Glossary June 03, 2024
Updated 3 June 2024 by James Ocean
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What is a Common Data Environment? CDE and BIM in the Construction Industry

Table of Contents

Definition of a common data environment

“Common data environment” (CDE) is a term that has been used regularly in recent years, mostly in tandem with newer technologies such as building information modeling (BIM) in construction. A CDE is an environment used to store, share, transfer, and modify project-related information.

The main field of expertise for CDEs is the construction industry, with its infrastructural, civil, residential, and other branches. Implementing a CDE structure can benefit all of these industries, since it dramatically simplifies complex communication and data-sharing processes. It is a relatively self-explanatory term that is also surprisingly detailed and specific in its overall capabilities for the construction industry.

Purpose of a CDE

Performance has been a common issue in the construction industry for decades now. The majority of modern construction projects are incredibly complex, with dozens of different parties involved and often hundreds of professionals hired for very specific tasks. Even if these people were part of the same company, it would still be difficult to manage them all with conventional communication methods.

The overall situation is made even worse by the fact that many industry professionals rely on proprietary software, which usually includes proprietary data formats that are difficult to interpret for non-experts. These are just some of the many examples of how the construction industry has been a nightmare in terms of communication and collaboration for decades, giving birth to budget overruns, conflicts, delays, etc.

CDE was created to solve this exact issue: the problem of communicating between different teams and stakeholders. The solution is a single data environment that can receive information in readable formats and showcase it to anyone involved in the project. It is also meant to be highly accessible and mobile, involving the ability to use not only desktops but also mobile phones and other devices to access necessary information on the go.

CDEs are also an essential part of building information management, another concept in the construction industry that has gained a lot of traction over the years. This approach offers significantly better results than any legacy approach to construction.

Advantages of a common data environment

When implemented correctly, a common data environment provides multiple advantages to its users during the different phases of project realization. A CDE can improve the results of almost any project from start to finish, from the early design phase to post-construction maintenance. Some of the most commonly cited advantages of CDE are:

  • Optimized time management. Simplified access to relevant project information eliminates the need for excessive and prolonged meetings between project participants.
  • Improved data sharing. The existence of a CDE also allows easy and convenient access to data sharing and data upload, greatly simplifying the process of keeping all of the information up-to-date.
  • Zero data loss. While this can be considered part of the previous advantage, the chance of data loss during data import from one stakeholder to another is a massive issue for the entire project. The existence of a CDE helps solve this issue by offering centralized storage that can both store and share information quickly and securely.
  • Up-to-date information. A simple and efficient information update process also improves the capabilities of other processes that are far bigger in scope, such as BIM.
  • Better security. The centralized nature of a CDE greatly simplifies access control and other security-oriented operations, improving the capabilities of both administrators and IT professionals.

Connection between BIM and CDE

Building information management is a process that is relatively popular in the modern construction industry. Most professionals in the field are already aware of how beneficial it can be compared with traditional approaches to construction.

At the same time, BIM can be an extremely complicated process with many essential elements. One of these elements is a CDE—an environment that BIM can use to collaborate with different stakeholders and share a digital representation of the project (a BIM model) that is built upon and improved throughout the project realization process.

In a perfect environment, the complete implementation of BIM is supposed to work in tandem with a “true” CDE, with completely neutral data formats and a near-impenetrable security system. However, the existing emphasis on common and well-known data formats is already enough to accelerate the digital transformation of the industry as a whole, improving performance and user-friendliness for all project participants in the process.

Definition of a digital twin

A “digital twin” is a concept that involves the existence of a highly detailed virtual representation of an existing or future structure. This representation should also be updated with new and existing information during the different phases of project realization.

The use of a digital twin is one of the most basic elements of the BIM process, but establishing a convenient and seamless data-sharing environment around it would not be possible without the introduction of the concept of a CDE. This dependency is the main reason why BIM and CDE are often treated as practically inseparable, especially in the construction industry.

Definitions of openBIM and openCDE

openBIM can be defined as a collaborative movement that attempts to improve the existing situation with digital data management in the construction industry (in the context of BIM). This concept addresses what is by far one of the biggest issues of BIM: the lack of any well-known and neutral file format that all BIM solutions can use without losing information in the conversion process.

Similar to how CDE is often seen as part of a complete implementation of BIM, openCDE is the creation of buildingSMART International, the same organization that introduced openBIM to begin with. The main goal of openCDE is relatively similar to that of openBIM: to create an environment where different CDE solutions can communicate with one another without being restricted by proprietary file formats and the data losses that happen during the conversion process from one format to another.

Issue of data ownership in a common data environment

Generally speaking, the contributor of information retains ownership of the data they produced and added to the CDE. Most contributions are licensed for a specific purpose according to their contract (such as “assistance with generating a model with a specific level of detail”), and the information produced within the CDE using these contributions is also shared with the initial contributors for their own purposes (such as analysis).

Data ownership is subject to change in different phases of the project. One of the most common examples is a situation in which an object modeled by the designer is then transformed or replaced with a real-life counterpart from a specific manufacturer (a subcontractor) to make the construction process easier to follow.

Expectations from a common data environment

As with any technology that has taken root in the industry, the use of CDE has been growing at a steady rate for multiple years now. This situation always gives birth to various standards and regulations in the field. One of the best-known examples is ISO 19650-1:2018, called “Organization and digitization of information about buildings and civil engineering works, including building information modelling (BIM) – Information management using building information modelling – Part 1: Concepts and principles” (source).

This standard provides its own definition of a common data environment (3.3.15): “an agreed source of information (3.3.1) for any given project or asset (3.2.8), for collecting, managing and disseminating each information container (3.3.12) through a managed process.” It defines many different elements of the concept of CDE, including:

  • Standard naming conventions.
  • Data revision control to ensure that only up-to-date information is used.
  • Unique identifiers for every “information container.”
  • Suitability status that is assigned to all data.
  • Detailed audit trail, etc.

Who should use a common data environment?

In a perfect world, there would be a dedicated position for the person who is tasked with keeping the overall information flow coherent and synchronized. BIM-centric protocols such as Construction Industry Council BIM (CIC BIM) include the specific position of “information manager” which is different from the position of “BIM coordinator.” In reality, the role of keeping an eye on the CDE is a responsibility that someone from the upper management team receives when the CDE is implemented.

Common use cases with active involvement of CDE

A common data environment might seem like a relatively simple concept at first, but its applications in the construction industry differ wildly from one use case to another. As such, we can present several different examples of how a CDE can improve specific processes in the construction field.

Real-time centralized collaboration within the same BIM model

The most apparent advantage of a CDE is its ability to offer simultaneous collaboration capabilities to multiple stakeholders in the same project model. Every single change to the model is updated immediately, eliminating the possibility of misunderstandings and significantly reducing the chances of conflicts between project participants.

Even though BIM itself has been around for a while now, and its advantages are now apparent to most people, it can still be very difficult to understand how BIM depends on a common data environment to offer the necessary level of seamless collaboration and data exchange. CDEs also assist with other project-related processes and tasks, including clash detection, issue tracking, and practically every other process that requires coordination between different stakeholders.

No disconnect between office teams and on-site teams

A lack of a centralized communication system may create many issues in the communication between on-site and office workers, including an increased number of errors and a general loss of efficiency for the project.

A CDE is an excellent solution for this issue specifically, offering real-time updates for project-related information between different project teams, regardless of their location. Some of the more specific examples of information that could be sent to and from the on-site location are as-built data, field layout points, etc.

Simplified project information management

It is not uncommon for certain stakeholders not to share most project-related information with the rest of the project team. This kind of behavior is often detrimental to the success of the overall project, which is why it is heavily discouraged in most cases. However, the problem is not always with the stakeholders themselves, since sharing certain information in a safe and secure manner can be a surprisingly difficult task.

The existence of a CDE solves this issue, offering centralized access to all project information in the most convenient manner possible. Both uploading and sharing are relatively simple, and specific precautions can even be set up for some types of information, such as risk information or financial data.

Access to the BIM model without the software

BIM software can be very expensive even by construction industry standards, which is why it is not uncommon for no one but engineers and architects to have access to full BIM models. However, that is not to say that other project participants (such as owners or contractors) cannot benefit from the information stored in the BIM model outside of what is kept in the regular construction documents.

The existence of a CDE solves this issue, offering convenient access to the latest project information (including the data stored in the BIM model). This allows for better report generation, improved construction efforts, convenient generation of renderings when necessary, and so on.

Streamlined document-centric processes

Processes such as submittals and RFIs tend to take an extremely long time to process and approve, and the biggest limitation is usually the limits of the data-sharing infrastructure. A CDE can solve this issue with ease, offering a convenient and hassle-free way to manage documents, including change orders, RFIs, submittals, and others. The effectiveness of this data management is also enhanced by features such as versioning and customizable alerts, significantly decreasing the chances of the cost overruns, delays, and other errors that these documents may generate.

Misconceptions about CDEs

Like almost any new technology in a large and complex field, CDE has its fair share of doubters and misconceptions. Speaking of the latter, there are at least three main misconceptions about common data environments that are either partially or completely false:

  • CDE is a weak point in terms of data integrity.

At first, providing all project participants with access to your company’s information may seem like a massive security risk. At the same time, no CDE is entirely defenseless. The different CDEs out there have implemented their own methods of data protection, ranging from minor security methods such as passwords to complex behavior monitoring and sophisticated access policies.

  • CDE is not worth implementing.

The construction industry has its fair share of problems, including labor shortages, new technologies, the digitalization of business, and so on. In this unstable environment, it is necessary to try to remain as competitive as possible for the client. The addition of a CDE is a relatively simple yet convenient step in the right direction, offering plenty of advantages: less miscommunication, lower chances of errors, better data aggregation, simplified data sharing, etc. These advantages alone create a lot of value for CDE, and this is far from the complete list.

  • CDE is far too complicated.

This is part of a much bigger issue facing the construction industry as a whole: incredible resistance to change (agriculture being the only industry that is more conservative than construction). In this context, it is not difficult to see why some might say that CDE is far too difficult to adopt just because it differs considerably from technologies that have been used for decades with minimal changes.

The reality is completely different. The majority of CDEs are easy to adopt (especially compared with something like the BIM adoption process), and the data centralization advantages can be noticed in both the short term and the long term.

Examples of CDE software

Now that we have a general understanding of CDE, its purpose, and its capabilities, it would only be natural to showcase several examples of CDE solutions with their own advantages and shortcomings. This list is in no way exhaustive, but it can be used to get an understanding of some of the most popular CDE solutions right now.

Autodesk Construction Cloud

Autodesk is a well-known software provider in multiple industries, offering CAD tools, BIM software, and many other similar solutions. BIM 360 was one of many examples of Autodesk’s capabilities, but it was focused specifically on project management and data management tasks. Several years ago, it was replaced by Autodesk Construction Cloud, a comprehensive project management solution with a plethora of capabilities, many of which can be treated as a continuation of BIM 360’s efforts. ACC offers comprehensive workflow management capabilities within a cloud-based solution that provides real-time access to all project information, with plenty of tools and capabilities to improve decision-making, resolve issues, improve workflows, and more.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra4.3/5 points based on 2,169 user reviews
  • G24.3/5 points based on 2,828 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Support for many different types of construction documents, including RFIs, reports, schedules, drawings, and more.
  • Massive number of capabilities in a single package that can meet the needs of a large number of different professions and specializations in the construction industry.
  • Impressive level of flexibility due to the web-based nature of the solution, which allows access to all of the software’s capabilities from practically any device that has a web browser and an Internet connection.

Shortcomings:

  • Project templates cannot be created from scratch, significantly limiting potential customization options.
  • Extreme dependence on Autodesk’s servers, since the entire solution is web-based and cannot operate offline.
  • The high update frequency has the potential to disrupt some operations, especially for companies that are not accustomed to working with solutions that are in active development.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • There was no public pricing information for BIM 360 available on the official Autodesk website, and ACC follows the same pattern, offering custom quotations for each client, which are provided on a per-request basis and are never public.

My personal opinion on Autodesk Construction Cloud:

Autodesk is one of the best-known software providers in the construction industry, and it deserves its place. Software solutions such as AutoCAD and Revit are considered by many to be the best the market has to offer, even if they do come at a price. Autodesk Construction Cloud tries very hard to meet Autodesk’s level of fame, only in the field of CDE, with web-based, cloud-centric collaboration software that offers its users many tools and capabilities. It excels in BIM coordination while also assisting with issue management, design review, coordination of deliverables, and many other industry-specific tasks. At the same time, the software is nowhere near perfect: it is heavily reliant on an Internet connection, its customization capabilities are surprisingly uneven, and the overall nature of a web-based solution with constant updates may be a significant turn-off for some users.

Fieldwire

Fieldwire is another relatively well-known name in the project management field. It was initially created to enhance any company’s existing collaboration capabilities, providing centralized data storage and multiple coordination capabilities alongside punch lists, as-built drawings, task management, custom forms, scheduling, etc. Fieldwire can be acquired as a mobile application for iOS and Android devices, and the Windows version is also currently in active development and can be used in its incomplete state.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra4.6/5 points based on 88 user reviews
  • G24.5/5 points based on 210 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Extensive information-sharing capabilities.
  • Impressive versioning capabilities with easy access to any version of the file when necessary.
  • Significant emphasis on collaboration and communication between project participants.

Shortcomings:

  • Limited selection of pre-existing items (forms, tasks, etc.).
  • Severely limited budget tracking.
  • Some relatively obvious features are missing, such as the ability to create weekly reports by combining seven daily reports.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • Fieldwire offers multiple pricing plans that cater to different client groups:
    • Basic is the lowest tier of Fieldwire. It has multiple basic features, such as plan viewing, task management, and checklists. It is completely free and targets smaller teams with limited budgets.
    • Pro ($54 per user per month) is slightly more complex and adds sheet comparison, custom task statuses, and custom reports to the basic set of features.
    • Business ($74 per user per month) adds custom forms, file storage synchronization, and a BIM viewer to the previous tier’s capabilities.
    • Business Plus ($89 per user per month) is the most complex tier of Fieldwire and adds submittals, RFI creation, change orders, and many other capabilities to the existing features.

My personal opinion on Fieldwire:

Fieldwire is one of the better-known solutions in this field, since it fills something of a niche within the project management software field. Its primary purpose is to assist with field-based data management, which is why its primary development targets are mobile apps rather than desktop software. Some of the most convenient advantages of Fieldwire include simple communication between stakeholders and team members, convenient information sharing, real-time project status updates, and more. It is an excellent option for on-site collaboration, even if it does have its own issues, such as a lack of template selection and extremely limited budget tracking tools.

Allplan

Allplan is a rather convenient toolset in the field of architectural planning that was created by the company Nemetschek. It can operate in both 2D and 3D and works with drawings, conceptions, topography, data sharing, and so on. It is limited to Windows devices only, which hampers its overall flexibility to a certain degree. However, its total range of features is still impressive, and it covers not only structural engineering but also infrastructure design, civil engineering, steel fabrication, and multiple other disciplines.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra3.2/5 points based on 6 user reviews
  • G24.4/5 points based on 25 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Overall range of features that makes the software extremely useful in multiple parts of the construction industry.
  • Relatively simple user interface that tries its best not to feel too overwhelming to newcomers.
  • Convenient scalability makes the solution useful for companies of practically any level, from individual professionals to large project teams.

Shortcomings:

  • Many issues, such as slowdowns, when working with complex projects.
  • Incomplete sets of features in some areas (such as the lack of daylight calculation capabilities).
  • The overall update frequency is relatively low, and there have not been any significant changes or improvements to the software in a while.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • There is no public pricing information for Allplan on its official website. It seems that requesting a personalized quotation is the only way to receive pricing information for Allplan.

My personal opinion on Allplan:

Allplan is a relatively unknown solution in the field of architectural planning, even though it offers an impressive set of features, with support for multiple specific industries, plenty of capabilities revolving around data sharing and collaboration, etc. It is a rather notable BIM solution with plenty of CAD-adjacent capabilities and even some CDE elements, but it is brought down by a number of shortcomings, including an apparent lack of innovation over the years, as well as extremely limited customization and the absence of some features that are considered industry standard and are present in most competitors’ solutions.

Bentley ProjectWise

Engineering and infrastructure are two of the biggest client targets for Bentley ProjectWise, a comprehensive data management and project collaboration software application. It can work with many different data formats while also being capable of integration with many other industry-specific applications, making it a great common data environment for collaboration and data sharing. Some of Bentley’s key features are workflow automation, document control, and versioning, as well as impressive security measures to safeguard all of the collaborative information.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra4.2/5 points based on 27 user reviews
  • TrustRadius9.3/10 points based on 17 user reviews
  • G23.9/5 points based on 42 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Convenience of having access to all project files in a single location.
  • Simplified collaboration and cooperation with other teams and companies.
  • Attributes and properties are easily inherited from one piece of data to another.

Shortcomings:

  • The workflow configuration process can be very challenging and time-consuming.
  • The massive number of features can feel very overwhelming for newcomers.
  • Many issues when attempting to integrate with Autodesk products.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • ProjectWise is a solution that is distributed in two separate packages: Manage and Engineer.
    • ProjectWise Manage ($292 for a single unit with a 12-month practitioner license) is a combination of project management capabilities that is best used to perform project oversight tasks. It can manage workflows, monitor performance, integrate project data, manage resources, and more.
    • ProjectWise Engineer ($848 for a single unit with a 12-month practitioner license) is a more specific, engineering-oriented part of the software that focuses on providing a convenient environment for data sharing among engineers, making it a proper CDE solution.

My personal opinion on Bentley ProjectWise:

Bentley is a relatively well-known name in the automotive industry, but that has nothing to do with this Bentley, since the former is Bentley Motors, and this is Bentley Systems. With that being said, Bentley Systems has enough fame of its own, offering multiple solutions for different use cases and purposes. ProjectWise is one such example, offering a rather impressive project management solution with CDE capabilities and a variety of features to work with. It is not the most user-friendly solution on the market, with a steep learning curve and an abundance of confusing features, but it is a very competent tool in the hands of the right user.

Procore

Procore is an exceptional project management solution with a massive number of capabilities. Some of its capabilities are project quality, budgeting, risk management, project safety, and plenty of others. It offers remote access capabilities, data-sharing solutions, and a centralized data storage environment for some of the most complex projects out there. The software is separated into multiple modules that specialize in certain areas, such as finance, quality and safety, project management, etc. Procore can improve project efficiency, enhance collaboration, boost conflict resolution times, and so on.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra4.5/5 points based on 2,700 user reviews
  • G24.6/5 points based on 2,713 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Outstanding customer support experience.
  • Extensive workflow centralization capabilities.
  • Massive number of learning materials to work with.

Shortcomings:

  • Many processes are very time-consuming and not particularly intuitive.
  • The overall learning curve of the software is very steep.
  • Does not allow for easy switching between subsequent RFIs or submittals.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • Procore’s official website offers little to nothing in terms of pricing information. The only way to receive such information is to request a quotation from the company directly.

My personal opinion on Procore:

Procore is impressive project management software that includes a veritable mountain of features and capabilities, including project management, financial management, quality and safety information, and more. It is also an exceptional collaboration and data-sharing tool, making it extremely useful as a common data environment as well. However, the solution is also well-known for being extremely difficult to work with, with a steep learning curve and somewhat complicated process management, which may be a significant barrier for a lot of potential clients.

oceanBIM

oceanBIM is a relatively small-scale cloud-based platform for project management and collaboration in various projects. As its name suggests, it is a BIM platform first and foremost. It attempts to integrate various industry-specific requirements with existing BIM workflows, with features such as simulation, modeling, and analysis. Marine and coastal infrastructure are the biggest fields of use for oceanBIM (which is where the name comes from), but it can also be used in other industries, acting as both a BIM and CDE environment with real-time data sharing and simple collaboration across different teams.

Key features:

  • Environmental impact assessment.
  • Resilience planning capabilities.
  • Real-time collaboration in a common data environment.
  • Impressive BIM capabilities with support for industry-specific use cases.
  • Efficient communication between project teams.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • There is no public pricing information on oceanBIM’s official website.

My personal opinion on oceanBIM:

oceanBIM is a very interesting combination of basic BIM capabilities and surprisingly deep integration with industry-specific requirements. As its name suggests, oceanBIM is a marine-oriented solution that excels at working with structures that are either water-based or water-adjacent. Not only does oceanBIM support modeling, simulation, and analysis operations, but it can also be used as centralized data storage for all project participants, making it a convenient CDE solution in specific situations.

Trimble Connect

Trimble Connect is a convenient and useful cloud-based solution that prioritizes data management over other capabilities. It is a CDE solution at its core, offering plenty of collaboration opportunities within a centralized data-sharing environment. It can be of great use to almost any project participant, including subcontractors, MEP professionals, architects, designers, and more. Trimble Connect also offers its fair share of features, such as design coordination, project management, and plenty of integrations with other software – the integration with SketchUp is one of the best-known use cases for Trimble Connect.

Customer ratings:

  • Capterra4.0/5 points based on 11 user reviews
  • G24.5/5 points based on 14 user reviews

Advantages:

  • Impressive collaboration and data sharing capabilities make it one of the best CDE solutions on the market.
  • Existence of a mobile application for improved versatility.
  • Large selection of BIM capabilities.

Shortcomings:

  • Limited selection of helpful information in the “help” section.
  • Significant dependence on a stable Internet connection.
  • The overall user interface can be very difficult to work with.

Pricing (at the time of writing):

  • Trimble Connect offers multiple pricing tiers for different user groups:
    • Free is a very limited version of the software that supports up to five participants at best and only a single project per license.
    • Business starts at $12.99 per user per month. It adds various administrative capabilities while also removing the free version’s limitations.
    • Business Premium starts at $23.95 per user per month. It adds advanced BIM capabilities, detailed 3D workflows, and a plethora of third-party apps and extensions, but it can only be billed annually.

My personal opinion on Trimble Connect:

Trimble Connect is a competent CDE solution with plenty of BIM capabilities. It offers a lot of data-sharing and centralization capabilities, helping MEP professionals, subcontractors, architects, and other professionals in the context of a complicated project environment. It is not the most user-friendly software in the field, but its overall capabilities still make it a very compelling option for companies that need a CDE environment with limited BIM capabilities. It is also worth noting that Trimble has a basic version of the software with limited capabilities, as well as a mobile application.

Future of the concept of a common data environment

The CDE industry is still evolving and improving, and initiatives such as openCDE will play a significant part in ensuring that CDE software does not fall into the same pit as BIM did multiple years ago. The goal of providing convenient access to project information and an easy way to contact other project participants should not be diminished by proprietary standards and the mechanics of specific software.

The future of CDE will focus more on established data exchange frameworks while also producing better guidelines on how to handle different data formats in the context of a common data environment. For CDEs to be most helpful, all companies will have to agree to specific data exchange rules and properties upfront in every project.


About the author
James Ocean

BIM/VDC Specialist. James Ocean is Head of BIMspiration at Revizto and keeps everything moving onwards and upwards. From supporting and teaching our internal team as well as our clients, James shows us the ins-and-outs and how to best leverage Revizto to maximize workflows, cut costs, and get all types of projects through the finish line.

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What is a Common Data Environment? CDE and BIM in the Construction Industry A common data environment is a platform or infrastructure that allows for information to be stored, modified, and shared with minimal effort, no matter where it comes from. Achieving a true CDE can be surprisingly difficult, but even basic approaches can offer exceptional advantages in collaboration and data management. This article goes over the topic of CDE in-depth while also offering multiple examples of such software. 2024-06-03
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