Richard Saxon CBE, architecture and construction expert, explores the silos confining the construction industry and delves into the ‘digital twin’ concept
The built environment
The built environment industry is a vast undertaking, responsible for 15-20% of GDP and enabling the rest of the economy. It’s so big and diverse that its members tend to see only their own territory and to work in a silo with their own subculture. Moving forward, the rise of digital methods brings the chance to break down the silo walls and transform the effectiveness of the field.
What I mean by the ‘built environment’ sector is the combination of three groups, asset owners, designers and constructors and operators and maintainers of assets. In the building world, these three silos could be labelled ‘Property’, ‘Construction’ and ‘Facility Management’. Each is defined separately in official statistics and their categories overlap significantly. For example, Construction is worth 6-7% of GDP but includes ‘hard FM’: repair, maintenance and improvement, which represents about half of construction spend. Property, worth about 7% of GDP, covers the investment and trade in assets, the client function for private development and the landlord management of occupied space, overlapping with FM. FM itself, which covers hard and soft services to occupiers, is larger than the construction sector. Professional services to all subsectors are measured separately and are about 1% of GDP. It’s a Venn diagram of overlapping circles.
Digital technology has arrived in each silo, but it takes distinct forms. The property world calls it ‘PropTech’ and uses applications which facilitate on-line trading, financing and customer service. The construction world focuses on BIM, scanning and project and cost management applications, all of which can interact. The facility management silo uses space management and maintenance management software and is becoming aware of the potential of digital building management through sensors and analytics. Customers for space are increasingly asking for ‘Smart Buildings’ defined variously, but providing fast broadband, good Wifi and applications to support security, space allocation and hotel-like services.
There is an overlaying concept now developing: the ‘Digital Twin’. This is an established idea in manufacturing industry but is new to the built environment. The Digital Twin concept suggests that every physical asset should also have a digital double, a data model of itself which supports its own good fabrication and operation and provides feedback to tune performance and upgrade future products. The latter parts of this involve not just the static information stored in a model but dynamic information flowing from sensors which, when analysed, can support utilisation, operation and maintenance and progressively automate these functions.
The Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) was set up by government in 2017 to lead the development of national policy and tool creation for the next stage of digital transformation. CDBB defines its goal as to use sensors and analytics to understand how the public benefit from services delivered through the built environment, so that the assets can be progressively improved to deliver better outcomes. With smart technology, that feedback loop doesn’t just mean improving each generation of buildings, but tweaking and tuning existing stock, often automatically. CDBB promote the concept of the Digital Twin, which they call “a digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built environment which unlocks value by improving decisions in design, construction or operation”. Their first report on this approach is called ‘The Gemini Principles’ and is worth reading.
Silo-busting is more advanced in infrastructure than it is in building. Asset owners are usually also the operators and the asset IS the business. So, the remaining barriers are with design and construction suppliers. The digital twin offers a bridge to convey the idea that whole-life performance has to be the basis of good value. BIM can help make something but unless its empowered by ‘InfraTech’ sensors and analytics it only takes you part way. Asset information in the model must also be constantly updated as changes are made. New ways of working, where suppliers share in the success of outcomes, are appearing first in infrastructure work, aligning interests across the silos. It’s a rapidly changing world.
Richard Saxon CBE is principal of Consultancy for the Built Environment and a participant in Deploi: BIM Strategies, supporting clients in their use of digital technology. He wrote ‘Going Digital’ for the UK BIM Alliance in 2018.
Richard Saxon CBE