can buildings be documents?

The question of what constitutes a document has sparked significant debate among academics and others. Indeed, the concept of ‘a document’ includes entities as diverse as animals (Briet, 1951), museum objects (Latham, 2012), land forms (Grenersen, 2012) and even religious icons (Walsh, 2011).

Buckland (2013) takes this further and highlights work by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine and their founding of the International Institute for Bibliography in 1895 (Wright, 2014; Battles, 2004) and their work on the Mundaneum in early 20th Century Belgium. Buckland highlights that once one “accepts the notion of documents as objects from which one may learn, then there is no basis for limiting the scope to text recorded on two-dimensional, flat surfaces” (ibid., p. 5). Buckland continues to theorise that museum objects such as sculptures and specimens can be considered documents under one or more of his three classifications:

  • Conventional, material view
  • Functional view
  • Semiotic view

In the construction industry, the word “building” widely used to mean any built asset, such as houses and schools, libraries and hospitals, roads and railway lines or bridges and ports. Following work by Latham (Museum Object As Document [2012]) and the publication of Buckland’s Document Theory; An Introduction (2013) it stands to reason that buildings can also be considered documents.

Often before a building is constructed, a physical model is made to display the concept, with many clients and architects believing that a physical representation is the best way to showcase their design. London’s Victoria & Albert museum, for example, has a permanent architectural exhibition devoted to drawings, models, photographs and associated artefacts while organisations such as RIBA, Historic England (formerly English Heritage), the National Trust and a variety of local and national government bodies also manage substantial libraries of drawings, models and other items relating to the built environment.

For example, Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London is represented by a scale model in the V&A’s architecture gallery, original elevations and plan drawings in RIBA’s (Royal Institute of British Architecture) archive and a number of photographs.

Original architectural model showing Rowlett Street Housing Block A & Block B [later Balfron Tower & Carradale House respectively] (source: IanVisits/ V&A Museum)

The building’s story is also told through other associated documents such as Historic England’s (formerly English Heritage) listing summary and Tower Hamlets Council’s local conservation area report. And finally the building itself tells its own story – the lift shafts contain evidence of an earlier oil leak which rendered the lifts unusable for a number of weeks (Roberts, 2006); some of the pre-cast concrete balconies have been painted by previous tenants and rust from the metal windows and reinforcing steel rods in the concrete is evident on the concrete itself.

NW Corner Perspective: Block A [subsequently Balfron Tower] Service Tower (source: Goldfinger/ RIBA)

Balfron Tower is currently undergoing a comprehensive redevelopment which will see its mechanical and electrical services upgraded for the first time since the building was constructed in 1967, as well as replacement of windows and doors, and the upgrade of fire prevention and protection services. While it is anticipated that much of the character of the original building will be retained, questions remain about whether the building will be the same as the one designed by Ernö Goldfinger in the 1960s.

  • Battles, M., 2004. Library: An Unquiet History. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.
  • Wright, A., 2014. Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  • Briet, S., 1951. Part I: A Technique of Intellectual Work. In: R. E. Day, L. Martinet & H. G. B. Anghelescu, eds. What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Paris, France: Scarecrow Press, pp. 9-19
  • Buckland, M., 2013. Document Theory; An Introduction. Records, Archives and Memory: Selected Papers from the Conference and School on Records, Archives and Memory Studies, University of Zadar, Croatia, May 2013, 223-237
  • Grenersen, G., 2012. What is a document institution? A case study from the South Sámi Community. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 127-133
  • Latham, K. F., 2012. Museum object as document: using Buckland’s information concepts to understand museum experiences. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 45-71
  • Roberts, 2006. Balfron Tower: A Building Archive [Online] accessed 30 April 2018]
  • Walsh, J. A., 2011. “Images of God and friends of God”: The holy icon as document. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(1), pp. 185-194



the beginnings of BIM

The construction industry is commonly characterised as ‘backward’ and in particular as one that fails to innovate when compared to other sectors.  The charge against construction is that from symbolic achievements such as the Crystal Palace and the Suez Canal in the 1800s, the industry failed to transform itself for the 20th Century and beyond (Winch, 2003, p. 651).  Dubois & Gadde (2002, p. 621) state that numerous studies have identified that the construction industry is inefficient, and that its short-term perspective hampers both innovation and technical development.

The industry’s performance is undeniably low when compared to other industries (Koskela & Vrijhoef, 2001, p. 198), with Winch (1998, p. 269) and Farmer (2016, p. 7) both arguing that the low rate of innovation is to blame.  Koskela & Vrijhoef argue that an inflated level of variability and “myopic modes of management” also hinder innovation.

Change is Afoot
The UK Government’s Infrastructure & Projects Authority (2016) says the sector employs around three million people (almost 10% of the working population) and contributes £90 billion to the economy – about 7% of the UK’s GDP.  It is estimated that worldwide construction output will reach £9.5 trillion (US$12 trillion) by 2025, with global BIM market revenue forecast to reach £14.32 billion (US$18.8 billion) by 2024 (Esticast, 2017).

Collaborative Working & Information Sharing
Weippert and Kajewski (2004) state that the construction industry continues to prefer traditional methods of communication and information processing, and resists efforts to modernise or embrace new ways of working.  In an interview with The Economist, Dutch architect Ben van Berkel says that while we are all using iPhones, construction is still in the Walkman phase with many construction design professionals using hand-drawn plans often “riddled with errors” (The Economist, 2017, p. 56).  There are often misconceptions around the implementation of new working methods which in turn hinder the adoption of improved processes: particularly in the construction design industry.  According to Mahmood (2016, p. 30), the adoption of BIM, information sharing and collaborative working differs across organisations and within disciplines.

while we are all using iPhones, construction is still in the Walkman phase… and hand-drawn plans are often riddled with errors

The publication of three major reports into the UK construction sector led to a consensus that clients and suppliers need to work collaboratively and share information formally and more widely.  The 2009 report, Never Waste A Good Crisis, highlighted that government-procured projects represent around 40% of the UK construction industry’s output: a significant portion of the sector’s output.  The UK Government’s Construction Strategy mandated that all publicly-funded projects must operate in “a fully collaborative 3D BIM (with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic) as a minimum by 2016”  (Cabinet Office, 2011, p. 14) which became known as the 2017 BIM Mandate.  The Government Construction Client Group (GCCG) was set up to “drive the adoption of BIM across government” and its initial Strategy Paper was published in March 2011 with a stated aim to utilise information sharing and BIM strategies as “part of a joined up plan to improve the performance of the government estate” (GCCG, 2011, p. 3).

Formal information sharing across construction industry projects is happening, but there’s still some way to go.

  • Cabinet Office, 2011. Government Construction Strategy, London: HMSO
  • Dubois, A. & Gadde, L. E., 2002. The construction industry as a loosely coupled system: implications for productivity and innovation. Construction Management & Economics, 20(7), pp. 621-631
  • The Economist, 2017. Least Improved. The Economist, 424(9054), pp. 55-56
  • Esticast, 2017. Building Information Modeling Market By Solution (Software, Services), Deployment Model (On-premises, Cloud) & By Application Areas (Commercial, Residential, Industrial, Infrastructure, Institutional), Industry trends, Estimation & Forecast, 2015 – 2024, Elizabeth, NJ: Esticast Research & Consulting
  • GCCG, 2011. A Report for the Government Construction Client Group: Building Information Modelling (BIM) Working Party Strategy Paper, London: HMSO
  • Infrastructure & Projects Authority, 2016. Government Construction Strategy 2016-20, London: HMSO
  • Koskela, L. & Vrijhoef, R., 2001. Is the current theory of construction a hindrance to innovation?. Building Research & Innovation, 29(3), pp. 197-207
  • Mahmoud, S., 2016. The effect BIM has on Motivation and Leadership: BIM, Design Management, Motivation & Leadership. London: Lambert Academic Publishing
  • Farmer, M., 2016. Modernise or Die: The Farmer Review Of the UK Construction Labour Model, London: Construction Leadership Council (CLC)
  • Weippert, A. & Kajewski, S. L., 2004. AEC Industry Culture: A Need for Change. Toronto, CIB World Building Congress 2004: Building for the Future
  • Wolstenholme, A., Latham, M., Egan, J. & Raynsford, N., 2009. Never Waste A Good Crisis: a review of progress since Rethinking Construction and thoughts for our future, London: Constructing Excellence
  • Winch, G. M., 1998. Zephyrs of creative destruction: understanding the management of innovation in construction. Building Research & Information, 26(5 [Innovation]), pp. 268-279
  • Winch, G. M., 2003. How innovative is construction? Comparing aggregated data on construction innovation and other sectors – a case of apples and pears. Construction Management & Economics , 21 [special issue on Innovation in the Built Environment](6), pp. 651-654

laying the foundations


My name’s Oz Ablett and I’m excited (and a little apprehensive) to say that I’ve recently registered to study with #CityLIS as a research student, following successful completion of my Masters degree – also from #CityLIS.

My Masters studies were completed while I was working full-time for a large construction design firm, and much of my research looked at how information is instantiated in the built environment.  This research considered the impact of a new way of designing buildings such as schools, libraries and hospitals as well as other structures (such as roads, bridges and railway lines) called Building Information Modelling, or ‘BIM’.  BIM is a process which formalises how different design disciplines work together and share their information, creating a virtual model representing the building during its use and ultimately renovation and/ or demolition.  Believe it or not, this is considered cutting edge by the construction industry.

From an information science perspective, my Masters research highlighted work by Suzanne Briet[i], Michael Buckland and others who considered what constitutes a document.  Buckland in particular highlighted that once one “accepts the notion of documents as objects from which one may learn, then there is no basis for limiting the scope to text recorded on two-dimensional, flat surfaces”[ii].  These theories, combined with the design industry beginning to use BIM methodologies, have led me to consider whether buildings (and the built environment) can be considered documents.

BIM methodologies formalise a process for creating and managing information associated with construction projects from initial concept sketches through construction and into use, re-use and ultimately demolition.  BIM has increased the volume of information being generated during the building design process.  This uptake has been augmented by the UK government’s Construction Strategy which mandated that all publically-funded building projects must operate in “a fully collaborative” BIM environment[iii].

I anticipate that the research will also consider the concept of ‘virtual’ structures created by architects, engineers and others as outputs from the design process including structures which have been, for whatever reason, destroyed.  For example, the Bank of England building was extensively remodelled between 1925 and 1939, resulting in significant changes from the architect’s original plan.  In November 2015, architectural practice RAMSA announced they were working on a project to re-create the original building in a virtual model[iv] to allow architectural historians and others to view the building as it would have looked for the 137 years before this work was undertaken – and even allow for the possibility of re-building the original structure.

The information stored in and associated with the built environment goes beyond BIM.  A building’s history, the methods of construction and its use also tell their own story.  My research will consider all the information present in buildings and how that information has been and is now being used, both by the wider construction industry and those who live, work, play and study within the built environment.

Thus my research will also consider how buildings can be ‘read’ by considering construction techniques and architectural styles as well as the materials used during construction.  In addition, I also plan to how buildings relate to their immediate and local environments considering context and ‘vernacular architecture’.  For example, whether the two flats from the Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London purchased by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2017 should represent the whole of Alison and Peter Smithson’s development or be considered an artefact in its own right – or indeed thought of as an example of the ‘brutalist’ architectural movement between the 1950s and 1980s[v].

I hope that my research contributes both to the growing field of document theory as well as the construction design industry’s approach to designing, building and maintaining the built environment.  I will be writing regular blog posts and highlighting interesting pieces of research through social media (Twitter: @oswaldtwistle).  I also hope you all enjoy this journey as much as I hope to.

[i] Briet, S., 1951. Part I: A Technique of Intellectual Work. In: R. E. Day, L. Martinet & H. G. B. Anghelescu, eds. What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Paris, France: Scarecrow Press, pp. 9-19.

[ii] Buckland, M., 1997. What Is A “Document”? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(9), pp. 804-809.

[iii] Cabinet Office, 2011. Government Construction Strategy, London: HMSO.

[iv] Rogers, D., 2015. The Lost Masterpiece of Sir John Soane Brought Back to Life in BIM Available at: (

[v] Bingham, N., 2017. Moving flats: Robin Hood Gardens comes to the V&A (