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Common Data Environment: Are you getting it right?

If you are about to embark on a BIM project or have recently started, you’ll need to work within a Common Data Environment. In that case, you may be wondering what exactly it is and how to use it correctly. We’ve prepared this article to help you get ahead.

Common Data Environment – collaboration is key

When we talk about BIM, one of the first words that should come to mind is ‘collaboration’. Yes, even before thinking of fancy 3D models or virtual reality. Because the truth is, BIM Level 2 is all about collaboration – the fancy 3D models are just a tool to facilitate such collaboration. In order for that collaboration to happen effectively and in an organised manner, we need a Common Data Environment – a CDE.

The CDE is defined in the new ISO 19650-1 (in clause 3.3.15, in case you are wondering), which was published last year. However, a Common Data Environment is not a new concept. In fact, it was formally defined back in 2007 when the now superseded BS 1192 was released. More than 13 years ago, professionals already believed in CDE’s as a fundamental part of any BIM Level 2 project.

So, what is a CDE exactly?

As its name suggests, a Common Data Environment is a virtual location where all the project information is stored and accessible to the entire project team. Sounds simple, right? Well, the truth is that for a CDE to work effectively and efficiently, it needs to comply with certain requirements. First, there should be a single source of truth – a single CDE, with unique information contained within. Secondly, the CDE needs to be managed properly, and requires a variety of skills – BIM knowledge, quality control, document control and project management, to name a few.

Get the right person to manage your Common Data Environment

It’s common to find projects where graduates or interns are managing the CDE. This happens all too frequently, given the perceived easy and repetitive nature of the associated tasks. Although graduates and interns may have the best of intentions and motivation, generally they lack the experience and skills required for the role. For this reason, the first step to get your CDE right from the beginning is to appoint the right person to manage it.

Implement a CDE solution, then focus on the process

As we dig a bit deeper into the Common Data Environment, we realise that it has two main components. One is a process, and the other a solution. We associate the process with the word workflow and the solution with a specific technology. If you already have experience working on BIM projects, you probably have a mental connection between CDE and specific software, such as ProjectWise or Business Collaborator.

However, the software (or technology, solution) is just one part of the CDE, and not the most important part. Indeed, the component that we should link in our minds with CDE is the workflow. This process is really the reason why Common Data Environments are so crucial. You may have the best software or solution, but if you don’t follow the process or workflows, then your CDE is useless. So that’s the second step to get your CDE right – implement a solution, then focus more on the process (workflows).

Choosing the right CDE solution or software

When it comes to choosing the right technology for your company or project, you’ll need to assess various aspects. On the one hand, you’ll need to find the right solution for your needs. Depending on the size of the project, the budget, the number of people that will need access to the CDE, etc. you may choose one solution over another. Nowadays, most of them provide similar characteristics, all compliant with ISO 19650. You should try to test them beforehand to ensure they suit your needs. Also, it’s very important that you check with all project stakeholders who will need access to the CDE. Some organisations, especially public clients, have their own preferred CDE technologies. For example, Network Rail makes use of Bentley ProjectWise, whilst Highways England prefers Business Collaborator.

Getting the Common Data Environment process right

As we said, the most important component of the Common Data Environment is the process i.e. the overall workflow. The software or technological solution is just the recipient that contains the information. And we need to reiterate this – to get the CDE right, you need to get the process right. This process needs to be thoroughly explained in your BIM Execution Plan. At any given point in time, each piece of BIM data (models, reports, etc.) can be in one of four stages.

The four stages of the CDE workflow

  1. Work in progress: this is the initial stage for every piece of information. A document, model or schedule remains in ‘work in progress’ since the time it is created and as far as individuals or teams are working on it.
  2. Shared: this is the second stage. After a piece of data has been sufficiently developed, it is checked and reviewed. If it is suitable to be shared with other task teams or stakeholders, the file goes from ‘work in progress’ to ‘shared.’ At that point, the file becomes locked, so that no one can make changes to it. If anyone requires additional changes, they will create a new revision of the file. This new revision becomes ‘work in progress’ again.
  3. Published: At some point later in the lifecycle of the project, shared data will be suitable to be published. This is the final authorisation stage of a file. Generally, the ‘shared’ stage is associated with internally shared, whilst the ‘published’ stage is related to externally published. A piece of information becomes published when it can be used for construction or asset management purposes.
  4. Archive: The Common Data Environment archives information constantly. It provides an audit trail of information exchanges and revisions.

A simple example of a CDE workflow

To illustrate the process with an example, let’s imagine a building project. The architectural team may create an initial draft model of the building. When they first create this model, it is ‘work in progress’ within the CDE. It remains in that state for 4 weeks whilst they work on it. Once they finish the model, they push it through the workflow to ‘shared’ state. Then, the structural team can use this model as a basis for the structural analysis. Their structural model is then created and it’s in ‘work in progress’.

They find that they need to put columns closer together. They push their structural model to ‘shared’ status in the Common Data Environment and ask the architectural team to revise their model. The architectural team creates a new revision of their model, which becomes ‘work in progress’ again. Once they finish the amendments, they share it again. Once both teams are happy with their respective models, they will be set to ‘published’ status. At this stage, the contractor can use them to build from.


We started this post saying that BIM is all about collaboration. As you’ve seen in this simplified example, for the process workflows to work correctly, you’ll need a lot of collaboration. Using a Common Data Environment has many advantages, including minimising abortive work associated with individuals using the wrong information. But getting it right requires effort, discipline and time. We encourage you to start implementing CDE’s on your projects if you haven’t done so already. And if you feel you’d benefit from some further help to get started, just reach out to us and we’ll do our best to assist.

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