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The structural golden thread

Building drawn in one continuous golden thread

So, you’ve built your building and have the constructible 3D model…but what happens next? Here, Duncan Reed, Business Development Manager at Trimble explores how maintaining a digital, structural Golden Thread, can be hugely valuable, especially as we move into a more sustainable age.


The structural Golden Thread

The idea of the Golden Thread is a term that was coined by Dame Judith Hackitt during her independent review of building regulations and fire safety. In her Building a Safer Future report, Dame Judith recommended the introduction of a ‘golden thread’ of data and information, used as a tool to manage buildings as holistic systems and allow people to safely and effectively design, construct and operate their buildings1. It is the duty of the people responsible for a building to put into place and maintain this Golden Thread, containing an accurate and up-to-date record of all data required to maintain and operate the built asset, with the figurative thread stretching from the very start of a project to the very end and beyond. 

RIBA Plan of Work 2020 infographic showing seven stages from strategic definition through to use

The engineering and detailing phases of a project that take place during the Concept Design, Spatial Coordination and Technical Design stages of the RIBA Plan of Work result in a constructible model containing a wealth of information, both graphical and non-graphical. But what happens to this data once a project has been handed over on site?

For many years, the construction industry and the wider built environment has had a poor reputation for collecting, handing over and maintaining data – one of the many factors which led to the Hackitt Review. Moving forward, it is important for project stakeholders to look beyond a building’s initial construction only and instead consider its lifecycle and operational use too. For example, the aforementioned constructible model can be easily shared with end-users, asset owners and operators post-construction, providing them with a digital record of the structure for future reference. But what exactly is the right data for the Golden Thread, in a structural context? 



The construction life-cycle

Looking ahead to the future and in 20 or 30 years’ time, for example, the structural and analytical model of the building (e.g. as modelled within Tekla Structural Designer) can be just as valuable, if not more so, than the as-built model (e.g. as modelled within Tekla Structures). By using the data contained within the structural model, engineers can better understand the loads and see how hard the existing building structure is working. Engineers can then interrogate this data and use it to upgrade an asset or make it work harder, such as by expanding its operation or adding more floors – adapting and changing the building as its operational demands and everyday use evolves. 

This idea of adapting or expanding a structure as the years pass by is especially relevant considering the ongoing emphasis on sustainability. As we all work together to minimise embodied carbon in the built environment, it’s not just about reducing carbon in our new structures by designing greener, it’s also about extending and prolonging the lifespan of our existing structures and infrastructure. Indeed, when considering the overall carbon lifecycle of a building, the construction phase is just one part, followed by the ‘Use’ and ‘End of Life’ stages. 

In these later stages, the emphasis can be placed on asset re-use: keeping the asset functional for longer by adapting and expanding the structure, rather than demolishing and redeveloping the land. But to be able to do this, you first need to possess an understanding of the structure within the context of the structurally engineered model.


Digital models for the future

If this is to be the case, we need to start considering the future today, with such an approach demonstrating the importance of software interoperability. As with all technology, BIM software is in a constant state of development and evolution, meaning that the software used today will likely be significantly out-of-date in a few years’ time. 

Here, bootstrapped IFC files can become incredibly important, with this format of file remaining useable and accessible even if the modelling software originally used has since advanced to a newer version or is redundant. Even today, companies are encountering roadblocks with older model file formats being incompatible with the newer software versions. At Trimble, we take an open approach to BIM, meaning that IFC files of our BIM models remain functional and accessible. 

Viewing underground infrastructure in Trimble SiteVision

Viewing underground infrastructure in Trimble SiteVision.

By accessing modelling data from the past, combined with the latest technological advances, it is possible for site teams to view the hidden structure within existing assets through the use of augmented reality solutions, such as Trimble SiteVision, or mixed reality technology, such as the Trimble XR10. Key on redevelopment projects, having easily accessible data and the Golden Thread can save considerable time and make for a more efficient and productive process, without the need for engineering teams to first carry out extensive surveys or scans to bring the existing asset into the digital environment of present day.  

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