Better data standards could bring savings over facility life cycle

By Brandon Lorenz, Senior Editor  

For Dave Clute, the journey to better data standards began with a particularly thorny problem. His company, Cisco Systems, has 400 facilities worldwide, covering about 20 million square feet. Thousands of work orders for demand or scheduled maintenance are processed each year through the company’s Web-based system.

Once submitted, each work order is sent from Cisco’s Web-based tool to the appropriate service provider, says Clute, customer solution manager for Cisco’s Advisory Services team. In some cases, the work order is again transferred from a service provider to another vendor’s system before the work is completed. The problem? Cisco’s work order system is different than the software its outsourcing providers use, so a proprietary e-mail system is needed to allow the systems to exchange information.

Cisco’s goal is to have standard XML-based software replace the proprietary e-mail system, Clute says. Part of the reason is the overall complexity of the system. With work orders being transferred so often, building engineers could potentially receive unclear requests. Another reason for the change is flexibility. “If we switch service providers, we have to re-engineer the entire interface,” Clute says. “It would be much better to have a standard interface that all the vendors support.”

The drive for a more nimble system led Clute to become one of the founders of the Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate (OSCRE), a nonprofit group that is driving the adoption of electronic business standards across the real estate market.

“We’re not just looking at real estate or facilities management,” says Andy Fuhrman, executive director of OSCRE. “We’re looking at the entire real estate supply chain.” The effort includes facility executives, tenants, owners, investors, service providers, appraisers and bankers, architects, engineers, contractors, brokers and regulatory agencies.

The Need

Web-based technology has allowed facility executives to keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization as never before. But the technology also points to the need for solid data management procedures because a Web-based management system is ultimately only as good as the data that is fed into it. “The technology has made leaps and bounds,” Fuhrman says. “Now the data needs to catch up.”

Making that change will require significant advances across the industry. For some companies, facilities-related data is so fragmented that it requires the services of a consultant to put the information in order. Mike Lyner, principal, RSP i-SPACE, helps companies manage their facilities-related data to make better strategic decisions. A common barrier to interoperable data, he says, is that different business units are often not communicating to each other, which leads to work being duplicated.

“There is no real excuse for not talking to each other anymore,” Lyner says. “The software used to not be interoperable, but these days we’re getting there. There is a tremendous amount of redundancy, and with redundancy comes inaccuracy.”

In the case of one large financial institution, each department within the company was using separate systems for labeling buildings. If work order software and space planning software use different room numbers, it can be difficult to tie work orders to a specific building, much less a specific room.

Interoperability is not a difficult concept, says Earle Kennett, executive director of the International Alliance for Interoperability in North America (IAI). Starting with design and moving through construction, code compliance, approval, occupation and facility management, the life cycle of a building is a linear process. Interoperability allows data created in each phase to be passed seamlessly to the next. “Everybody needs different data at different times,” Kennett says. “The standards are telling the different players in the process what data they need and how it needs to be extracted.”

While the technology exists, obstacles keep data interoperability from becoming standard business practice. While a building may last 25 or 100 years, each player involved in the life cycle of a building is thinking in shorter terms, says Deke Smith, chairman of the Facilities Information Council for the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). Planning and construction can each take 12 to 18 months. Even some facility executives are working under 12-month employment contracts, reducing their incentive to put together a long flow of information.

Another problem is getting the industry to agree on common terms. OSCRE has standards committees that are working on various terms with the goal of finding common standards. “It’s not a technology problem we’re talking about here,” says Fuhrman. “It’s getting the industry to agree on common terminology.”

Details, Details

For organizations with facilities across the nation, for example, failing to use a common set of abbreviations for state names can cause facility information to be incorrectly summarized because the same state is listed under multiple abbreviations. Agreeing on a standard set of abbreviations for state names is relatively easy. Defining square footage, however, can be more difficult.

“I can’t tell you how much discussion I’ve seen back and forth over the years on the measurement of the square foot,” says Bill Brodt, chairman of the Facility Maintenance and Operations Committee for NIBS. BOMA and IFMA, for example, both use different methods for measuring space. Fuhrman says the two groups are working with OSCRE and have reached agreement on about 75 percent of their differences.

Making sure that the data captured has an appropriate shelf life is also important. “The data isn’t going to live for 12 or 18 months,” says Smith. “Now it’s going to live for 100 years. That is where the standard really becomes important. You can’t have data survive without a standard.”

Some players who collect facility data during the life cycle of a building are hesitant to transfer the data they collect for liability reasons. “You need to put the issue in the contract language so everybody knows what to expect,” Smith says. “If we build that language correctly, we can limit liability, or at least make people aware of the levels of liability they have.”

Cultural changes need to occur before interoperability becomes a reality. With true interoperability, departments within an organization that rarely communicated with each other in the past need to begin sharing data. Without information sharing from human resources, for example, it can be easy for companies to have retired or former employees still located on a seating plan.

“There are a lot of territorial barriers that need to be broken down,” says Lyner. “Some people think if they give up their information, they won’t be needed anymore.” What many employees discover, however, is that sharing information makes them more valuable and gives them more time to focus on their core responsibilities, he says.

Consider how data is handled in many organizations. Architects forward their plans to a contractor, who in turn furnishes documentation to the facility executive when a project is complete. More than 20 years after the development of CAFM systems, the industry still handles a great deal of paper. According to a 2004 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 71 percent of design and engineering documentation maintained by facility executives is still recorded on paper.

“At the end of the design process, you get drawings,” Smith says. “At the end of construction, you get a box of as-builts. You get boxes of manuals for the roofing system and the chillers. In four or five years, all that is lost and no one can find it. The idea is that the owner would get all that information electronically, from design to maintenance manuals.”

Costly Behavior

While inefficient, the industry’s system of gathering data is so ingrained that few owners or facility executives consider the cost involved with poor interoperability. “How many times does the square footage get measured in the life a building?” says Smith. “Every time you renovate. Every time you clean the carpet, probably.”

In many cases, measurements such as square footage are recorded on paper and filed away. The information is lost or, because of employee turnover, the space needs to be measured again because new employees cannot vouch for the reliability of the measurements that were taken. The IAI says that between 10 and 30 percent of a facility manager’s time can be spent simply searching for information.

A NIST report on inadequate data interoperability estimated the cost at $15.8 billion in 2002. According to the report, 68 percent of that cost is borne by facility owners and operators, with most of the end-user’s burden — 85 percent, or nearly $9 billion — being incurred in the facility management phase of a building’s life cycle.

Overall, owners and operators were paying an average of 23 cents per square foot in costs related to inadequate interoperability, according to NIST. The report surveyed facility executives, architects, engineers, contractors, manufacturers, software vendors and researchers. The largest efficiency loss is related to information validation. The cost of making sure information accurately reflects the state of a facility totaled $4.8 billion in labor costs in 2002, according to the report. “Our assumption is that there is value in reducing data entry costs and improving data quality,” says Clute.

It can be difficult to sell a CEO on the need to improve data interoperability within an organization, says Lyner, because it is difficult to measure the return on investment. But organizations are beginning to see the importance of having standardized terms, Fuhrman says. “The building owners, investors and operators are becoming more aware of the need for standardization,” he says. “The next big leap for the industry is going to be the agreement on business terminology. That is where you are going to see a return on investment.”

In addition to creating savings in the facility management phase of the life cycle, data interoperability offers the ability to speed business decisions, says Lyner. “If it takes you six months to do a space audit, the opportunity to make a quick business decision has been lost. These days, if you can’t produce relevant data with which you can make strategic decisions within a week, you’ve really failed in your role as a facility executive.”

Virtual Buildings

Interoperability offers clear benefits when an organization begins to look at mergers or outsourcing. One large organization had been aggressively acquiring companies. But the company’s facility information was not interoperable and therefore not shared. As a result, company officials believed they owned 165 buildings, while the correct number was actually 267. The paper-based data couldn’t keep pace with the company’s growth. “It’s not necessary that you be able to predict the future, but you have to be able to react to it,” says Lyner. “If you’re not agile and your real estate group is not set up to be agile, you are not doing due diligence.” Likewise, interoperability can give outsourcing providers better quality information. And it can eliminate one barrier to switching outsourcing providers because it reduces the need to spend time and resources making a facility department’s data and software work with an outsourcing provider’s system.

Making interoperable data a reality could lay the foundation for a building information model (BIM), a three-dimensional computer representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a building. Such a model would contain, in one accessible database, virtually all the nuts and bolts about a facility, from warranty information about components such as chillers and roofing systems to floor plans and seating charts.

“The real benefit of a BIM is how the owners manage their assets,” says Kennett. “Instead of having to go out and collect information on an almost annual basis, whether you are cleaning carpets or managing the roof, you will have that information electronically.” Unlike paper documentation, a BIM also would have the capacity to evolve to take into account renovations and changes that occur as a facility ages, if an employee was tasked with maintaining the model.

Such a system could potentially speed code compliance checks as well. Compliance checks could potentially be made nearly automatic by submitting a BIM electronically. If a problem is found, it could be rectified earlier in the process than under current practices. “With a BIM, they could do a virtual change order before the building ever hits the field,” says Smith.

Such a system is already in use in Singapore, Kennett says. “People know this is the future,” he says. “It may be five or 10 years, but this is the direction the industry has to go.”

Contact FacilitiesNet Editorial Staff »

  posted on 3/1/2006   Article Use Policy

Related Topics: