BSI Identify - A digital hammer for the built environment

A Digital Hammer for the Built Environment

Author: Dan Rossiter, Built Environment Sector Lead, BSI

When it comes to sharing information, no tool is as widely used as Portable Document Format (PDF). As a data format PDF is incredibly durable. This is likely due to its adoption within widely used software; making the creation and viewing of PDFs almost frictionless. PDF is also one of the few digital formats which has persisted across its decades of use(1).

As a result, PDF has become a victim of its own success. For example, PDF is effectively the de-facto format for information being shared across construction projects. This creates two problems:

  1. PDF isn’t being used to its full potential; and
  2. The overuse (or misuse) of PDF.

The Potential of PDF:

PDF, released in 1993, was initially developed by Adobe as a proprietary format. In 2008 it became an open data format once it was standardized within ISO 32000-1 and a public patent license was published(2). Since then, PDF has been extended through the development of several specializations such as:

  • PDF/A (ISO 19005-1): Developed for archiving and long-term storage;
  • PDF/X (ISO 15930-1): Developed for printing; and
  • PDF/E (ISO 24517-1): Developed for engineering and technical documentation.

However, in the built environment these specializations are seldom used despite their advantages. PDF/A, for example, requires that components like fonts and images are included within the PDFs file itself, to ensure that the document can be rendered correctly in the future; independent of the system used to open it.

When capturing “as-built” information or golden thread information, PDF/A may be a more effective solution that PDF for this reason.

In addition, several of the core features of PDF often aren’t used to their full potential. For example the latest version, PDF 2.0 (ISO 32000-2) can support engineering model data and 3D views, and includes refined metadata model to capture the properties of document the objects within. Whilst many may refer to it as “dumb PDF”, they often fail to acknowledge its ability to recognize text, tag objects, embed other documents, and apply metadata.

The Overuse (or misuse) of PDF:

Abraham Maslow famously wrote: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

With a format this versatile, it is no wonder that it is used (and misused) so often. However, there are a myriad of data formats available which their own unique advantages. Consider the earlier archiving example, ISO/TR 22299 provides a series of data formats recommendations for long term storage. Some of its recommendations include:

  • STEP* and others for vector graphics;
  • BMP, JPEG, PNG and others for images;
  • WAV, BWF, and others for sound;
  • MPEG and others for video;
  • PDF and Open Office XML for office documents; and
  • PDF/A-1, A-2, and A3 for preservation.

It should be noted that whilst ISO/TR 22299 doesn’t cover sector-specific solutions, IFC datasets (ISO 16739-1) can be captured as a STEP physical file or a STEP-XML file using IFC-SPF or IFC-XML data formats respectively.

As such, it would be well worth considering what data format best suits the purpose that information will be used for. Within the built environment, information management professionals strive to ensure that the “…right information is given to the right people, at the right time, in the right format”(3). As a result, PDF may not be the most suitable data format depending on how the information will be used once delivered. For example, if the information needs to be imported, interrogated, or manipulated.

In summary, PDF is a powerful and versatile file format that will likely remain a key enabler of archiving information digitally for decades to come. However, when sharing information for others to use there are a wealth of other data formats for consideration. Only once we hammer-home these other data format options can we nail this problem of PDF misuse.


Completing the Circle

The built environment is an ideal sector to exploit circular economy due to its important and substantial resource intensity. However, the circularity culture has historically been limited due to its unique characteristics and the complex nature of circular economy. Download our new whitepaper and learn more about digitalisation and its benefits for unlocking circular construction.