12 December 2022

AUTHOR: Architecture lecturer DR ROBERT DOE

Around the world, the construction industry is looking to become more sustainable, and new Australian research is examining how developing digital twins for our buildings could reduce their environmental impact.

A building is like a person, and just like a person, it begins as an idea. It is conceived and brought into the world, sometimes smoothly, and sometimes with great difficulty. Over time, a building matures, often undergoing major physical transformations, changes of purpose, and reassessments of value. Then, inevitably, at some stage, buildings deteriorate and die – or, as we would more likely say, they are demolished.

Like people, buildings pass through distinct life stages – design, construction, operation, maintenance, demolition, and reuse. During a building’s life cycle, the people who create and maintain it share ideas fundamental to its successful evolution. This information is, in a sense, the building’s blueprint or DNA – coded data through which a building grows and matures.

But because of the volume and complexity of information involved, it is difficult to manage, particularly as it relates to diverse stakeholders including architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, operators, regulators and occupiers. Currently, these stakeholders share information very inefficiently, if at all – it’s almost as if they each speak a different language.

While this communication problem is standard across almost all areas of the building industry, it is, in quite significant ways, out of step with many other areas of contemporary society. In most areas of life, we now exchange information like never before. Technology has made this easier and commonplace and many sectors of industry embrace it, including through the development of detailed virtual versions of real-world objects, known as digital twins, to ensure all information is available to all stakeholders.

The building industry, however, has yet to catch up.

Recognising this, a UniSA research team has recently launched a new project that aims to tackle the industry-wide communication problem in a way that would allow stakeholders to develop a digital twin for a building. The project brings together researchers from the creative and STEM disciplines and, in collaboration with industry partners, they are seeking solutions that will ensure information can be exchanged between building life cycle stages – an attribute known as interoperability.

Interoperability: Sharing information for better buildings

The lives of our buildings are – now more than ever – intimately entwined with our own lives. We need our buildings to be the best version of themselves they can be, to not only allow us to survive and prosper, but to do so in a way that is sustainable, so that our children, and their children, can thrive and succeed as well.

Change is all around us – society is currently reconsidering everything from energy and transport to fashion and food, all with the common goal of rectifying the unsustainable practices of the past. The building industry acknowledges that a process of positive, progressive disruption is needed. But to be truly sustainable, we need our buildings to become two things they currently are not – informed, and responsive.

Technology futuristic virtual reality design

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Design

Using collaborative and digital techniques, design simulates and models building information about the client’s brief and budget, stakeholders’ needs, context and regulations. Participants and digital tools depend on interoperability to ensure that the best information is available and the best and most sustainable decisions can be made.

Operator using a drone to inspect a construction site

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Construction

Construction develops the building information model into its physical form in collaboration with fabricators, suppliers, manufacturers, and transportation contractors. Interoperability between all participants through face-to-face and digital collaborations during the construction stage will ensure the most effective and sustainable outcomes.

Electrician checking building’s equipment and sensors

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Operation

Operation of the building is the costliest stage of its lifecycle, requiring optimisation through efficient use of building management data. A virtual model handed over by the construction team that is interoperable with real-time data from the physical building’s equipment and sensors can ensure sustainable use of energy and resources.

Building maintenance

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Maintenance

Maintenance requires understanding of the facilities and fabric of the building to ensure that repairs and replacements are carefully planned across this lifecycle stage. Effective maintenance depends on effective interoperability between the virtual model and the physical building when information is handed over by the construction team.

Building demolition

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Demolition

Demolition need not mean the end of life of the building but, rather, the beginning of new life for materials, or even for large parts of the building itself. Interoperability between people and digital systems can ensure parts of the building are disassembled with full understanding of demolition waste, and the potential for reuse and adaptability.

Recycled building materials ready for reuse

Sharing information across the life cycle of a building: Reuse

Reuse of the building includes the recycling of materials and the adaptive reuse of the building itself. When materials are reused, or the original building is adapted, interoperability across the building’s life cycles will have enabled valuable information to be passed on to ensure that sustainable deconstruction strategies determine its future.

As a building moves through its various life cycle stages, we need to ensure that the ideas and information influencing that building’s evolution can be shared clearly, consistently, and efficiently in a manner that can be understood by all stakeholders, past, present and future.

Interoperability is the ability to allow information to operate across building life cycle stages, and for buildings to be sustainable we need information to be interoperable.

To achieve a truly informed building process, all the information that each of these stakeholders possesses, and requires, must be exchanged using a common language, and this common language must be available to all. In other words, the information exchanged must be interoperable. This will allow us to develop a digital version of the building, a digital twin that matches its physical version.

Once openly exchanged and shared this information can enhance our health and wellbeing, whether it’s understanding the additives in a material and their effect on our respiratory system, determining the number of air changes needed in a bedroom to ensure sound sleep patterns, calculating CO2 emissions due to the transportation of building components, or quantifying the operational costs of an unused facility. Information breathes life and energy into our buildings.

Ensuring that information is shared and available about buildings – not merely as raw data or abstract concepts, but as clearly understood, accessible information and knowledge – will also help ensure that our buildings are responsive. This will mean that the digital twin of the building is useful at all stages of the building’s lifecycle.

To make buildings that are healthy for us and our environment, sustainability depends on the ability for information to operate across life cycle stages – the ability of interoperability. If we have a digital twin that provides the best information about a building at a life cycle stage and can pass this on to the next stage, then we can make better, more sustainable decisions across life cycle stages.

UniSA’s building industry interoperability research project aims to improve the process of creating a ‘common language’ for the construction industry by focusing on real business needs, and by providing solutions that will be of benefit to the industry partners, the building industry, and all who live, work and play within our built environments.

Participants in the “Interoperable Sustainability for the Architecture, Engineering, Construction, and Operations (AECO) sector” project include: Dr Robert Doe (UniSA Creative), Dr Karamjit Kaur (UniSA STEM), Dr Matt Selway (UniSA STEM), Dr Rebecca Morgan (UniSA STEM), Professor Markus Stumptner (UniSA STEM)
Industry partners: GHD Woodhead, DBM Vircon
Expert advisors: Professor Veronica Soebarto (University of Adelaide), Professor Robin Drogemuller (Queensland University of Technology)

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