The building industry is in the throes of a significant transformation as it forges a new approach to how buildings are constructed to ensure they better suit future environments.

Central to this is the adoption of technology enabling the creation of “digital twins”: a virtual building that is “built” in full, checked and simulated before a single real-world sod is turned or brick laid.

It’s a change that is long overdue. Construction is unique in the way it has traditionally approached the business of putting together complex structures.

Let’s compare it to the car industry, for example.

If cars were designed and assembled the same way as buildings, we’d see the designer preparing a series of beautiful drawings but later discovering a big hole in the front of the chassis where the motor should go. Later, the designer would turn his mind to the seats, the dashboard and so on.

With no overall plan, the car may run but it’s certainly never going to be great.

It’s similar to the buildings of today: they’re okay, but not great.

Italian sports car manufacturer Maserati knows a thing or two about producing amazing cars. And in recent years the company has gone digital and made significant use of digital twins. This has enabled Maserati to achieve a number of objectives, including reducing the time to market for its new models without sacrificing quality.

It’s a trend that we are now starting to see emerge within the construction industry – both within Australia and globally. Namely, a focus on the use of digitalisation as part of the overall move towards more efficient buildings.

Virtual design and construction, often also referred to as building information modelling systems (or BIM), is revolutionising the construction industry.

I had the first contact with BIM about 13 years ago, and at that time it was primarily used by software engineers or architects as a way to describe a format to exchange data.

Today, however, the interpretation of BIM goes much deeper.

What we are seeing now is the development of a digital twin of a new building, enabling all the data about it to be stored and accessed over the lifecycle of the structure, which for an average building today is around 80-100 years.

That means the building is built in a virtual model, checked, simulated and if everything is okay, only then does physical construction commence.

The result is a virtual building that exists in parallel with the real-world building.

Digital twins are now relied upon by many industries. One of the better known examples is NASA’s Mars Rover, which was developed and tested using Siemens’ design and simulation software.

The advantages of the digital twin are numerous.

I’d like to highlight two: one which will be felt particularly at the start of a building project, and the other at the end of its life.

Move to more prefabrication

With a digital twin, once the design is ready and agreed, there is significant opportunity to utilise greater prefabrication of modules. The site is therefore not so much a production site; it becomes an assembly site where these modules are put together.

This results in a reduction in air pollution, dust and noise on the construction site, along with less traffic issues – all of which will reduce the impact on neighbours.

Recycling requirements

Manufacturers of consumer goods – large and small – have to declare how these items will be recycled at the end of their life.

However, this thinking has to date not been adopted to any great degree within the building industry, and there is typically no recycling requirement for buildings. Even if this concept was introduced today, a significant dilemma would arise as in most cases it is not well known what’s really built into our buildings: which material has been used, where, and in what quantities.

Wolfgang Hass

In this, a digital model of the building would be invaluable, providing a readily-accessible database of information.

In other words, BIM is not just for the design and build phase, but is invaluable over the entire lifecycle of a structure.

Digitalisation and BIM represent an important step on the road to delivering more sustainable buildings, and ultimately a future where we all have better places in which we live and work.

Wolfgang Hass is principal expert at Siemens Building Technologies. He recently spoke at the Digitalize Conference in Sydney.

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