Holding digital information about property and property rights in a similar manner to the way in which bank accounts are currently accessed is the way of the future, according to the leader of an organisation set up to promote the broader concept of a digital built environment in Australia.

Virtual Australia and New Zealand Initiative (VANZI) chief executive officer Michael Haines said the way of the future revolves around a network of property ‘data banks’ which would enable commercial and residential property owners to store information about their property in a secure location within the cloud.

Details stored in the cloud could include physical information uploaded from handheld images or BIM models as well as other information such as boundaries, rights, restrictions and insurance details.

Michael Haines

Michael Haines

To be overseen by a new regulator, the system would see owners (who would be given ‘keys’ to their data bank account to prove their identity) manage their account, with restricted access being given to architects, insurers, emergency service providers and so on, as is the case in the physical world.

As an example, when obtaining insurance quotes, owners might grant a prospective insurer access to the model of the premises but lock the file to prevent the insurer tampering with it. Owners could also embed terms of use to prevent them using it for purposes other than quoting.

The system would offer flexibility and would allow owners a great amount of control.

“You might want to only show the insurer the property without any furniture in it because you might think you can get a better deal on your contents from another insurer,” Haines said.  “So you just give them the model (without furniture) but show all your models of your furniture and contents to another insurer.”

Haines’ comments come shortly after his organisation joined an alliance with a number of other organisations, including buildingSMART Australasia, the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA), Melbourne University (MU) and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to promote the broader concept of a ‘digital built environment.’ That secure three-dimensional model of physical attributes relates to the natural environment and built environment on various scales, and would be maintained and updated as it changes over time. Haines sees data banks as a fundamental part of the digital built environment.

While acknowledging the full realisation of such an environment is several decades away, Haines said much near-term progress is being made through basic 3D models captured using smart phones and uploaded into the cloud.

He said there are many examples of the benefits of such an environment.

Take a large railway station, for instance, where the ability of a customer service employee could highlight new seats set to be installed via a 3D model to the station master and his team (as this would impact passengers), security, the project manager (who may be planning to refurbish the area and may want to advise customer service to hold off) and the maintenance manager (who may be planning to repaint the seats).

This is a stark contrast to a recent real life situation in which multiple parts of the organisation working independently of each other led to old seats being repainted before new seats were installed which then had to be moved for a refurbishment.

In another example, tradespeople quoting for jobs or undertaking routine maintenance and inspections could be given cloud access to show the location of entry points, parking and power and water controls on a site, and could move models of large pieces of equipment through the building to assess height, width and turning restrictions as well as assessing whether or not they needed to work at height or move other equipment to get access and what tools they needed, all without needing to actually visit the location.

Before that happens, however, much work needs to be done. To retain community trust in the data banks, it will be crucial to ensure each element in the model is ‘locked’ and cannot be changed apart from through proper processes. Individual practitioners, too, such as architects, building surveyors and councils will each need to be able to ‘lock’ parts of the model they certify. Models will always have to be accessible and able to be held in perpetuity as owners and software vendors change. Finally, a new legal framework surrounding the data banks and rights attached to them will be required.

Despite all this, Haines said the benefits of the broader move toward a digital environment cannot be understated and include faster approval times as well as substantial efficiency gains in construction, facilities management and maintenance.

“Wherever you look, there are savings and improvements,” Haines said. “Basically you are talking about getting better outcomes much more quickly, much more cheaply with much less risk.”

“That’s what this offers the community.”