Building Safety Act: Data portability and ground-up access key to business survival

John Ryan, Co-founder at SymTerra

In line with the Building Safety Act 2022, construction companies must create a golden thread of building information, calling for a more rigorous approach to data management. In this feature, John Ryan, co-founder and CEO at SymTerra, discusses how data portability and ground-up access are critical for businesses to maintain 30 years of records and ultimately, secure their long term survival

In the last century, we have seen an ever-increasing level of complexity in construction to design and deliver bigger, better, taller and more impressive buildings, supported by a global supply chain of improved systems, products and materials.

The same cannot be said for building data. Despite huge technological advances across all sectors, record keeping in construction has evolved at a snail’s pace.

80% of all the buildings standing in the UK today are predicted to still be around in 2050. These buildings will require upgrades, fit-outs, rebuilds and re-purposing, integrating new systems and materials with old systems and materials to create spaces that people will want to continue to live and work in.

To carry out these works safely and meet specifications and regulatory requirements, we need to know the detailed history of these buildings and their fabric.

The problem we are discovering is that not all buildings are built equally.

Some buildings have not had fully co-ordinated and integrated designs. Others may not have been constructed or installed as designed. And even when built as designed, some buildings may have unexpected consequences when completed.

Issues during construction, maintenance or refit works can often go unnoticed. The consequences of these inconsistencies range from minor leaks in pipework, to catastrophic failures putting lives at risk.

Each incident will have a different root cause that in turn will lead to the development of new legal requirements. No matter the root cause or the route in legislation, the end result will always reinforce the need for a full record trail of all works undertaken.

Information management

One of the common root causes for failures is information management; enabling the right people to have access to the right information at the right time to make the right decisions.

In terms of data, there are four key factors: access and availability of historical data, sharing data within project team and stakeholder, the storing of data during and after the project and finally data portability.

Historic Data:

Where it is and how to find it has always been the challenge. Typically, information on past works is incomplete, incorrect, outdated or, simply, absent. Utility searches and surveys can take several weeks and infrastructure owners and developers can take months to respond to requests for information.

For critical works, it is possible to carry out site surveys from which to develop designs, but this data will not always be recorded or stored where it can be retrieved by the project team at a later date, and will sometimes not form part of the final records returned to the client.

Project Data:

Each project is unique and may involve multiple new stakeholders each time. Each stakeholder will likely have their own requirements processes and procedures, or their own Information Management Systems (IMS). Managing the information flow is complex and may require multiple logins or other obstacles to data accessibility.

The project itself may take many years to complete, and in that time, there will be numerous companies and people involved, each adding their own update to the project’s history. The result is records of works spread across multiple offices, teams and companies.

And sometimes the client is lucky to get the as-builts.

Whether it is a mega-project or a fit-out, various standards help the sector deal with the management of data, but no standardised approach exists across all construction projects. This leads to projects and companies developing their own systems and structures, to comply with client requirements and industry standards.

Storage:

For many projects, records keeping can be excellent, especially where the team understands the need and value of it. Data is handed over to the client and a copy stored in the business.  Despite every good intention, and every best practice, here lies another key issue: how it is stored, organised and shared.

Businesses can go into liquidation, companies move offices, and mis-filing, floods, fires and storing microfilm in sunlight can all lead to irretrievable loss of critical data. Not knowing who has legal right to the data or even who is currently storing it is cause for concern.

Data Portability:

How data is exchanged, where it is stored and how it will be shared with parties that require access to it in the future needs to be considered. Projects that hand over information to building owners in proprietary data formats requiring expensive software to access or specialist skills to use is simply unacceptable today.

Project data should be system agnostic, shareable and usable by all parties, especially for the building owner – enabling them to understand the building’s risk profile and meet legal requirements.

The Building Safety Act

Ultimately, data management in construction is broken.

The Building Safety Act (BSA) acknowledges this by now requiring records to be stored for 30 years (BSA part 5 cl. 150) for higher risk buildings (BSA Part 3, cl. 31).

To address this the industry needs to take ownership of it and drive innovation.

With the BSA in place for high-risk buildings there is a legal duty for the building owner to have this information to carry out risk assessments to mitigate risks.

For construction companies looking to succeed in the coming decade, I would advise that aligning with BSA requirements and best practice for all projects of any scale and size would not just ensure their survival but enable them to leverage the data itself and outperform their competition.

Ultimately, data management in construction is broken”

This data needs to be in place with the building owner who will keep it up to date (BSA part 4 cl. 88). This information is to enable them to carry out mandatory reporting (BSA part 4 cl. 87), assess building safety risks (BSA Part 4 83) and mitigate them (BSA Part 4 84).

If the building’s accountable person is found to be in contravention giving rise to critical risk, serious injury or death, it could result in a fine and/or prison sentence (BSA Part 4 101).

Building owners will therefore become much stricter in providing a completion certificate. Should the data be lost then they need to find it unless impractical to do so (BSA Part 4 88). This is because the building owner will be considered half accountable for this, and mishandling records would not be considered a reasonable excuse, resulting in a possible fine and/or prison sentence (BSA Part 4 101).

What next? A guide to navigating the data universe

While we don’t know exactly what future requirements or software provision will be – we can be certain that inaccessible data is not the way forward.

Clearly data is at the heart of this issue, and will be the make or break for many construction companies over the coming months and years.

From our vantage point in creating the communications link across the supply chain, SymTerra has a pretty good idea of how software needs to evolve to meet the requirements of BSA ten years from now.

Record right first time.

  • A project diary in a spreadsheet with a master document list referencing project files stored in daily folders on a shared drive will be deemed a compliant solution. It doesn’t need to be complicated – just structured, maintained and portable.
  • Next, the project’s adoption of open data standards is key. These are files that can be opened on any computer with free software and are considered as future proof as it gets. These include Open Office XML (e.g. Word, Excel etc), CSV files, PDF and JPEG for images.
  • Additionally, aligning or adopting to a standard naming convention or classification systems is key for future users to understand and use the data. BS EN ISO 19650 is a good place to start with Uniclass for assets and openBIM for drawings.
  • Finally, a management system for all the records that enables the data to be shared or easily transferred to other parties enable future users verify that they have all the data and are not missing information. This will have a maintained and up to date master document list and can be manually achieved in a spreadsheet or via a dedicated Information Management System.

The data should exist where it is needed, and not in a proprietary software system. Whether that is a CAD package or information storage system – the client should be able to import and export their data in its simplest format, with data complied into folders with the master document list at the root.

New project data should be consolidated with existing building records in a usable format that can be built upon and used to make informed decisions. Failure by software vendors to provide access will mean the accountable person could be in breach and most likely will not accept a completion certificate before occupation – causing financial and reputational impact to the construction companies involved.

“Project data should be system agnostic, shareable and usable by all parties”

Good record keeping, and data stored in system-agnostic open file format, is clearly and unilaterally required. Mandating adherence across a project’s entire supply chain may be a hard sell with an impending recession, but the catastrophic failure of a building with poor records at the root of it, will be impossible to recover from for any business in the future.

The path to a consistent, compliant industry wide approach to record keeping and data management won’t be smooth, but we can look to other industries to give us hope for the future.

The banking industry has set a precedent for how to adopt digital data management tools to everyone’s benefit. They use opening banking requirements based on in the EU PSD2 directive to improve competition by enabling secure sharing of account data between client’s accounts and banks, and internationally approved systems like SWIFT to rapidly and instantly transfer money around the world.


Further reading:


In the future, we may have a solution akin to blockchain where building data resides in the various systems of all parties involved in it, accessible to those with the right permission and easily added to over time.

Like a good car with an up-to-date service history from a reputable garage, it will have a premium over other buildings; cheaper to insure and reduced costs for building works due to a significant reduction in survey costs.

We can either get overwhelmed by technology, standards, guidelines and software, and end up with decision paralysis. Or we can commit to an approach which keeps data portability as the goal.

Forward-thinking, and future-proofing, companies will ensure that any data created can be used, merged and added to by future projects. Ultimately, companies have to decide to take better control of records or prepare for significant financial risk and possible extinction in years to come.

Main image: John Ryan, CEO and co-founder at SymTerra (supplied)


Read next: ‘Slack for construction’ startup SymTerra bags $1.7m

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