The need for more data advisors in the buildings sector

When considering how buildings operate, the application of digital is just as important as the bricks and mortar, say Mark Coates and Mark Lenton.

With asset owners seeing an increase of external pressures, some organisations are beginning to take a radically different approach to achieve their business outcomes within the built environment. One such example is the introduction of digital advisory experts in driving the digital building agenda and smart operations thinking.

Positioned either client-side or supporting the more traditional architecture, engineering, construction (AEC) community, digital advisors are increasing the focus on how technology can drive leaner, more economical, compliant and flexible operational outcomes. 

The need for digital advisors

Unfortunately, digital maturity for many operations and EFM teams is often low, hence support is needed from digital advisors specialising in digital buildings and smart operations.

For capital programmes, BIM processes help, although they alone will not provide the digital transformation needed to unlock the opportunities a smart building can offer. In general, new build projects need to look way beyond handover and consider how a building will be used on a day-to-day basis. 

There are a lot of different technology solutions covering needs within the design, build, operate, and maintain phases, such as design software and ‘internet of things’ applications.

But a lack of integrated thinking across the whole asset lifecycle means that most of these solutions fulfil a unique purpose and, therefore, operate in silos. Having independent digital expertise working with operational teams positioned early in projects will ensure that necessary data is created, structured and shared between systems.

A different approach is clearly needed. There must be early engagement of estates, FM, and operations teams on capital projects to ensure the “design and build for operations and maintainability” consideration, but there also needs to be early engagement of digital advisors with subject matter expertise in digital buildings and smart operations. 

Emphasis needs to be on delivery of business outcomes in the operational phase and, therefore, the alignment of the right digital strategy covering cradle to grave asset lifecycle, rather than just the project lifecycle. 

While AEC organisations have digital skills, however, they have a specific role and remit as part of a project lifecycle that doesn’t always cover all necessary digital aspects nor the whole asset lifecycle. 

On the other hand, the digital advisor’s role is to provide owner-operators and EFM teams with the ‘art of the possible’ education on the importance of end-to-end and with-end-in-mind lifecycle thinking to remove silos across data, systems, processes, and organisational structures.

The importance of data

Every desired outcome should be data driven and every asset can be connected and monitored either at installation or retrospectively. Once the right data has been identified, collected, filtered, structured, analysed and shared, it can provide decision makers with several benefits, including better goal alignment and confidence, more intelligent insights with real-time information and heightened situational awareness and contextual visibility.

The digital infrastructure for a building or project should also be able to accommodate other data sources, including client-owned data, anonymised visitor and/or patient data, socioeconomic data and procurement and supply chain data. It should also include active data from smart connected assets and locations, such as room occupancy, footfall, asset tracking, asset performance and from BMS/SCADA systems. 

The more varied and precise the data sets, the more valuable the insights and knowledge.

Creating a ‘golden thread’ of information

This approach isn’t simply theoretical. An ecosystem of complementary partners is currently developing a proof of concept for a smart building in association with Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust to measure the value and benefits of this different way of working.

The focus of the ecosystem of partners’ work is ensuring that the necessary data to achieve desired business outcomes is created, structured, and shared between open and interoperable systems from early in design and build phase, as well as ensure that a ‘golden thread’ of information is maintained across whole asset lifecycle into the operate phase.

Amanda Gomersall, Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust’s general manager, corporate services and real estate, said: “Our trust has embarked on one of the largest hospital builds in recent years, providing us with an opportunity to rethink how we integrate technology within our capital projects and legacy estate for the benefit of patients and staff. The trust absolutely recognises the importance of static and active data, generated from a joined-up suite of ‘best-in-class’ interoperable solutions covering the whole asset lifecycle.

“We are working collaboratively with digital advisors, part of an ecosystem of subject matter experts, which together is a key differentiator. This ensures that our operational estate teams will continue to deliver agreed business requirements, improve patient outcomes, operational performance and sustainability targets for the next 30 years.”

Digital advisors, underpinned by subject matter experts operating as an ecosystem of partners, will allow the client to grow their digital capability and understanding, as well as adopt a proven methodology for others to follow.

In a diverse industry sector, the opportunity to realise digital benefits is significant within the built environment. Savings in productivity, efficiency, traceability, health and safety, compliance and particularly sustainability are attainable - if organisational, process, and technology silos are removed and digital expertise is engaged.

Early engagement with operations, estates and facilities management teams and digital advisors on capital projects will be key. The built environment must get smarter by recognising and applying digital. It is just as important as the bricks and mortar.

Mark Coates is international director of public policy and advocacy at Bentley Systems and Mark Lenton is an innovation consultant at SRO Solutions.