Digital Twin Mockup
Digital Twin Mockup. Photo supplied by Investa

Technology is allowing great advances in design, construction and building management techniques. Here we explore digital twins and BIM through interviews with leaders from Willow and Autodesk.

One of the key recommendations of the Shergold and Weir Building Confidence report was the improvement of documentation by digitising all design and construction information and extending its use into building operations. This electronic “building passport” could be delivered through the development of digital twins – a living, digital model of a building.

Willow (previously Ridley) is working at the forefront of the new technology and has delivered several digital twin projects recently including Investa’s Sixty Martin Place, 567 Collins Street in Melbourne and 151 Clarence Street in Sydney.

The projects have gained the company some international attention. Willow’s head of implementation and product manager James Shirley says there is already serious interest from the US market.

The difference between a twin and a BIM model is the ability to link in live data during the asset’s operational life cycle, he says. BIM models are 3D models of the building at the design and construction phase so they’re useful for quantification and coordination of materials. The twin can deliver ongoing value for an asset owner during its lifecycle.

The twins created for the Investa projects integrate all the design and construction information but the focus is on the end user, in particular the daily, weekly and monthly tasks a facilities manager undertakes. It captures real-time data about building performance including energy and water use, indoor environment and other metrics.

Shirley says the twin acts as a “visual communication tool” that includes third-party integration of live systems and allows a facilities manager to perform their role more effectively and “shift their focus to proactive tenant engagement.”

At Sixty Martin Place the twin integrates with a tenant app, Insite, which gives a picture of how people use the building and occupy space, including room bookings, digital visitor management and vertical transportation.

Tenants in the building use the app to access the building, call the destination-controlled lifts, book lockers and access the car park from their smart device. Digital visitor management along with news, events, building notifications, sustainability information and popular e-commerce services, such as food and beverage ordering are also available through the app.

“New commercial office towers provide a unique opportunity to implement sophisticated building technology to deliver an enhanced operational and user experience,” Nathan Lyon, head of building technology, Investa says.

By combining the key pillars of commerce, community, content and building control, the buildings have an effective way to embed the Insite app into the daily needs of tenants.

The twin is a living and evolving digital entity, Machine learning and automation interact with the twin so it evolves through time. It literally “gets smarter”.

The app will also help collect learnings that will shape future developments and management of existing buildings in the portfolio.

In Shirley’s view the twin is a living and evolving digital entity. Machine learning and automation interact with the twin so it evolves through time. It literally “gets smarter” as the various data sources including building systems performance are integrated.

This opens up time-saving possibilities in terms of instigating a predictive maintenance regime or having systems in place for simplified NABERS reporting or other benchmarking exercises.

Shirley says it will also enable FMs to shift focus to improve the tenant experience through light, temperature, sound and smell. It’s part of a broader shift in the profession to become more “people-focused”.

The twin could also improve the data gathered by a traditional post occupancy evaluation, as responses can be compared in real-time and compared to influencing factors such as weather conditions.

The challenge ahead is to optimise how change will be managed within a twin through time, for example, a major change of occupancy, upgrade or replacement of parts of a building system, or the introduction of new technologies.

Shirley says work is ongoing with the FMs to facilitate their ability to upload new information or change existing information. This also incorporates integrating as-built information for new tenancies during the building’s life.

A potential upside of this will be having detailed and accurate information about a space before a tenancy commenced that can be used to validate the make-good when that occupant departs. A bonus could be the integration of sustainability factors such as end-of-life re-use or recycling information for each fit-out element.

“The new technology has the ability to provide transparency…and increase accountability through the supply chain,” Shirley says.

A major goal is to give FMs the power to control the digital twin.

A change resister is also maintained as a living platform that tracks and proactively communicates any enhancements or improvements to the user interface.

To make digital twins work effectively, FMs also need to have more participation in the early stages of project design and delivery than is often the case.

“Their role is shifting from being very much focused on problem and response to being a proactive part of the whole building management process,” Shirley says.

Smarter design and greener outcomes

Rafik Abdelkaddous, senior sales and AEC strategy manager – ANZ at Autodesk says more than ever, we now have the technology that allows us to understand how assets like buildings, building systems and materials will react under certain circumstances. This will lead to better and more efficient designs.

The old way of construction, where frequent rework and the associated waste of materials and labour was the norm, is also being left behind. Digitisation will facilitate the “built it once, built it right” approach.

Abdelkaddous gives the example of the Shanghai Tower – a vertical city in one building. Digital modelling enabled the project to reduce construction material required for the structure by 40 per cent compared to conventional estimates. It also allowed modelling of how wind effect can not only be minimised but also be channelled into building-integrated wind power generation – which now produces 17 per cent of the massive building’s energy needs.

The same concepts can be utilised at a smaller building scale, he says.

The technology has come a long way in the last 15 year. Phones, tablets and other portable devices are significantly enabling the digitisation of the construction industry.

“There is more computer power in our phones now than was used to put man on the moon back in 1969.”

“There are two ways to accelerate adoption. Either through government mandates, or we get industry leaders to push things through.”

What is needed now is industry leadership to push the digital approach throughout the industry, Abdelkaddous says.

“There are two ways to accelerate adoption. Either through government mandates, or we get industry leaders to push things through.”

In Singapore and the UK, government mandates have been escalating BIM usage. While there are some positive signs here such as the Victorian government’s digital asset strategy, Abdelkaddous says he thinks it is unlikely we’ll see national-level mandates within the next few years. 

Industry leaders need to be looking 50 years ahead, or even 100 years ahead to put plans and directions in the context of population growth projections. According to Infrastructure Australia, within just the next 15 years, seven million more people are expected to call Australia home.

“We need to be able to cater for massive growth,” Abdelkaddous says.

But currently, we do not have the environmental nor the financial capacities to cater for the expected growth figures. The business-as-usual approach will not suffice.

While BIM and digitisation have become standard practice at the design level, the challenge now is to translate its use downstream into effective environmental management at the construction level.

He says in the US there are trends to facilitate true recycling rather than down-cycling – such as turning post-demolition structural concrete into road base.

This feeds back into a design trend around design-for-reuse, such as columns and slabs that can be dismantled and re-used.

The technology benefits are not just limited to new structures, Abdelkaddous says. IoT can be used during repurposing of existing buildings. Sensors can be retrofitted to let a precise view of how HVAC, lighting and other systems are performing and where upgrades will be most effective.

AI such as “generative design” is also giving more smarts to design teams, by translating human parameters into hundreds (if not thousands) of design ideas, improving efficiency and reducing environmental impacts. This technology was used for Autodesk’s own Boston office.

Parameters can be entered such as number of people to be housed, hours of daylight required inside, minimum space requirements, HVAC requirements, or even benchmarks for energy use, water use and embodied emissions.

Abdelkaddous says this tech can deliver options a design team may not have even thought of. Some options “may be impractical” but that’s where human discernment comes in.

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