5 W’s and a H - Part 1: What is COBie?

 Bill East
 Lean Handover Production and Consulting

Without a common understanding of COBie, response to the standard has become a Rorschach test reflecting the perspectives and concerns of those who confront it. For example, designers might see COBie through the lens of integrated practice. In some countries, teams might see COBie as a top-down policy that will eventually go away. Some will see COBie as just something else to subcontract away. Others may see COBie as means to open new markets for systems integration services. As the inventor of COBie, I can assure you that none of these things are true. To resolve inaccurate, conflicting, and outright false claims about the COBie standard, this blog series will answer the basic journalistic questions about the COBie standard.

What is COBie?

COBie is a US National Building Information Modeling Standard that defines the minimum set of required information about manufactured products and equipment installed in a building.

To unpack that definition a bit, I’ll answer a few commonly asked follow-up questions.

What information is required by COBie?

There are two sets of information in the COBie standard format. Information about “spaces” and information about “manufactured products and equipment”.
  • Information about spaces including the number, description, and category of each space.
  • Information about manufactured products and equipment including information about scheduled products provided during design and information about installed products provided during construction.

There is much more to say about the set of required COBie information, however, in this post answering the “what” question, there are some questions you can ask yourself right now. What types of traditional building documentation already contain COBie data?
What information is not required by COBie?

It is not the intention of COBie or any other NBIMS-US V3® information exchange standard to deliver every bit of information about a building. Not to state the obvious, but it impossible to ever deliver all information about a building. There are always tradeoffs in the design of information requirements between general usage and specific needs, as noted in this paper by researchers from the NZ, DE, and US.

It is also not possible to say what products and equipment can be in every building. That, after all, is the professional responsibility of the designer and engineering consultants. To be applicable to every type of building project anywhere in the world, the only requirement is to NOT include a specific set of BIM elements that are NOT required in the COBie standard.

The list of building elements excluded from the COBie schema, and therefore any deliverable claiming to be COBie-compliant are published directly in the COBie standard. I leave it to you to find those two specific tables in NBIMS-US V3® Chapter 4.2.

What I will say in addition to the exclusion list is that the lack of understanding of this exclusion list and the resulting non-filtering of COBie data exports is the primary reason that exports of COBie data fail.
What COBie data is required of designers?

Technically speaking the COBie standard requires designers to deliver information about all scheduled rooms, products, and equipment not found on the exclusion list.

From a practical point of view for designers, COBie data is simply the standardized exports of room finish schedules and equipment lists. This set of data is the outline that is completed by contractors.
What COBie data is required of contractors?

Designers provide the outline of room finishes and non-excluded scheduled products and equipment for contractors to complete.

Contractors are required to complete a minimum set of information and attach relevant documentation for each room and scheduled product and equipment.

From a practical point of view for contractors, COBie data is simply a standards way to deliver information already compiled for construction handover documentation such as operations and maintenance manuals.
What tested software delivers COBie data files?

Over 30 software systems have demonstrated their ability to produce or consume COBie data. This testing was originally conducted by the US Army over the period of 2008-2014.

Following these lab tests, extensive and detailed public tests of ARCHICAD and Revit were conducted by industry teams in the US, UK, and IE.
What format is required for COBie deliverables?

Data must be delivered in some agreed upon format or the information is not useful. The COBie standard identifies four different formats that may be used. These formats are:

Readers familiar with the Industry Foundation Class Model (ISO 16739) will note that the IFC model is itself a schema for the entire set of building information that must be defined by Model View Definition (MVD) and implemented in an agreed-upon physical format to be useful. While some in our industry consider the use of an “IFC File” to include the entire set of data for a building, this is a misreading of the very title page of the ISO standard.
What tested software supports COBie Spreadsheet format?

All software for planning, construction, and facility management exclusively exports and/or imports COBie data in spreadsheet format.

Only one design sofware product currently exports COBie in spreadsheet format.
What tested software supports COBie in SPFF?

Only two of the design software systems tested partially support the export of COBie data in SPFF.

It should be empahsized that COBie in SPFF format cannot be used by any of the downstream systems today.

Software exporting COBie data in SPFF requires any additional step of extracting COBie data from the Coordination MVD data into which COBie data has been dumpped, then translating from SPFF to COBie spreadsheet. This additional step has been noted by these software vendors as a major impediment for the use the COBie data.
What software verifies COBie file format compliance?

A free, open-source software tool COBieQCReporter is the gold-standard for checking COBie files in spreadsheet format.

A free, open-source software tool COBie Plugin for BIMserver is the gold-standard for checking and extracting COBie data from SPFF files.

Documentation of both programs may be found here. (spiral bound workbook version also available).
What is the US National BIM Standard?

Officially, COBie version 2.4 is defined in the National Building Information Model Standard - United States ® Version 3. NBIMS-US is a free publication of the US National Institute of Building Sciences. NBIMS-US was developed using a national consensus standard process.

A discussion of lessons learned during the production of the first three versions of NBIMS-US was published in 2016. This paper documents the struggle of an industry to reach a consensus on the meaning of the word “standard” as it applies to our building industry. At least in one dimension of this definition, the answer was very clear. A “technical standard” is one where an information exchange deliverable can be objectively tested against explicitly defined requirements. These requirements must be published in that standard so that there can be no argument when deliverables meet, or do not meet, the requirements.
What is an information exchange standard?

What emerged from the decade long NBIMS-US process is a clear definition of requirements leading to a “contractable” an “information exchange” requirement. The interest of the members of the technical committee of NBIMS-US V3 was to create information exchange standards that could be implemented across the building industry using a performance-based contract provision. As a result, information exchange projects were required to include much more that the technical specifications of data schema and format.

The figure below demonstrates the extent to which the development of NBIMS-US V3 standards went beyond data schema and format publication. The technical portion of each “information exchange” standard was required to address the Information Delivery Manual (Steps 1 and 2) and the Model View Definition (Step 3.a). To provide clearer understanding of the schema, a spreadsheet mapping was also included in the COBie standard (Step 3.b). In the author’s personal experience, most discussions about COBie do not pertain to COBie requirements (Steps 2.a thru 2c) at all, but differences in schema mappings between STEP Physical File Format (SPFF) and COBie Spreadsheet format (Step 3.b).

NBIMS-US Information Exchange Standard Process

Beyond the technical aspects of the COBie standard, NBIMS-US V3 also required documentation that software systems had implemented these standards. NBIMS-US V3 also required that exchanged files could be objectively tested (Step 4.a) against required business rules (Step 2.c) and allowable formats (Step 3a, 3b). As a result, example files and user training resources along with draft contract language supporting a “code,” “commentary,” and “specification” paradigm consistent with that required of physical construction deliverables were created for the COBie standard. Through common understanding and implementation of the standard, process transformation (Step 5) was expected to validate the original COBie business case, allowing an ongoing process of innovation.

  I look forward to joining you for the next installment of COBie questions and answers!

Published May 2019