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Centre for Digital Built Britain


To coincide with FutureBuild 2020 and conversations around the future of green construction Kirsten Lamb reflects on how data management can help in the pursuit of being green in the built environment. Kirsten explains how sustainability is one of the most compelling reasons to adopt information management practices and frameworks.

Standards for sustainability already require data and information to help assess the impact of built assets on the natural environment. Managing that data and information in ways that are compatible with BIM and federated digital twins could increase the transparency and effectiveness of sustainability efforts at the asset level and nationwide.

“Through trade and natural flows of ecological goods and services, all urban regions appropriate the carrying capacity of distant ‘elsewheres’, creating dependencies that may not be ecologically or geopolitically stable or secure. … Such macro-ecological realities are often invisible to conventional economic analyses yet have serious implications for world development and sustainability in an era of rapid urbanisation and increasing ecological uncertainty.” [1]

Our vision for public good

In Data for the Public Good, the National Infrastructure Commission [2] argues that value for citizens in the UK must come from better management of assets. To this end, data is as critical an infrastructure as roads and pipelines, so ensuring the quality and appropriate availability of data is crucial. If this is done well, value for citizens would take the form of longer-lasting assets, services that are better at meeting user needs and a built environment that not only adapts to the changing climate, but has a lighter and lighter ecological footprint as it is developed.

Sustainability, then, is one of the most compelling reasons to adopt the information management practices and frameworks that are being developed by the Centre for Digital Built Britain and the National Digital Twin Programme. For those organisations that want to be “green” – but for whom the barriers to better information management seem more trouble or cost than they are worth – sustainability is a potential driver for adopting better digital data and information management, the supporting technologies and business models.

Following urgent calls for a more sustainable built environment and a reduction in the UK’s carbon emissions, a national digital twin presents an opportunity to usher in a green information economy. The underlying information management framework should be supported by standards that explicitly link better data quality with necessary ecological outcomes.

Calls to action

The risks of incomplete, poor quality data, and of the climate emergency, are well documented elsewhere, including lost revenue and public health and safety crises. As a result, the last five years have been marked by several calls to action on both sustainability and data management:

  • 2016: The UK signs the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 °C.
  • 2017: Data for the Public Good sets data and information management as a priority for improving the performance of the built environment in the UK. [2]
  • 2017: Objectives in the Transforming Infrastructure Performance policy paper include asset and system level sustainability, enabled by data. [3]
  • 2017: Clean growth is listed as a grand challenge in the Industrial Strategy. [4]
  • 2018: The Construction Sector Deal highlights the potential value of data, information and artificial intelligence to the performance of the built environment. [5]
  • 2018: The Gemini Principles set out the guiding vision for a national digital twin that brings together data and information in models that contribute to the public good. [6]
  • May 2019: Parliament declares a state of climate emergency.
  • June 2019: The UK government sets the target of reaching Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

These milestones highlight the UK’s dual priorities of halting the rapid progress of climate change and improving the performance of assets by using digital data and information more effectively.

What is 'sustainability'?

British Standards define sustainability as the “state of the global system in which the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is characterised as having three interconnected facets: environmental, social and economic.

(See for example BS ISO 6707-3:2017) 

Both priorities are already embedded in separate sets of standards for both information management and sustainability. However, assessing maturity in both areas requires quality, consistent and transparent data and it is at this hurdle that many organisations stumble. As early adopters of Building Information Modelling (BIM) have found, quality, consistent and transparent data can help organisations make better decisions during the design and build phase, and to understand the actual value of green investments [7]. Expanding this information management across whole life cycles and complex systems through a national digital twin could be transformative to the sustainability of the UK’s built environment, provided it is underpinned by standards that support these long-term and wide-reaching contexts.

Building a green information economy

“Only by connecting data from different organisations can we understand system level opportunities and outcomes.” [8]

Green Economy: A green economy differs from the status quo in that value is based on sustainable development, where negative impacts on communities and the natural environment are designed out, not simply offset to another place or time.

Information Economy: An information economy is one in which data and information, and the supporting processes and technologies, have financial value. “This includes creating a strong data infrastructure, having a high level of regulatory compliance, developing a data-literate workforce, and increasing the number of people with advanced data skills.” [9] Though digital technology has been a huge factor in the value of information for decades, our information economy is relatively immature, with prevalent issues resulting from data loss, redundant and/or siloed data, poor quality data and a lack of interoperability between organisations resulting in lost value.

Realising the potential of data in the built environment

“Building on the asset scale to take a systems approach allows scale-up to create an ’urban observatory’ where a variety of data is collected from sensors across an urban area to monitor a range of connected factors including air quality, transport flows, water and energy demand. These real-time observations provide long-term understandings that can be related to actions, activities and behaviours across all aspects of a city, from the performance of individual buildings or infrastructures to a ‘system of systems’ understanding.”

Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, 2018

Green information economy: A green information economy uses data, information and models to create financial and environmental value for its citizens; “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. It is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive.” This would be transformative in the world of civil engineering, where, “Data can enable better design, more efficient use of resources, reduction in waste, time and cost savings, improved safety and increased infrastructure resilience – all critical factors in reducing carbon emissions from our built environment.” [8]

In a green information economy, development would be based on transparency and accountability about direct and indirect impacts on social and environmental systems. This is mirrored in the Construction Sector Deal [5], which enshrines procuring against a system-wide definition of value, “encouraging construction clients to procure on the basis of whole life value.”

Having a clearer system-wide picture will help decision-makers balance stakeholders – including nature – when planning  what to build, where, how, and how to maximise whole life benefits [3], [8]. By helping visualise, share data and providing analytics, digital tools for data and information management can add to the conversation about how best to procure a built environment and services that are in balance with nature for current and future generations [7].

There are still several barriers to a mature green information economy. Technologically, most current BIM software focuses on single aspects of a building’s environmental performance. “These analytical features are optimized individually due to limited interoperability among BIM functions. Thus, currently BIM is still limited in holistically assessing both the environmental and social sustainability of buildings.” [7] The ability of these technologies to accurately predict sustainability impacts also limits their ability to improve building performance, particularly at the design stage. Cultural barriers include low industry engagement, lack of know-how in the face of complex tools and organisational siloes that prevent collaboration on sustainability issues.

Capturing whole life value, and whole-system coordination, represent a massive scaling up of current information management capabilities. Federated digital twins are an exciting opportunity for decision support and analysis at this scale, but they rely on quality, interoperable data and a robust digital infrastructure. In order to ensure transparency and accountability, information management practices for a sustainable built environment should be enshrined in standards and enforced through legislation and procurement.

Standards for a green information economy

The standards landscape for a green information economy is relatively complex at the moment, with separate standards for sustainability assessment and information management for the built environment, with little reference between them. However, the appropriate standards for current maturity levels do exist. Standards for sustainability assessment in the built environment require clients to provide transparent, complete and quality data and information.[See for example BS EN 15978:2011] These standards could be strengthened and joined up with data and information standards for BIM to improve safety, performance and environmental sustainability of the built environment in one unified whole.

The information management standards for the built environment, ISO 19650, introduce the concept of Project Information Requirements (PIR) and Asset Information Requirements (AIR), which “need to pass along supply chains to the point where information can be most efficiently produced, and information needs to be collated as it is passed back.” While these standards leave the details of information requirements to the client or “appointing party” where there are no other preceding regulations, they do note that, “The appointing party should require information relating to the impacts from quality, cost, scheduling, carbon (CO2e), energy, waste, water consumption or other environmental effects.”

Outside of the standards landscape, green accreditation standards are another means of using data and information about the built environment to assess its environmental impact, two of the most prevalent in the UK being Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and its US rival, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Case study: Deloitte’s 1 New Square Street, London

BREEAM Outstanding rating, 2019 award winner “Our Intelligent Building Management System, for which we received an innovation credit, will enable us to adopt a more proactive rather than reactive approach to operational maintenance, improving the efficiency of process, and eliminating unnecessary maintenance and associated transport emissions from operatives coming to site.”


BREEAM is widely accepted as beneficial through providing a foundation that allows clients and developers to pick and choose sustainable outcomes on which to focus. “It is seen both as a benchmark standard and as a way of promoting environmental awareness and sustainable building.” The use of standards like BREEAM are generally driven by client requirements, or local or national regulations, while barriers to use include cost, context and the lack of public relations benefits of using standards that the public does not know about it. [10]

Merely having standards is not enough, however. They need to be well-understood by all interested parties. [11] Social impacts are somewhat lacking from current standards [12], [13], including BREEAM, which has been criticised as a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful assessment of sustainability [14]. A voluntary approach to information management can lead to lack of uptake, so regulatory drivers are needed to supplement voluntary efforts. Where BREEAM isn’t required by a client, for example, it often isn’t used [10]. The standards landscape is lacking in the crossover between information management and sustainability, and industry codes are similarly unhelpful when facing the multidisciplinary information required for sustainability assessment [7].

When applied well and used as a tool for deeper consideration, standards and accreditation can have a real impact on the sustainability of the built environment in the UK and internationally. Through ISO 19650, UK BIM standards have become the de facto international standards for information management in the built environment. This presents an opportunity for the UK to lead on standards for a green information economy and have a wide-reaching impact on how data and information are used to make the built environment greener.

Focus on Outcomes

Major projects are procured against nationally and internationally recognised standards, and measuring sustainability outcomes have a powerful presence in these documents. Building accreditation standards like LEED and BREEAM not only focus on alignment with internationally recognised targets for sustainable development, but also have a real-world impact on the decarbonisation of the built environment. For example, sustainable building accreditation standard BREEAM maps to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, LEED-certified buildings “will have prevented the release of 170 million tons of CO2 emissions by the year 2030, which represents a not-insignificant proportion of the world’s carbon footprint.” [15]

Standards and sustainable outcomes

BREEAM building and infrastructure standards contribute to the following environmentally-focused Sustainable Development Goals: 

  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages
  • Ensure access to water and sanitation for all
  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation
  • Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
  • Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss



With a twin focus on sustainability and information management for building performance, the UK has an opportunity to be a world leader in developing a green information economy. It can do this through uniting the siloed standards landscape; investing in improving software’s sustainability focus and interoperability; creating strict guidelines around data quality and transparency for sustainability assessments; and incentivising investment in whole-life and system-wide information management for sustainable outcomes.


  1. W. E. Rees, “Ecological Footprints and Appropriated Carrying Capacity: What Urban Economics Leaves Out,” Urbanisation, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 66–77, May 2017, doi: 10.1177/2455747117699722.
  2. National Infrastructure Commission, “Data for the Public Good,” 2017.
  3. Infrastructure and Projects Authority, “Transforming Infrastructure Performance,” 2017.
  4. Department for Business, Engergy and Industrial Strategy, “Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future.” HM Government, 2017.
  5. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, “Industrial Strategy: Construction Sector Deal,” 2018.
  6. A. Bolton, M. Enzer, J. Schooling, and others, “The Gemini Principles: guiding values for the national digital twin and information management framework,” CDBB and DFTG, 2018.
  7. Y. Lu, Z. Wu, R. Chang, and Y. Li, “Building Information Modeling (BIM) for green buildings: A critical review and future directions,” Automation in Construction, vol. 83, pp. 134–148, Nov. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.autcon.2017.08.024.
  8. Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, “Smart sustainability: Exploiting data in engineering to mitigate climate change,” CSIC Roundtable Discussion Paper Global Engineering Congress Institution of Civil Engineers, 2018.
  9. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, “UK Digital Strategy,” GOV.UK, 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Mar-2019].
  10. J. Parker, “The Value of BREEAM,” Building Research Establishment, BSRIA BG 42/2012, 2012.
  11. S. Mann, “Critical remarks on the governance of sustainability: On the institutional framework of standards,” Sustainable Development, vol. 26, no. 6, pp. 509–514, Nov. 2018, doi: 10.1002/sd.1718.
  12. M. E. Bubicz, A. P. F. D. Barbosa-Póvoa, and A. Carvalho, “Incorporating social aspects in sustainable supply chains: Trends and future directions,” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 237, p. 117500, Nov. 2019, doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.06.331.
  13. S. Toniolo, A. Mazzi, G. Mazzarotto, and A. Scipioni, “International standards with a life cycle perspective: which dimension of sustainability is addressed?,” Int J Life Cycle Assess, vol. 24, no. 10, pp. 1765–1777, Oct. 2019, doi: 10.1007/s11367-019-01606-w.
  14. R. Wheal, “There is more to sustainability than a building’s environmental impact,” The Guardian, 11-May-2013.
  15. J. L. Caradonna, Sustainability: A History. Oxford University Press, 2014.