Technology and FM: COBie Data Format

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
From the June 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facility managers (fms) have been watching the industry adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM) for a number of years now. There is great potential for enhancing the way facility information moves from the construction phase to the operations phase using BIM. For those not familiar, BIM is a process that guides the creation of digital documents and three-dimensional (3D) digital models during design and construction, and ties it together into a single body of knowledge (collectively known as the Building Information Model). This data is transferred to the fm when construction is complete.

Many fms are familiar with the non-digital method in which information is transferred from construction staff to facility management (FM) staff via paper. Boxes of manuals, specifications, shop drawings, and paper blueprints are handed over, leaving the fm to sort through all that information and relate it to the equipment and components in the facility. BIM eliminates the paper and turns everything into digital files, including amazing 3D virtual models that enable users to click on a component such as a door, pump, or window to view the associated information (e.g., manufacturer, model).

But there is another, less glamorous aspect of BIM that is just as important as 3D models: you still need a way to relate all that information to the facility, to other information and documents, and to the 3D models. Just because information is in digital format does not mean it is magically organized; you still need a standardized way for everyone in the industry (not just fms, but also architects and construction professionals) to organize, describe, classify, and link information to the thousands of components in a facility and components of the digital 3D models. You need a kind of “Rosetta Stone” that ties everything together.

That is where the COBie (Construction Operations Building Information Exchange) format comes in. The pilot standard of the COBie format was launched in 2007 and was authored by Bill East, P.E., Ph.D. of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project began in 2005 with grants from NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and from there the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) formed a project team to identify requirements for the information exchanges during construction to operations handover.

Since its introduction, COBie has emerged as the method of choice for classifying components in BIM and, later in the facility life cycle, in FM software like CMMS and CAFM.

COBie is like a roadmap to the wealth of information in a BIM, organizing and structuring it in a way that everyone from the facility designer to the fm can understand. This is a watershed moment in FM because it is the first time that a single data format can be used throughout the entire facility life cycle, providing a single “language” for all stakeholders.

COBie describes building components first by defining where they are located, using a hierarchical structure of Facility, Floor, Space, and Zone. Then it associates equipment that serves those spaces, using attributes like Type, Component, and System. COBie also provides information on installation, links to digital 3D models and digital product documentation, and other related information. There is a lot more to COBie than can be covered in this column, and the links included below provide more information.

Part of the brilliance of COBie is that it is not software, and it is not proprietary. It is an organizational structure designed for design, construction, and facility professionals to use to organize information in a uniform way. Not only can COBie work in CAD software, BIM software, CMMS, and CAFM, it can also be applied to something as simple as a spreadsheet. This means that fms who do not have the benefit of facilities designed using BIM can still organize their information using COBie with only a spreadsheet program. And that’s probably a good idea, because as COBie’s popularity increases, it seems likely that most facilities’ information will be organized this way.

Since its creation, the use of COBie has steadily increased. CAD and 3D modeling software vendors like Autodesk, Bentley, Tekla, Graphisoft, and others have been incorporating COBie into products for years, and CMMS and CAFM vendors (IBM’s Maximo, for example) are also building COBie compatibility into their products.

To learn more, fms can visit the Whole Building Design Guide site (run by NIBS, which ratified COBie) at www.wbdg.org/resources/cobie.php. There is great information there as well as downloadable spreadsheets with example data. Also, visit www.youtube.com/user/BSADemo.

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