Paul Cossell, Chief Executive Officer
We’re at a pivotal moment in the construction industry. A moment where existing methodologies, systems and hierarchies are colliding with disruptive technologies and increasing automation.
The ideas and innovation from digitally native generations, unencumbered by historical practices and philosophies, are challenging the normative narrative that says: ‘we’ve always done it that way – so why change?’ This is incredibly exciting for organisations that embrace and thrive on dynamic change and innovation, providing the opportunity to elevate our industry as an aspirational career choice for the brightest and best from the global talent pool.
If we look at one of the emerging concepts that is gaining greater traction in our industry – Digital Twin - a concept that creates a digital clone of the physical infrastructure–there is an opportunity to help transform the perception gap that has dogged the sector. We can help create a virtuous circle for talent, as the construction industry gains credibility as a technology-enabled career pathway. This is great for our sector, but what about our clients, endusers and wider society? If we look at Digital Twin, we’re only scratching the surface of what might be possible. This goes far beyond Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the rendered flythrough. We are now familiar with and moves into the territory of a new mindset from both contractor and client.
We’re getting much better at implementing technology at the pre-construction and delivery stages of a project, but post-occupancy is often where all that rich data gets junked, because there is a collective failure in identifying the huge opportunity that exists. This is where Digital Twin provides a snapshot of the near future.
If we change our mindset and adopt a technology-enabled approach from the outset, we can create so much more value. How many projects consider the digital ecosystem and connectivity of the built asset at the primary stages – developing a robust digital platform that works effectively with every component in the building? Think of our ubiquitous smartphones – you wouldn’t design an App that doesn’t work for an iPhone? Yet routinely we install components that need ‘work arounds’ to sit within a complex Building Management System (BMS). Why not, instead, simplify the building’s operating system and use components that work harmoniously together, and importantly provide operational data 24/7 that is easily interpreted and acted upon – more on this later. Now BIM is our master dataset, our asset register and one source of the truth. So, let’s supercharge the information we add in at the earliest stages of the project – and while we’re at it – let’s design a way where we only enter this data once, through a dynamic linked form that is as infinitely updatable as the components in the building that are changed or replaced. Importantly, let’s educate our client and end-users to the importance of maintaining the accuracy of this dataset. We can also add in information on the material composition of every element in the building. This should include details on its sourcing and compliance – a material passport – but in addition we should really be adding in information on how materials can be recycled or importantly reused as part of circular economy principles.
Following these principles, we have a 100% accurate record of what components and materials make up our building and how we can recycle or reuse components when the building has
fulfilled its useful purpose. If we want to remodel a building in the future, then we have a comprehensive model asset to manipulate digitally and redesign before we even set foot in the physical space. It’s going to be valuable too if we can share our digital twin building material data, floor layouts and virtual schematics for way finding with the emergency services if there was ever a future incident in our building.
Returning to the theme of building components that provide accurate data on performance and usage, most large and complex building services items now use sensors that measure and monitor, but we should be looking to get this same communication from our smallest components: e.g. switches. Once we have a fully integrated and monitored building, we can create a true Computer- Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) system. This is the gold standard for FM systems – with automated preemptive maintenance regimes based on manufacturers specifications, automated ordering of parts and intelligent scheduling with maintenance teams. So, we no longer have to fix broken-down components reactively. Instead we optimise efficiencies throughout the product’s lifecycle by pre-emptive maintenance, in the same way we do with servicing our cars. This is an increasingly important consideration as building services move towards a servitization operating model – where building owners buy lumens of light for a specified duration - not the physical light itself.
The Digital Twin concept is eminently achievable right now. The technologies exist for every element I’ve outlined above. What we haven’t yet achieved is to bring this philosophy together in its entirety within one building. There has been a corruption of the concept of smart buildings over the past few years – the term has increasingly been used as a catch all for the latest technology that claims to do something better or solve a new problem. The biggest issue we see with our clients is that the adoption of the latest gadget doesn’t really solve a problem, and more often creates a host of new challenges because the technology has been applied without context.
What a so-called smart building actually is today is incredibly difficult to quantify and even harder to explain, as it means different things to different audiences. For us, we focus on building spaces that are tailored to our client’s requirements, both now and in the future. Technology and automation are transforming our industry, but it’s important to stress that it is people that are either our greatest opportunity or our most challenging impediment to this change. What is key is changing the nature of our conversations with clients, getting involved earlier in the decision-making process, diversifying our workforces and appealing to demographics that would previously never have considered a career in construction. This is how our industry will become more productive, technology-enabled and deliver better spaces that help us all to thrive.