In the UK the industry has been slowly moving towards collaboration, and away from the traditional 'adversarial' (and inherently inefficient) approach to construction, with major government reports advocating it (e.g. the Latham externallink and Egan externallink reports), but the industry hasn't really embraced the concept. Until now – the rise of BIM with all its apparent benefits for all parties has finally galvanized us into action. This article looks at how this is panning out in the UK, though much of what is happening has international dimensions, including BIM itself.

Cultural silos

Collaboration in the industry requires major cultural shifts from the traditional combative (them-and-us) approach. Perhaps the main shift involves the dissolution of various long-established cultural silos.

Two cultures

CP Snow's 'two cultures' (humanities and sciences) manifest themselves in this industry. At least student architects do get some training at university on what the other disciplines do – but I am not sure that it happens the other way round. Collaborative projects at universities are not common but there are some initiatives in this area, e.g. Pedagogy meets Big Data and BIM externallink, at The Bartlett (London). Tertiary education is the best time to address this particular barrier.

Professional silos

As design professionals have specialised, so they have created their own professional silos to ostensibly protect the interests of their clients (e.g. 'this is an important specialism that we understand, but they don't – it's in your interests to use our members') and in doing so, to protect their own interests (see 'Integrated. Dis-integrated. Coordinated. Re-integrated' externallink, ARQ 16/03, September 2012). Pan-professional groups are needed – in the UK, the Construction Industry Council (CIC) externallink is one such example, and Construction Project Information (CPI externallink – "promoting collaborative working within the construction industry") is another.

Timeline silos

As we move through the project timeline we have handovers from one party to another, where the parties don't necessarily speak using the same jargon, or even think the same way. For example:
  • User clients focus on the projected use of completed project
  • Developers focus on projected revenue from the completed project
  • Constructors focus on constructional expedience
  • Manufacturers focus on getting their products used
  • Occupants focus on day-to-day use and maintenance of the completed project.

Designers should be considering all of this, and a host of other considerations, but will also have an eye on their firm's reputation, and (for architects at least) the project's appearance (both its design and build quality). Partly because of the differing jargons and ways of thinking, the various parties have come not to trust each other, making collaboration very difficult, even where intentions are (at least initially) good.


Linguistic silos apply when collaborating internationally (which is why publishing in English became a condition of Wallace Simpson's bequest to Institut Pasteur externallink in 1986). Language is of course partly a technical silo, but languages embody culture and that culture's ways of thinking about things. This is why it is always a shame when a language dies out (such as the ability to read the Vietnamese Chῦ Nôm externallink script). But even using just one language internationally (everyday English, rather than formal Latin for example) can be tricky – see 'English – what's that?' externallink (ICIS Newsletter, August 2005).

Technical silos

We may be willing to dissolve cultural silos, but are we able to? Often there are technical barriers to doing so, but thankfully these too are being eroded.

Built-environment information modelling (BIM)

BIM is about the generation and use of an integrated set of full-scale 3D digital models of the project and all its component objects, with information about their geometries (instances, dimensions, locations, juxtapositions, etc.) and all other properties (classes, types, performance, composition, appearance, brand, costs, impacts, delivery, installation, maintenance, metadata and so forth). Because all those involved in the project will need to contribute to and access the model, collaboration is essential if the potential benefits (e.g. significant efficiencies – 'BIM, BAM, BOOM') are to be realised, and 3D CAD software in particular is intended to facilitate this. BIM – often driven by major clients, such as the UK government in its quest for a more efficient construction sector – is actually the catalyst for this industry finally getting to grips with the business of collaboration.

File exchange

Proprietary software, firmware and hardware silos are a problem we are all familiar with, most famously that established by Apple and promulgated by its many fans in many sectors. Open systems such as Linux externallink are still uncommon in construction.

Text file exchange was sorted some time ago (through import/export using the neutral TXT and RTF formats), but CAD (geometric) file exchange remained problematic. A neutral non-proprietary file format was needed to remove this barrier to collaboration. Building on work begun under ISO 10303 externallink (STEP) externallink, the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI – started in 1994, and now called buildingSMART externallink, with chapters all around the world) began work on the neutral IFC format. IAI published IFC 1.0 in 1997. The latest edition, IFC4 externallink, was published by buildingSMART in March 2013. IFCs cover both geometric (2D and 3D) and non-geometric object properties.


Silos will often develop classifications for their own use, independently of each other. In the UK, CPI's Uniclass 1997 externallink simply incorporated several such legacy classifications without any attempt to unify them (e.g. EPIC, CAWS and CESMM3). In spite of the existence of Uniclass, we still have a number of other silo classifications. Quantity surveyors use their own, e.g. SFCA externallink and NRM externallink; civil engineers use their own, e.g. CESMM4 externallink; the Crossrail externallink project is using its own Elements table (a merger of Uniclass 1997 tables G and H); the UK planning regulations use their own system; and many architectural practices and manufacturers still use CI/SfB, which CAWS was meant to replace. It's possible for all of these systems to be used on the same project, which would be antithetical to collaborative working.

What is needed is a single all-embracing national classification system, with one structure and philosophy for all. Uniclass2 externallink is intended to fill this role in the UK – it serves the whole project timeline, all disciplines, and all sectors, with a set of congruent tables. But in spite of this, the HS2 externallink (high-speed rail) project has suggested that CPI develop a separate classification system for civil engineering – some silos are hard to kill off.

Specification libraries

Left to their own devices, silos will produce their own master specifications. And so in the UK we have separate civil master specifications (e.g. Highways Agency externallink, and CESWI externallink for water, and another for tunnelling externallink), structural master specifications (for concrete externallink, steel externallink, and piling externallink), MEP master specifications (NES externallink and various DIY company masters), architectural master specifications (e.g. NBS Building), landscape master specifications (e.g. for plants, and owner-specific landscape work programmes externallink), conservation master specifications (e.g. metric surveys externallink, building repair externallink), and 'green specs' (e.g. Green Building Specification Library externallink). Each has a different structure and a different philosophy. For example some are non-editable reference specifications, and some include contractual material in the specification. If all were used as intended, the resulting project specification would be an uncoordinated mess.

What is needed is a single all-embracing national master specification system, with one structure and philosophy for all. NBS Create is intended to fill this role in the UK – being organised around Uniclass2, it can serve the whole project timeline, all disciplines, and all sectors.

Of course different countries also produce their own master specification systems. But, with the ever-increasing use of Euronorms, a pan-European master specification system is becoming ever more feasible. A truly international master specification system, capable of using multiple suites of standards, is a long way off.

Object libraries

Designers commonly generate their own object libraries but, as well as being wasteful of effort (given that many of these objects will be needed by many designers), designers may not do a very good job of modelling, or may model only with their own needs in mind, undermining the usefulness of any project model that uses these objects. A robust national library of generic and proprietary objects, free to all end users, is what's needed. In the UK, this is the NBS National BIM Library.


The use of different terminology in the construction sector has project (e.g. engineer vs architect), regional (e.g. England vs Scotland) and international dimensions, e.g. England vs USA, and of course English vs other languages. Internationally the buildingSMART Data Dictionary Standard – International Framework for Dictionaries (IFDexternallink is working towards solving this problem. Several ICIS externallink (International Construction Information Society) members are involved in this work, including NBS.

One problem with classification is that a given object might have several names in the native language, and if you start with the wrong one, a simple search of the classification will not find it. To solve this problem we need to automate the use of synonyms in classification, e.g. coach station = bus depot, roof light = skylight, chair = seat, door = doorway. The UK's BIM Gateway  externallink project includes an attempt to address this issue semantically, and to deal with synonyms in other languages in a similar fashion.


Metrication is still not universal, even though the process has been underway since 1799. It hasn't got a good hold in the UK or USA, despite being officially adopted in these countries. This has caused problems for international (and even national) collaboration in the past (e.g. NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter externallink), and doubtless will do so again. 

Technical barriers to trade

The WTO externallink 'Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade' covers many of the technical silos mentioned in this article:

"The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles, while also providing members with the right to implement measures to achieve legitimate policy objectives, such as the protection of human health and safety, or the environment."

Member concerns raised recently in the construction sector include mandatory certification for steel products (raised by India), the standard for thin-film solar panels (Korea), and re-certification of HDPE pipe products (Mexico).


Euronorms are being developed (by CEN externallink and CENELEC externallink) to progressively replace national standards systems in the European Community, which constitute 'technical barriers to trade':

"... by creating standards, the ESOs [European Standardization Organisations] help facilitate trade between countries, create new markets and cut compliance costs. They provide a standardisation framework to prepare voluntary standards that help to develop the Single European market for goods and services. European Standards play a crucial role in the development and consolidation of the European Single Market ..." (European standardization externallink)

International standards from ISO externallink and IEC externallink are doing much the same thing internationally, but very much more slowly:

"... in its TBT (Technical Barrier to Trade) Agreement, the WTO (World Trade Organization) recommends its members to use International Standards rather than regional or national ones whenever possible."


BIM will require the industry to move from traditional 'adversarial' contracts to collaborative contracts (alliance, partnering and relationship contracts are examples). It has been suggested that, pending the development of BIM Level 3-specific contracts, BIM projects in the UK should be run using existing contracts of this type, such as Be Collaborative Contract externallink by Constructing Excellence, PPC2000 externallink by ACA, or JCT-Constructing Excellence Contract externallink by JCT.


An important barrier to collaboration is the lack of a common understanding about who needs to see which bits of the model, and when. In the UK the CPIx BIM strategy templates externallink have defined this, and this work is continuing under the BIM Task Group with Data Drops externallink built into COBie (a standard data structure for data exchange). Internationally, the buildingSMART Process Definition Standard – Information Delivery Manual (IDM externallink – buildingSMART is not very consistent in its naming of its standards) will do much the same thing:

"Thus the buildingSMART standard for processes offers a common understanding for all the parties: when to exchange information and exactly what is needed."

We also need a common view of the project time line. The RIBA Plan of Work 2013 externallink is one such view, and will soon be supported by an online Toolbox externallink for project-specific application.


There is no excuse for not collaborating in construction projects – the incentives have been there all along, both carrots and sticks, and now many of the requisite tools are there or on their way.