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A Primer on CDEs (Common Data Environments) for Architects

In this article, we provide a primer on the Common Data Environment (CDE) application standards for data in the AEC industry as it relates to pain points in the industry and where new CDE application solutions can take us.

LAST DECEMBER Architosh featured an exclusive story on the Nemetschek Group’s decision to utilize Bluebeam Studio’s technology as its common data environment (CDE) platform and strategy. And while the news was somewhat foreshadowed by comments made at GRAPHISOFT’s 2017 Key Client Conference (KCC) in Kyoto, Japan, the Bluebeam-based CDE developing story should signal to AEC professionals—especially architects—that some basic knowledge of CDE’s is becoming mandatory if they want to guide their firms in the right directions.

CDE Primer—What’s a CDE Good For?

The common data environment or CDE is a centralized environment for the data of a team of collaborators and project stakeholders. This environment is digital (cannot be analog) and exists on a computer server and is accessible from the Internet.

A crucial distinction of a CDE in the AEC world (and CDE’s exist in non-AEC industries) is that the data includes both graphical model and non-graphical model data. This data is “centralized” by definition and accessible by multiple parties, each with various project roles, permissions, and responsibilities to the data.


A major constituent of these collaborative environments (referring to CDEs) is the ability to communicate, re-use, and share data efficiently without loss, contradiction, or misinterpretation.


The obvious benefit of a CDE in the AEC industry is to provide all project participants with what is sometimes referred to as a “single-source of truth.”

The British Standards Institute (BSI) recognizes CDE’s in AEC through its initiative (BS 1192:2007), and then in PAS 1192:2013, and notes this in its introductory comments in this report here. It says:

“A major constituent of these collaborative environments (referring to CDEs) is the ability to communicate, re-use, and share data efficiently without loss, contradiction, or misinterpretation.”

In terms of purposes, this statement above should ring both true and relevant for architects, engineers, and contractors alike, whose daily struggles with project information (data) both vary in intensity, frequency, timing, and type. Despite such variance, the CDE winners in the AEC industry will need to address all these aspects in common pain points.

CDE Primer—The Four States of a CDE

The BS 1192:2007 definition of a CDE list four states or phases of the CDE. These four states or phases are, (1) Work-in-Progress (WIP), (2) Shared, (3) Published, and (4) Archived. They are described below as:

  • Phase 1 — WIP: The first state or phase represents information that is under development (work-in-progress) by its original creator (eg: architects, engineer). Inside of a model CDE, this data would sit in a container (see definition below) and be both visible and accessible only by its original creator.
  • Phase 2 — Shared: this state is differentiated in the sense that data is now accessible and viewable by others outside of its creator. In this state an engineer, for example, could check and coordinate her work with the work of an architect. This phase or state also includes sharing work with the client, for review, feedback loops or approvals. The “shared” phase would require CDE’s to layer feature sets based on functionalities appropriate to the parties. (more on that in a below)
  • Phase 3 — Published: this state is when information has been “published” for consumption and use related to the construction of a project or the operation of an asset in the construction (eg: building, plant, bridge, roadway, etc). This information is both “coordinated” and “validated” for use by the total project team, which is distinguished from the “shared” state where multi-participants are in the process of coordination and validation.
  • Phase 4 — Archived: this state is the “record” state and supersedes all other containers holding information in earlier states of this four-state system.

Few CDE solutions make an explicit reference to meeting the requirements of the CDE framework as defined in the BS 1192:2007  and PAS 1192:2013 standards referenced above. And that is too bad because the four-states approach provides an overview structure that is valuable to the process.

Defining Minimum CDE Requirements—All AEC Stakeholders

Before getting into the needs that architects may specifically have for CDEs, let’s touch on core needs that any CDE solution must address. These are pain-points that exist in AEC workflows because those workflows and standard industry processes were well worked out and ingrained prior to the emergence of the computer. The truth is those processes themselves cannot support an all-digital and fully collaborative construction project.

01 – BS 1192:2007 and PAS 1192:2013 standards for CDEs (Common Data Environments).

In other words: the well-worn AEC industry processes must be modified if there is any hope that digital tools can solve collaboration and knowledge exchange issues—issues that cost the global construction industry billions of dollars in errors and omissions, delays and building failures.

To solve this a CDE must handle, ideally, all of these core requirements:

  • BS and PAS 1192 compliance — supports Four States of a CDE
  • Cloud-based — a neutral command (admin) structure assures that all parties participate
  • Tablet Access — mobile support for the field is a minimum requirement
  • Document Management — access, role-based privileges, central repository, sharing documents
  • Version Control — system must support document versions, audit trails, roll-backs
  • Change Management — revision support, compare viewing, understanding decision history, accountability
  • Collaboration — multi-party viewing, “mark up,” RFI, meetings, and messaging support

These are seven core areas but many will argue that there should be more aspects than this that make up a minimum set of features in a qualifying CDE tool. All of these core features must have expressions of the tools that support each role in the AEC industry, helping architects, engineers, and construction professionals alike.

The goal with CDEs is to increase “wrench time” for contractors, “pen time” for architects and “calc time” for engineers by streamlining management workflows that center on the necessary exchange of information. Phil Bernstein, FAIA, of Yale University and Autodesk Fellow, has expressed that CDEs are “implicit (available)” systems versus “explicit (send it to me)” systems. Email is the primate culprit of explicit systems and explicit systems demand unnecessary person-to-person communication time.

Defining Minimum CDE Requirements—For Architects

The largest CDE applications today are being driven to address the pain-points of their earliest and largest customers. In the 1980’s engineers beat architects to punch with computer-aided design (CAD) systems, and as a result, the industry ended up with a de facto standard that many architects felt was too engineer-centric. When BIM came along large architecture firms (big BIM) jumped to the fore to make sure they had a better stake on the table early on. Now, with CDE’s it is the contractors who are embracing the common data environment (CDE) with more gusto than their “A” and “E” colleagues. This explains why the most mature CDE systems out there are very contractor-centric. (see, Architosh, “Ultimate List of CDE (Common Data Environment) Apps for Architects,” 15 Jan 2018).

It is natural to understand why. A single-source of truth provides the contractor with more trust and confidence to take action. Implicit (available) systems enable the contractor to stop chasing the architects and engineers for information. The common refrain, “where is that drawing you promised me?” begins to go away. Yet, contractors are asking for construction project management features in CDEs that sometimes exclusively serve their needs while engineers and architects also need discipline-specific features.

Architecture Specific CDE Core Requirements:

  • CAD/BIM Integration — cloud-based system can link to desktop internal CAD/BIM solutions
  • PDF Integration — plugins enable desktop tools to publish PDF output to “four-states” of CDE
  • Model Viewing — enables architect to team-view BIM or 3D models with stakeholders
  • Model Dissection — enables architects to section and interrogate BIM model down to entity level
  • BCF Support — supports issuance of BCF (BIM Collaboration Format) to collaborators (AEC)

Going back to the Four States of a CDE defined above, phase 1 impresses upon a CDE to support the first four items above. Phase 2 (Shared) impresses upon a CDE to support items 4-5 in particular so architect and engineer or even fabricator specialist can help troubleshoot and develop building features. You need to be able to get into sections of BIM models to see items and be able to mark-up commentary and round-trip exchanges. BCF sessions form critical multi-party decision histories.

For Phase 3 (Publish) items 1-2 address these requirements. A publishing feature in a BIM tool should be able to distinguish items published for any phase, so both engineer and architect can ascertain from within their authoring tools which data got pushed to which containers (four states) of a CDE system meeting the BS 1192:2007 definition.

OpenTree of the UK has developed a system called Cabinet which delivers a smart way to comply with BS 1192:2007+A2:2016 (BIM Level 2) standards. Cabinet itself is a managed WIP environment—the first container, or stage of the BS 1192 CDE standard. It works by offering CAD, BIM, email, and office software integrations with Cabinet. This means that you can have Revit and Cabinet talk directly to each other wherein Cabinet changes Revit’s title block such that it implements BS 1192 compliance.

This video shows Cabinet by UK-based OpenTree. The solution solves the BS 1192:2007 CDE compliancy challenge. 

To understand how this works, take a look at the video above in full. It will give you a clear explanation in faster terms than words can do alone.

Final Thoughts on Selecting a CDE Solution as an Architect

There are two related articles to this one. The first one is a comprehensive list of available cloud-based solutions that function as CDEs for the AEC industry (an INSIDER exclusive guide published alongside this article). They are ranked based on their ability to meet both the minimum “architect” specific CDE requirements (above) and the minimum CDE requirements for all stakeholders (also above).

The second article is based on a talk the author gave at the 2013 Boston ABX conference, which looks at how online project document and project management tools (CDEs) can be divided across two hemispheral challenges that all architects face— the “complexity of the building” versus the “complexity of the brief” (and its communication frequency). This could also be restated as the complexity of solutions (architects must generate or solve) versus the intensity of client input.

Some CDE solutions directly created for architects lay the emphasis on tools that help architects address one or the other better.

02 – Complexity of building solutions vs complexity of input (client brief – communication frequency).

It is imperative that architects understand their practice is unique in terms of both its project types but also its client types. Client types influence the nature of the communication of the project brief (program) and, in particular, its frequency of communication. (see image 02). 

Overall, CDEs can help address the challenges architects face in both hemispheres of the overall problem, managing input of data (specifically client input) and generating solutions that respond to it.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated on 17 Jan 2018. The second referenced article was published on this date and is linked in the 4th to last paragraph. 



Reader Comments

  1. A good start… but a CDE is IMPOSSIBLE without a common glossary of terms, definitions, and a LEAN life-cycle asset management approach…. learn more… PAS, ISO are far too high level, etc. A full understanding of requisite competencies, technologies, etc. is REQUIRED. Learn more?

  2. Posted by:
    January 25, 2018 01:41 pm EST

    So CDE should be DMS for BIM?
    Cabinet stores for each published DWG/PDF the corresponding Projectfile (e.g. 500MB .rvt file) ?
    That would produce a massive amount of files and needs ridiculous amounts of storage.
    How to use that kind of workflow for a teamwork project ?
    What happens if you are not handing over the whole set of plans at once, but peace by peace?
    Will every publishing create a new projectfile everyone has to sign in then?

  3. No…. not just DMS for BIM… so much more..

  4. “A common data environment (CDE) for architects” is the WRONG way to approach this core, industry-wide AECOO problem (architects, engineers, contractors, owners. operators).

    A CDE is REQUIRED for all facilities/built environment participants and stakeholders…. designers, engineers, builders, facilities owners, facilities management, building users, procurement, technical teams, oversight groups….

    This requires a LEAN asset life-cycle management approach and associated model.

    Central to the above is a detailed line item listing of construction tasks and cost organized via a standard data architecture… (i.e. Masterformat). Each task providing a description of the task in plain English and labor, material, and equipment details. This aspect is critical to Scope of Work definition and communication among all parties.

    Technology, while an enabler with respect to lowering deployment costs and driving consistency should NEVER be the primary focus. LEAN collaborative construction project delivery should be the primary focus.

    A focus upon digital aspects will do little to improve AECOO outcomes, rather a focus upon CHANGE MANAGEMENT and LEAN methods, such as Integrated Project Delivery, IPD, for major new construction, and Job Order Contracting, JOC for repair, renovation, and minor new construction enables consistent 90%+ on-time, on-budget, and satisfactory results.

    A major focus of LEAN methods such as IPD and JOC is providing the ability for owner, builder, AE, user teams to communicate, re-use, and share ACTIONABLE and CURRENT INFORMATION efficiently without loss, contradiction, or misinterpretation.

    1. Have a WRITTEN IPD/JOC Operations Manual and/or Execution Plan defining ALL roles, responsibilities, desired outcomes, for all participants and stakeholders, including… defining CDE requirements (common unit price book of locally researched construction tasks organized by MasterFormat (TM).
    2. Mandatory Training – Initial and Ongoing Multi-level (Intro, Advanced…) and Multi-format (on-site, regional, virtual).
    3. Mandatory Collaboration
    4. Mutual Trust/Respect
    5. Shared Risk/Reward
    6. Supporting Cloud Technology
    7. Continuous Improvement
    8. Long Term Relationships
    9. Best Value Procurement
    10. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and regular independent Audits

  5. Posted by:
    February 25, 2018 07:49 am EST

    Reading the proposal for the iso 19650 my impression is, that as long the CDE is only projectwise instead of general (GDE) it needs a lot of effort to be established. So it is not lean as long as there are no general data environments. The only bonus might be a clear process of wip, shared, published and archived.
    I think the whole process is not manageable for small firms. Mayby that‘s why the iso is talking about lead appointing parties.

  6. Posted by:
    February 25, 2018 08:08 am EST

    Why is the bsi pushing so hard for iso 19650?
    The solution of cabinet is only dealing with ordinary 2D-drawing files, but not with data of the building information model.
    What we need first is a reliable DataDictionary and a Database with all necessary properties for all buildingelement classes.

  7. m68k, I agree with many of your points, particularly the ability for small firms to manage the whole process of the standard. In our small practice, we are determined to implement the best part of the BS/PAS 1192 standard—the clear process of WIP, Shared, Published, Archived. From the POV of architecture, I see the implementation of the four primary container model highly useful IF:

    – cloud-based CDE tools can support wip, share, published, archived division of data flow,
    – cloud based CDE tools can publish APIs so desktop BIMs/CADs can plug into the data model.

    General contractors are using CDE’s primarily to increase “wrench time” in the process by accelerating and automating data exchange workflows. The proposed standard can be highly conducive to that goal, not just for contractors but A and E professionals in the process. The “shared” status/workflow method of data today is pathetically slow and fragmented. Emailing documents only after creating PDFs from 2Ds only after producing 2Ds from 3D BIMs is a long trail solution to a destination that can be so much faster. The iteration between architect and consultants can be intensive and these loops must be recorded for record so that there is accountability.

    In our office were developing a file (data) directory structure that echoes the four-container 1192 model in an intelligent manner in preparation for the eventual API-based connections between desktop and cloud CDEs. We need to record the workflows into the CDE cloud and our directories simultaneously and as automated as possible.

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