Nothing New Under The Sun

It’s already been established that a building can be considered a document in the same way that Briet’s antelope or Grenersen’s land forms can also be documents if they’re ‘consumed’ or ‘read’ in the right way.

While reading around about document theory and buildings in general, I came across an interesting concept called spolia, which essentially considers the recycling of old bits of building into new buildings.  And I got to thinking about how these old bits of building tell a story within the new building.  A bit like a compilation album — we all remember Dvořák’s “Hovis Symphony” and Grieg’s Nescafé Mood his Peer Gynt Suite.  And who can forget the “Old Spice” movement from Carl Orff’s masterpiece Carmina Burana or Khachaturian’s theme for BBC1’s The Onedin Line?

As Heard on TV

There are many examples of spolia in architecture and I don’t have the space to do it justice here.  I have a particular interest in the buildings of Beirut and want to use a couple of places I know of to highlight a couple of examples I thought were interesting, and look at how the concept impacts on how we read buildings.

Al-Omari Mosque

Beirut’s grand mosque was built in 1150 as the church of St John the Baptist, itself built on the site of one of the city’s old Roman baths: indeed, the blocks (or imposts) at the tops of the pillars supporting the arches are Corinthian capitals from the Roman thermae (baths).  As with many buildings, its use changed over time, and by the 13th Century, following the departure of the Crusaders and the arrival of the Mamluks the church was re-defined as a mosque, with a new entrance and Minaret added in 1350.  During the League of Nations-sanctioned Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (the ‘French Mandate’) between 1923 and 1946, the façade was redesigned again, this time by adding a riwaq, or arcade[1].  A comprehensive refurbishment in the early 2000s highlighted many of these aspects of the building’s history and cemented its future as a place of worship with the space originally occupied by the Christian altar at the east end of the building now a door, with an Islaic mihrab on the building’s qibla wall, and a second Minaret constructed on the north-west corner[2].  Thus the mosque tells a story of its entire history, from the earliest days of a structure on the site.

Beit Beirut

Sticking with the Lebanese theme, Beit Beirut is an apartment block turned into a living memorial to the war in Beirut.  The building has been left much as it was once the war ended in 1990, including scars from bullet holes and nearby explosions, but with un-adorned structural elements and bracing inserted to keep the damaged structure intact.  These elements are painted grey to both show how the building looked after its damage, but also in an attempt to help tell the building’s story.  Preservation architect Youssef Haidar describes this concept as keeping the “emotional triggers” instantiated in the building: a sniper’s firing embrasure, for example, accessed from inside the building exits through an old front door in a space less than six inches square.  Haider points out that people are afraid of tanks and soldiers, but are not generally scared by a house.  Through the adaptation of this space, Haidar states that those fighting turned the house into “a weapon, a killing machine”[3].  This is made all the more emotionally charged because the rooms in question are not behind glass or displayed out of their original context: the building is still easily recognisable as an apartment block, like any other in any city.  Ramirex describes Haidar’s treatment of the building as “like a body, like something that is still living… it’s un-flinching, it’s disturbing and it’s moving”[4].

Of course, it’s not just buildings (or indeed adverts) that make use of someone else’s work.  Palimpsests are objects made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another, in the same way as spolia is classified.  It is possible to take an x-ray of works of art by any number of artists from Picasso to da Vinci or Van Gogh[5] to see the artist’s previous works and read previous layers of the canvas.  But that’s a story for another day…

[1] Shwayri, R., 2016. Beirut on the Bayou: Alfred Nicola, Louisiana, and the Making of Modern Lebanon. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
[2] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.
[3] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.
[4] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.



Building with Information Management (Part Three) — Not Just Buildings

Confusingly, the construction design industry likes to use the word “building” to mean any built asset, such as houses, libraries, hospitals, bridges, ports, roads and railway lines – like London’s Crossrail, for example.  In order to dig two 6m wide, 26 mile long tunnels across London, Transport for London needed to map the locations of all the other utilities, tunnels and other gubbins making their way under London – there was no comprehensive map of where everything was, so TfL had to make one.  Crossrail also decided to design the new railway in a BIM environment, meaning they had detailed information about each item used to build the system and information about the holes they were digging (how many tonnes of soil, for example or even where the tunnel boring machine was at any given time using Ordnance Survey coordinates).  To date, TfL estimates that over one million files have been created, each containing huge amounts of data and metadata and integrated into the centralised model[1].

Crossrail/ Elizabeth line station at Liverpool Street

Crossrail/ Elizabeth line station at Liverpool Street

The result is what you can see in the image above.  Granted it looks a bit messy at first glance, but if you know what all the different colours mean you’re able to find the electrical and telecoms cabling, as well as gas and water pipes, see where old and abandoned tunnels are located and how the new station and tunnel complex has taken shape in and around everything that’s already there.  And if it looks messy there, imagine how difficult it would have been to insert a new underground station entrance without these sorts of tools.

And it doesn’t stop there.  Even the bits of each station from the new platform edge doors to signage, escalators and each of the concrete panels lining the stations and tunnels have been tagged so they can be monitored.  It might sound like overkill, but it means TfL knows everything about their new railway system meaning they can check what’s going on at any given time – and as with the example of the carpets and flooring mentioned earlier, they’ll be able to plan future maintenance from the word go[2].

One of Crossrail’s programme directors referred to the construction process as being akin to performing open heart surgery while the patient’s running a marathon.  At Tottenham Court Road, for example, the two tunnel boring machines passed through a space where 30cm above it was the footings of an escalator and 80cm below it was the top of the Northern line – both of which were in constant use while the new tunnels were being dug.  That’s a total clearance of a little over a metre (or just under four feet) around a 900 tonne, six metre (20 foot) wide, 140 metre (400 foot) long tunnel boring machine[3].  Again, the thought of doing that really makes you wonder how they’d do it without all those piles of data and information.

The construction industry undoubtedly has a long way to go.  However, it’s also worth looking at where the construction industry was as recently as the 1950s, with the design of the Cumbernauld New Town ‘megastructure’ just outside Glasgow.  One of the most remarkable innovations in the design process was not technical; it was a new way of working…  Architect George Kenneth (Ken) Davie told of “the strong desire to mix all of the professions.  So you didn’t have an engineers’ office, an architects’ office, a planning office; we were all mixed in teams with all of these disciplines”[4].

Cumbernauld Town Centre megastructure

Cumbernauld Town Centre megastructure

I’m just going to leave that with you for a few moments: getting different design disciplines to collaborate on one project was considered revolutionary in 1912 (with Buckingham Palace’s façade), again in the 1930s (with New York’s Empire State Building) as identified in Part One of this series of posts.  The most astonishing thing to me is that this approach was still considered revolutionary 20-odd years later with the design of the Cumbernauld megastructure.

Embracing BIM might be a big step, but the industry’s taken big steps before; and it can do so again.

previously: Part One — When, What and Why and Part Two – Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models

[3] BBC/ Crossrail Ltd., 2014. The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway. London: BBC
[4] Grindrod, J., 2014. Concretopia. London: Old Street Publishing

Building With Information Management (Part Two) — Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models

One of the main benefits of designing in a BIM environment is the use of object libraries, which allow for standard items to be re-used and repeated across the building.  As with a ‘traditional’ library, each item in an object library must be easy to identify, so everything’s coded and classified into “families” and “sub-families” (such as “furniture” leading to “bedroom furniture” and “lounge furniture” or “doors” leading to “external doors” and “internal doors”) to further improve selection.  This also covers items like the electrical cabling, mechanical ducting, windows and so on – it doesn’t have to just be stuff which can be taken with you when you move!  These items can then be selected by the architects and engineers when they’re designing the building.  Each item’s embedded information will also stay with it, containing details such as item size, material make-up, whether each bit is recyclable and/ or potentially hazardous to health and, of course, cost.

While this is all very interesting to those of us who like that kind of thing, this means that those interested in the price of windows, for example, will have a better idea how much glass will be used and roughly how that compares to the budget.  Similarly, the architect can easily work out how much bricks would cost instead of a plastered frontage, wood cladding or pebble dash for our little block of flats.  It also means that the architect can work out if the high-end self-cleaning glass in that massive feature atrium is within budget (it probably isn’t) or if some standard windows would do the job just as well for a fraction of the price (they probably will)

Using the data in the virtual model, the designers are able to work out how much carpet or how many floor tiles were needed for each room.  Not only that, they could work out how long it would take to clean each type (so it could take 10 minutes to mop a floor or five minutes to hoover a carpet) which would help them work out how much the flooring would cost to maintain.  So far, so good.  But there’s more…

  • If a carpet has an expected life of say five years and costs about £15 per square metre, the building owner will know that in five years they’ll need to budget about £240 to replace a carpet for a room that’s four square metres
  • Similarly floor tiles might have an expected life of say ten years and cost £20 per square metre so our building owner will know that in ten years they’ll need to budget about £320 to replace the floor tiles in the same size room
  • Taking these two prices (or more if you think about other options such as carpet tiles, wood floorboards, a more expensive carpet, vinyl or laminate, for example) will help the building’s owner work out the best lifecycle cost of the flooring
  • And as if that wasn’t enough, the guarantee and even the receipt can be embedded in the virtual model, along with the all-important instructions on how to clean it properly and remove grass or ink stains. And if it’s guaranteed to last for five years and only lasts three, it’s easier for the owner to go back to the carpet supplier and tell them there’s something wrong

And it’s not just flooring. Think of the fan units in the kitchen and bathrooms, the oven, the fridge, the boiler, the TV…  even how much the paint costs on the walls.  And speaking as someone who’s just moved house, blinds and curtains, I wish I had this information (and that I knew why none of the windows in my house seem to be standard sizes!).

Creating the virtual model isn’t just about making sure all the pipes, wires, windows, walls and floors are all in the right places or to track costs and check whether things are recyclable or how to replace them; these models allow the designers to embed documents to items inside the model, which can then be accessed by those using (and crucially, maintaining) the building in the future.

This also means the building’s end-user can open the virtual model and the instructions for the fridge or the cooker will be embedded in the model and associated with the item, alongside the installation information, the guarantee and all those other important things that are in a ring binder in the loft, or stuffed into “that drawer” in the kitchen (or under the sofa).  And of course this doesn’t just cover the fridge and the oven.  It’s the same for the central heating system, the extractor fan, the hot water cylinder, the microwave, the television and any other things which need instructions.

Designing in a BIM environment also allows the designers, builders and end-users to capture and analyse performance data to drive more efficient operations and feed back into future designs.  Yes, this might sound like overkill for a house, but think of managing all this information for equipment and other gubbins somewhere like a school.  Or a hospital.  Or a library.  Or…  again, the list is endless.

Of course there’s more to these models.  They’re not just intended for the designers and the end-users or owners.  They can also help the construction teams to work out if everything’s in the right place.  The model can be input into an augmented reality model, meaning those on site can check that what they’ve built complies with what the designers intended – this can not only reduce errors on site, but can also help ensure compliance with building regulations and the like.  For example, on some building sites today it’s not unusual to see construction workers wandering around carrying tablets rather than drawings.  It’s also possible to put data from these models into virtual reality models, meaning those using the building in the future would be able to have a full virtual tour before any work has even started on site – in February last year, for example, Network Rail launched a ‘virtual’ version of Waterloo station showing how it will look once the old Eurostar platforms are converted to use by domestic train services[1].  And just a few weeks ago, a virtual version of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo, was released by the structural engineers working on the project[2] so the public can walk around it without leaving home.  One of my team pointed out that it’s a bit like a Kindle, but for buildings.

last time: Part One — When, What and Why
next time: Part Three — Not Just Buildings


Building With Information Management (Part One) — What, When and Why?

The UK Infrastructure & Projects Authority estimates that the UK architecture, engineering and construction sector employs around three million people (almost 10% of the working population), contributing around £90 billion to the economy – about 7% of the UK’s GDP[1].  It is estimated that worldwide construction output will reach £9.5 trillion (US$12 trillion) by 2025[2], so we’re talking big money.  Numerous studies have identified that the construction industry is inefficient, and that its short-term perspective hampers both innovation and technical development. Dutch architect Ben van Berkel sums it up saying that “while we are all using iPhones, construction is still in the Walkman phase” with many AEC professionals using hand-drawn plans often “riddled with errors”[3].  Big money and inefficiency are not a good combination.  I’ve heard it said that “we’ve always done it this way” is the most expensive sentence in construction: I think that’s true in almost any industry.

The 2018 Quality in Construction conference in London identified a number of reasons why things go wrong with buildings during design and construction, including

  • late design changes
  • poorly communicated design information
  • incorrect design information
  • poor interface management[4]

Information professionals already know that if information is structured in a way that makes it easy to find, interpret and reuse, this reduces waste and errors as well as improving the clarity.  In construction, that clarity is of cost, delivery and the handover of information for reuse during the operation and maintenance of the asset (which is construction speak for “building”).

This is increasingly managed through designing in what’s known as “a BIM environment”.  BIM stands for Building Information Management (or Building Information Modelling).  So what is BIM?

Let’s take some Lego as an example.  If we ignore the fact that it’s Lego for a moment and think of them as traditional building materials and components such as roof tiles, doors, windows, bricks and so on and remember that they’re all standard sizes and weights, we know what materials were used in the manufacture (meaning we know how sustainable the component is, how suitable it is for various applications, which regulations it complies with and whether it’s recyclable, for example).

All this means we know everything about that long blue brick, the big fat red brick, the small yellow brick, the little green one and even that black L-shaped one propped up there on the right, which helps us know how and when each one can and should be used.  While the software used to design this way is relatively new, in real life, the methodologies behind BIM are nothing new:

  • In 1912, it became necessary to replace the crumbling Caen stone façade on Buckingham Palace’s East (Front) Wing. The contractors completed the works in 13 weeks through the use of formalised information sharing between design and construction disciplines and off-site fabrication[5]
  • A few years later, New York’s Empire State Building, opened in May 1931 fewer than two years after building started due in part to “a team-design approach that involved the collaboration of the architects, owners, builders, and engineers in planning and problem-solving, and the organizational genius of the general contractors”[6]

In both these cases, believe it or not, this approach was revolutionary.

10 years ago when I joined the firm I work for now, I assumed architects did everything (some will tell you they still do).  However, architects work alongside mechanical and electrical engineers, public health specialists (who look after plumbing and pipes), structural engineers, façade specialists, interior designers… the list goes on.  Often these disciplines are all from different organisations and have different ideas about whatever it is they are designing.  And where things get really complicated is getting all those disciplines to work together and essentially design the same building – it’s harder than it sounds.  For a start, it’s imperative that they all share their information so they end up designing the same building.  BIM is designed to standardise how these disciplines share their information.

Lego Emmet minifig

In construction, everything is awesome

Of course if everyone’s collaborating, it’s also imperative that everything’s called the same thing.  For example, some architects call big runs of windows “fenestrations” and in the construction industry those dealing with electrical, mechanical and air conditioning units etc are known as “MEP engineers” (it stands for “mechanical, electrical and plumbing” or “mechanical, electrical and public health” or even “mechanical, electrical and piping”, depending on who you talk to — even MEP engineers don’t all agree on what “MEP” stands for).  And then there’s the question of whether the main entrance is on the ground floor, the first floor or level one.  And have you noticed that many buildings in the US often don’t have a 13th floor?  The whole project needs to agree on all this and other things such as how to identify different items in both virtual models and traditional drawings.  Items like cable types – CAT6 and internet cabling, power cables, telephone cabling, speaker and public address cables or what each type of pipe is intended for – is it gas, fresh air, waste water, drinking water, rainwater…  Even which way the water or gas flows within the pipes is important.  Again, the list is endless.

Next time: Part Two — Families, Budgets, Instructions and Models

[1] Infrastructure & Projects Authority, 2016. Government Construction Strategy 2016-20, London: HMSO
[2] 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
[3] Economist reporter, 2017. Least Improved. The Economist, 424 (9054), pp. 55-56
[6] Willis, C., 1998. Building the Empire State. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company

the same, but different

Over the course of history, countless buildings and artefacts have been destroyed.  In late 1954 during excavation works for a new office block, a 2,000 year-old Temple of Mithras (Mithraeum) was discovered in Central London between modern day Bank and Cannon Street stations.  In order not to disturb the new building too much, the Roman site was moved 500 metres away and reassembled for display to the public (MOLA, 2017, p. 85) while carvings from the temple were displayed in the Museum of London while other stones were lost (Lyon, 2007).  The public outcry surrounding the moving of the temple in the late 1950s led to new formal guidance on how archaeological remains should be treated (Kennedy, 2012).  The structure has been moved again, this time closer to its previous location, and resides under the Bloomberg’s new offices, with its own entrance for the public.  Sadly the 1960s reassembly used ‘modern’ concrete (Shepherd, 1998), which adds to the question of whether the moved Mithraeum is the same structure as the one completed by the Romans.

In April 2010, Tower Hamlets council announced that Alison and Peter Smithson’s brutalist Robin Hood Gardens estate was to be demolished and replaced with a new estate called ‘Blackwall Reach’.  London’s Victoria & Albert Museum purchased two flats from the top of the original block for removal and storage as part of the demolition process (Bingham, 2017).  Unlike the ‘new’ owners of London Mithraeum, the V&A are working with Muf Architecture and engineering firm Arup to build a scaffold to support the structure allowing visitors to experience the original architects’ “street in the sky” concept (Waldek, 2018).

Robin Hood Gardens during demolition (source: Dezeen)

Although the V&A-purchased section of Robin Hood Gardens and the London Mithraeum are arguably the same structure as when they were originally built, there remains a question over whether the change in their respective context has affected these structures so much that they should now be thought of as ‘new’ items for the purposes of consideration and study:

“Keeping a small section is by no means an adequate way of preserving all that is important about a great building, but…
some sense of the physical materiality of Robin Hood Gardens will endure.”

Catherine Croft, director at the Twentieth Century Society

Following their capture of Palmyra in Syria, terrorist group Da’esh (also known as ISIS) announced their intention to destroy “polytheistic” statues (those designed for the worship of or belief in multiple deities).  A month after the capture of the city, they announced the destruction of the 3.5m (11ft) high Lion of Al-lāt statue (BBC News, 2015a).  In late August 2015, Da’esh announced they had destroyed the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin (AFP, 2015) followed a few days later by the destruction of the Temple of Bel (BBC News, 2015b) and the 2nd-century AD Tower of Elahbel (AP, 2015).

Temple of Bel, Palmyra; before and after destruction (source: ITV News)

Multiple photographs and other documentation concerning these and other destroyed buildings and artefacts exist (Cunliffe, et al., 2016, p. 20).  However, the question of whether or not these records and surveys are suitable alternatives to those which have been destroyed, or if any new structures could be considered as important as the original ones is open to debate.  Another significant question surrounds the ownership of the data created from scanned models: should this metadata be owned by local communities or national governments from where the scanned object resides, the company creating the scan, or perhaps another body such as UNESCO.  Whatever is decided in these situations, the information in these virtual models is perhaps now as vital as the buildings themselves once were (Peri/ V&A Museum, 2017 and Hunt, 2017).

  • AP, 2015. In latest round of destruction, ISIL reduces three ancient tower tombs in Palmyra to rubble [National Post] accessed 29 April 2018
  • AFP, 2015. Isis ‘blows up temple dating back to 17AD’ in Palmyra [The Guardian] accessed 30 April 2018
  • BBC News, 2015a. Islamic State militants ‘destroy Palmyra statues’ [BBC News Online] accessed 28 April 2018
  • BBC News, 2015b. Palmyra’s Temple of Bel destroyed, says UN [BBC News Online] accessed 28 April 2018
  • Bingham, N., 2017. Moving flats: Robin Hood Gardens comes to the V&A [V&A Blog] accessed 01 May 2018
  • Cunliffe, E., Muhesen, N. & Lostal, M., 2016. The Destruction of Cultural Property in the Syrian Conflict: Legal Implications and Obligations. International Journal of Cultural Property, 23(1), pp. 1-31.
  • Hunt, T., 2017. Opinion: The real work of art in the age of reproduction. Financial Times, 1 December, 2017.
  • Kennedy, M., 2012. Temple of Mithras comes home [The Guardian] accessed 29 April 2018
  • Lyon, J., 2007. The Temple of Mithras: changing heritage values in the City of London 1954-2006. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 9(1), pp. 5-37.
  • Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), 2017. Archaeology at Bloomberg, London: MOLA.
  • Peri Charitable Foundation/ V&A Museum, 2017. V&A launches global programme exploring reproduction of cultural heritage in digital age [V&A Press Release] accessed 28 April 2018
  • Shepherd, J. D., 1998. The Temple of Mithras, London: Excavations by W.F. Grimes and A. Williams at the Walbrook. London: English Heritage.
  • Waldeck, S., 2018. The V&A Museum Will Recreate a Demolished Social Housing Complex for the 2018 Venice Biennale [Architectural Digest] accessed 20 April 2018

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 (