Back to reality – virtual design in the built environment

August 24th, 2020

Paul Tattum

The need to sustain or repurpose existing buildings is being driven by the demand for urban space – it is expected that by 2050, almost 70% of the worlds people will live in an urban setting. Couple this with the need to re-use and recycle our scarce resources to meet net zero by 2050 and together, these needs are driving developments that retain parts of existing buildings or recycle some of the core materials as part of a redevelopment. Yet, we don’t understand how our buildings operate and this is a problem. 

It’s a problem because outcomes are improved if based on good information – and those businesses with a clear understanding of the built assets they operate are best placed to make decisions that meet their business goals.

Digital twins

So, what is a digital twin and why should you care? A digital twin is an exact digital replica of something that exists in the physical world, not to be confused with Building Information Modelling (BIM), which is an important part of any digital twin, but the concept is much wider and can be seen as a scale starting with a basic digital model of the existing building to a fully connected model that provides rich data and insight into a building’s operation.

Digital twins are continuously updated with data from multiple sources, which is what makes them different from static, 3D models.

The first step

The benefits of establishing a bridge between the physical and digital worlds, particularly where this includes sensors that capture energy usage, lighting and HVAC controls, air quality and movements, are significant.  Having access to a duplicate of the building structure alone will help project leaders reduce the time-scales in decision making – through increased certainty, reducing risk and the time and resources needed to develop all or part of a building, leading ultimately to more profitable projects.

Whilst there are challenges to establishing your twins, the good news is that these challenges are reducing in complexity, removing the technological barriers and significantly reducing the once high costs of creating a twin.

Hemel Project on Matterport

The first step is now easily taken, as the emergence of AI enabled software packages such as Matterport or Cupix Works means access to rich data as built information is a cost-effective reality.  The biggest barrier to getting the most out of your twin is achieving a digital first mind-set – not easy in organisations that are under pressure to deliver results within tight budgets and time-scales, and who understandably don’t have the bandwidth to quickly learn a new way of doing things.

If a company is not open to change, it will be difficult to establish the mind-set that will produce the benefits afforded by adopting a twin.  This makes the appointment of a dedicated project manager to communicate the vision and drive the changes needed to stay ahead, all the more important.

Connected decisions

The ability to establish a basic twin is an essential first step and will provide a definable return on the initial investment. But to understand the implications of design decisions early in the process and help them achieve improved performance across the asset lifecycle, twins need to be connected to the systems used to heat, light and control the buildings themselves.

In the same way that BIM and digital twins need to complement each other, the Internet of Things (IoT) and twins need to be connected to information to better manage the asset.  The IoT creates a thread that connects the twin to the actual physical structure, feeding real-time data via a software interface – such as Microsoft Azure Digital Twins IoT platform and Samsung’s connected appliances – so the impact of potential changes in design can be rationalised against real world data and the a cost benefit analysis completed to assist in any decision making.

So, why bother?

The drive to make efficient use of buildings to meet environmental commitments is resulting in a circular approach to projects, and success in this area is significantly helped by an in-depth knowledge of your built assets. 

The benefits are easily identified;

Aid decision making – visualisation aids understanding and provides context and with it improved knowledge and insights, making space for better decision making that are focused on the business goals rather than generating inaccurate design information.

Reduced risk – during the planning, design and construction phases risk is reduced by better knowledge enabling the design to be optimised in line with operational requirements.

Enhanced co-ordination – through the visualisation of information and the ability to run simulations the logistics and communications is improved helping to maintain programme and budgets.

Lower costs – not only through the reduction of costly surveys and re-surveys, site inspections, travel time and wasteful design studies during the design and planning phase life cycle costs can be optimised by understand operational impacts to cost decision made during the design stage.

At Future Projects, the way we work has changed with digital collaboration becoming the platform for decision making.  Virtual planning communities, VR design development and more streamlined meeting and site experiences with Spatial and The Wild VR, IRIS and Microsoft Teams mean that companies with these digital assets in place will be able take advantage of the benefits, not only during the design and planning stages of a project but throughout the operational and re-purposing cycles.

Ready to create your next amazing space? Future Projects can help. Let’s talk.