlier this year, on 20 January 2020 a new package of building safety reforms was outlined in Parliament. There was less emphasis on the height of the building and more on ensuring safety at any height. In addition, the Government introduced a Fire Safety Bill to enforce remediation measures which at the time of writing is at committee stage having passed its second reading on 29 April 2020. No date is currently set for the committee stage.

Further changes will follow. Whether these occur later this year or next year may depend on when the second phase of the Grenfell Inquiry is concluded and makes it recommendations. The inquiry has been paused since 16 March 2020 but is currently exploring the possibility of restarting with limited attendance at some time in July. 

For those interested, a useful source of updates for regulatory developments is available here.

Second thread: The AIM and the Twin

The developments in digital technology over the last decade or more offer the obvious solution to the information storage and use issues raised by the "golden thread". Over this period BIM has developed into a widely-known tool in the construction sector. It is, of course, the case that BIM applies across the entire life cycle of the asset and that the Project Information Model (PIM) created for the design/construct phase should inform the Asset Information Model (AIM) for use during the operational phase. 

At present, the characteristics and use of the AIM are set out in PAS1192-3, although this will soon be superseded by ISO19650-3 as part of the ongoing replacement of the existing Publicly Available Specifications governing BIM with the international ISO19650 standard. The AIM as defined in PAS1192-3 includes:

  • Information concerning the original brief, specification and design
  • A 3D object based model/models of the environmental location of the asset (which could be a revised or "collapsed" version of the PIM)
  • Information concerning ownership of the asset and data obtained from the maintenance, survey or other work carried out on the asset during its lifetime; and
  • Information concerning data obtained from monitoring the operation and condition of the asset.

The AIM as envisaged in PAS1192-3 may however be in the process of being overtaken by the concept of the Digital Twin. The CDBB publication The Gemini Principles defines a Digital Twin as "a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment". The main distinguishing feature of a Digital Twin is its connection to the physical twin.

The maturity spectrum for the development of Digital Twins as set out in the IET/ Atkins report Digital Twins for the Built Environment envisages a logarithmic increase in scale of complexity from 0 to 5 starting with simple capture of reality via scans, photography or even drawings to provide a brownfield or existing as built survey through to the autonomous operation and maintenance of an asset comprising complete self-governance with total oversight and transparency via the use of the Digital Twin. Obviously, we are nowhere near stage 5 as yet. 

Stage 2 of the maturity spectrum is defined as the connection of a model to persistent (static) data, metadata and BIM "Stage 2". This is the point at which it would seem the AIM intersects with the Digital Twin. From this perspective the AIM is not something different from a Digital Twin but more like a stage in its development. To paraphrase a well-known saying, an undeveloped AIM is no more than an O&M manual on steroids. A properly developed AIM marks a step in the evolution towards the Digital Twin as defined in the Gemini Principles.

Drawing the threads together

The development of Digital Twins and the increased use of AIMs can provide the basis for addressing the requirements of the "golden thread" and the key data set. The opportunities offered by these developments in digital technology will allow the construction sector to implement the recommendations of the Hackitt Report. We have the tools available to us to drastically improve building safety in the wake of Grenfell through implementation of a clear "golden thread" of digital information. The framework in relation to AIMs is already in place and in the process of being updated through the introduction of ISO19650-3. Work on Digital Twins is underway. What we now need is the will to implement these changes.

First published by JCT News - 17 July 2020.