A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar by a UK-based organization called thinkBIM on the topic of the “Golden Thread,” which was something that I had been increasingly hearing about in the context of AEC technology of late. The references were intriguing, as was the name. During my education as an architect, we had learnt about the concept of the “Golden Mean,” and its use in organizing and proportioning in architecture. (See https://patterns.architexturez.net/doc/az-cf-172604). But what was this “Golden Thread,” and that too in relation to AEC technology? I attended the thinkBIM webinar to find out more and dig a little deeper. In addition to learning about what the Golden Thread is, I was also able to learn more about the thinkBIM organization and the latest updates on the AEC technology front from the UK.
thinkBIM was founded in 2011 at the School of Built Environment and Engineering at Leeds Beckett University, which is in Leeds in the UK. It is one of the main projects of the Centre for Knowledge Exchange (CKE) at the school, an enterprise hub that connects the school’s research, knowledge, and expertise in the built environment with the regional building industry. Leeds is one of the largest cities in the Yorkshire and Humber region of England, which is why when the UK BIM Alliance organization was founded in 2016 to champion the implementation of BIM in the UK, the thinkBIM organization — which was already well established by that time — was selected as the official UK BIM Alliance chapter for the Yorkshire and Humber region.
The thinkBIM organization works actively to promote the adoption of BIM and digitization of the construction industry — throughout its supply chain — in the region. To this end, it conducts regular seminars, workshops, technology showcases and conferences that bring together early adopters and leading practitioners in the field to share their knowledge, expertise, and best practices. Some of the topics and focus areas of its recent events include BIM for housing, BIM for sustainability, digitization in the manufacturing sector, interoperability, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and digital twins. More information on each of these topics, including the links to the presentations, is available on the thinkBIM blog.
The thinkBIM webinar I attended started with a round-up of the latest updates in BIM and digitization for the architecture, engineering, and construction industries in the UK, and I found these an excellent insight into the state of the art of AEC technology in that country. For example, there is a dedicated initiative underway in the UK to promote the use of BIM in the housebuilding industry, which I haven’t come across so far in the US. The idea behind this initiative is that everyone who lives in a house should have access to the as-built BIM model for it, so they can use the BIM data for operating and maintaining their home efficiently and making any repairs, alternations, and remodeling with full knowledge of the existing structure of the home. This initiative is being promoted with an InnovateUK grant awarded to a BIM implementation company, xbim, in partnership with a property logbook company, Chimni. I was also intrigued by the concept of a “property logbook” (Figure 1) to begin with, which again is something I haven’t come across so far.
Another recent development was the publication of an updated “Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030” report by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). This is a follow-up to the initial report that was published in 2017 with the objective of improving productivity in the construction sector in the UK, improving sustainability of new as well as existing built assets, and improving profit margins in infrastructure investment by adopting advances such as off-site construction, new digital technology, and improved project delivery. While the scope of the report is much broader than the application of digital tools, some of its technology highlights include the use of 4D BIM, 5D BIM, Digital Twins, generative design, game engine technologies, augmented reality, and a platform approach.
The report, which can be accessed here, also includes case studies that demonstrate some of the digital technologies it highlights. These include automated design and integration of construction activities via a Rapid Engineering Model (REM) for the National Highways project, spearheaded by the firm, Bryden Wood (see the article, “AEC Technology Development at Bryden Wood”); improving cost management using 5D BIM by a consortium of Skanska, Costain, and Strabag for the HS2 national high-speed railway project (Figure 2); generative design and game engine technologies for developing net-zero communities by Buro Happold (Figure 3); the use of engineering-grade augmented reality headsets for boosting construction efficiency supported by UKRI; and using a platforms approach for automated construction on a major commercial site in central London by Landsec, Easi-Space and Bryden Wood (Figure 4).
Other interesting digital updates that were shared include the development of a new tool by Network Rail in collaboration with Atkins, a global design, engineering, and project management firm, to proactively manage the vegetation around its railway network so that it does not encroach on the lines, thereby minimizing hazards and service disruptions for passengers as well as reducing the need for railway workers to conduct in-person inspections. The tool uses LIDAR scan data — which Network Rail already collects — and algorithms to create different zones along a line to identify where vegetation is a problem and should be dealt with, as well as areas that should be watched for potential problems (Figure 5).
Atkins has also been appointed by the UK government’s Geospatial Commission to help create a digital map of underground pipes and cables throughout the UK, which should speed up installation and repairs of utilities as well as improve the safety of the on-site crew working on them.
Another update comes in the form of the concept of “asset investment management” or Aim, which is being promoted by Probit, a UK company that develops software for predictive motorway maintenance. It is working with an engineering firm, Tetra Tech, to apply this concept on a trial project, Interstate 595 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Data about the materials that make up the highway are fed into Probit’s software which is then able to process it to forecast when repair or maintenance work is needed and how much it will cost.
And finally, there was an update on the use of the AI-based construction scheduling tool, ALICE (covered in my recent “AI in AEC Updates” article) on a trial HS2 viaduct project (Figure 6) by Align JV, a joint venture of leading firms including Bouygues and McAlpine that are working on it. The objective was to "pressure test" their existing construction schedule, finding opportunities to optimize the sequence and resources to minimize cost and environmental impact of the project. Using ALICE, the Align team were able to explore a variety of "what if" scenarios to ensure they had the most robust program of work, identify ways to introduce leeway into their original production schedule, and make significantly faster decisions about its scheduling choices.
In its broadest sense, the “golden thread” refers to the continuity of information, flowing seamlessly across the tasks and processes that have a need for that information. While the term is not unique to construction — I also found it being used in the fields of management and medicine — it has largely been co-opted by the building industry, primarily in the UK. This was shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 in which 72 people died (Figure 7), and it was determined that one of the main causes of the tragedy was the lack of sufficient information about the building available to its inhabitants. The information was known, of course, when the building was designed and constructed, but it was not passed on to those who were occupying and maintaining it. Had the knowledge about the flammable cladding on the building’s exterior been widely available, the residents would have been urged to evacuate the building when the fire broke out rather than advised to stay put, which resulted in so many lives being lost.
To avoid a tragedy like this — which was totally preventable — from happening again, the UK government has mandated a “golden thread of information” running through the lifecycle of buildings, from design to demolition. It requires the information to be up-to-date, accurate, easily understandable, and able to be accessed by all those who need it. (See the official factsheet here.) While the Golden Thread is now required for all high-rise residential buildings as part of their safety regulations, it is also recommended for all building types, and has become common parlance in the UK building industry. Software solutions have started adding “approved for the Golden Thread” to the marketing lingo for their products (see the article, “Golden thread: buyer beware”), and many of the discussions related to the Golden Thread — such as in the thinkBIM webinar I attended — no longer even explain what it means. Not being familiar with it, I had to do some background research in order to be able to write about it.
The idea behind the Golden Thread — that information about a building created during design and construction should be made available in the operations and maintenance phase — is pretty much what BIM, and now, digital twins, have been designed to deliver. In fact, it has been the promise of BIM since it was first introduced — the seamless transformation of information from design to construction and then to handover (see the book review, “BIM for Facility Managers”). The mission of AEC technology has always been to eliminate silos, to prevent information loss from one phase to another. Of course, this promise is far from being realized, and hopefully, by formalizing it as a requirement in the form of the “Golden Thread” in the UK, faster progress can be made. While the legislation itself does not endorse the use of any specific software or tools, it does require the Golden Thread to be digital. For older buildings for which BIM models do not exist, services are coming up that will create BIM models along with the fire safety information that is a critical component of the Golden Thread: for example, see this blog post from SWG.
Some of the aspects of the Golden Thread that were discussed in the thinkBIM webinar include how the information about the building created during design and construction — which can be very technical — could be collated from all the different places it resides in, and be presented in a way that is understandable to the operators and occupants of the building; what is the right skillset for those who will consume this information, how such people can be found, and what is the kind of training they should get; what are the barriers to making it work as envisioned; how much time is it expected to take for building owners, operators, and occupants to get used to managing the building information once a good way to make it available to them has been determined; how will the maturity level of the information drive its value; how can all the sub-contractors, especially for smaller projects, be brought on board to contribute to the Golden Thread of information; and the benefits this mandate will bring to design and construction firms in addition to the end users, such as better decision-making and a more systematic approach to creating, managing, and delivering project data.
Attending the thinkBIM webinar gave me the opportunity to learn more about AEC technology developments in the UK, reinforcing what seems to be a very systematic and comprehensive approach to improve the level of digitization in its construction industry. I found this to be the case even ten years ago when I summarized BIM developments in different parts of the world – see the article, “Around the World With BIM.” The UK has formally defined the different “maturity levels” of BIM (Figure 8) and set targets for their use in government projects; it has initiatives like Digital Built Britain with an accompanying Center for Digital Built Britain, several BIM4 groups as part of the UK BIM Alliance in addition to the BIM4 Housing that was mentioned earlier, the 4D Construction Group, and the Construction Innovation Hub; it has signature projects highlighting the use of advanced technologies such as HS2 that are a resource unto themselves; and it also has several AEC firms using technology in cutting-edge ways including Foster+Partners (see “Technology at Foster + Partners”) and Bryden Wood (see “AEC Technology Development at Bryden Wood”).
Adding to these initiatives is the new Golden Thread. Unlike the earlier initiatives that were focused on the product — that is, the constructed building — the Golden Thread is focused on the end users of that product — that is, the people who will be occupying and maintaining that building. In addition to them having a positive experience with the building, they need to, first and foremost, be safe in it. No one can argue with that and with the importance of legislation mandating it.
At the same time, the actual specifications of the Golden Thread — what, where, and how — are quite nebulous at the moment. It seems to me that the implementation of BIM in FM (such as that described in the article, “BIM for FM at UCSF”) could provide some valuable insights into defining the deliverables of the Golden Thread. There is, of course, also the Digital Twins concept which seems to have taken over the conversation in AEC technology, but I personally think it would be an overkill for the Golden Thread, given the reliance on IoT in Digital Twins and the core idea of keeping the digital twin in sync with the physical building at all times. Do we really need that for the occupant’s well-being and safety, particularly at the expense of the greatly increased level of complexity it would bring in?
Of course, all this could play out differently. Let’s wait and watch.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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