Innovation in the built environment has long been overshadowed by traditional construction practices that are often slow, costly, and inefficient. However, the need for sustainable and future-ready solutions, particularly in the context of reaching Net Zero, has given rise to a new era of digital innovation. By harnessing the power of new technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), Digital Twins, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the convergence of the physical and digital worlds is transforming the built environment into low-carbon smart cities and connected assets. This paradigm shift offers immense opportunities to address our pressing global challenges such as the climate crisis, productivity enhancement, and rapid urbanisation.
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Traditional construction has our hands tied
Traditional construction practices have relied heavily on manual processes, making them time-consuming, error-prone, and resource-intensive. These methods, such as manual design and drafting or manual project tracking and monitoring now seem archaic, despite being heavily used up until the 1980s (and perhaps some still do now) when Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software started to become an industry disrupter. However, with the global challenges of the 21st century and the built environment’s culpability pressing hard on our shoulders, our concerns have become far more complex than cost overruns and project delays. We have a world to save and traditional methods, even with limited use of digital technologies, just aren’t going to cut it. We need to fully embrace digital technologies and we need to do it now!
The Convergence of the Physical and Digital Worlds
BIM, Digital Twins and AI and machine learning are becoming some of the leading global innovations in the sector. BIM tools are incredibly powerful in optimising the entire lifecycle of buildings and infrastructure. By creating a 3D digital representation of a project and its physical and functional characteristics, BIM provides invaluable insight into how to plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure more efficiently using data-driven decisions.
Digital Twins take BIM a step further by creating dynamic digital replicas of physical assets. It does this by capturing comprehensive data in real-time and applying that data to create an accurate live image of a building (one that is constantly updated and refined). This real-time monitoring and analysis can facilitate ongoing optimisation in the form of improved resource management, predictive maintenance, energy optimisation, and operational efficiency.
The now seemingly ubiquitous AI can also be added to the mix. AI works by using algorithms and statistical models to analyse large amounts of data, identify patterns, and learn from them. When we combine BIM, Digital Twins and AI and machine learning technologies - we can start to truly revolutionise the way we design, construct, and operate buildings and infrastructure.
Opportunities for Tackling Global Challenges
The integration of digital technologies into the built environment holds tremendous potential for addressing pressing global challenges and can contribute significantly to the fight against climate change. However, much of the application of these technologies has been around operational energy and carbon - which means that whilst we think we are optimising the entire building lifecycle with these tools, by using advanced energy simulations and achieving improved construction productivity, we are not optimising the whole life carbon of the building.
A building’s 'indirect' contribution to global warming through the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, construction, use, and eventual disposal or recycling of building materials is set to become 50% of a building's carbon impact by 2050. In addition, the embodied carbon emissions that are released upfront during the manufacturing and construction phases of a building are "locked in" and cannot be reduced once the building is constructed, unlike operational carbon emissions that occur and can be reduced over the building's lifetime. Therefore, addressing the whole life carbon of a building, so that both the embodied and operational carbon emissions are included, as early as possible is essential for minimising the short- and long-term impact of buildings on the environment.
We have the most innovative technologies of our time at our fingertips - we now have to apply them in a way that also includes a building’s whole life carbon impact and ensures that we are aligned with our Paris 2050 Climate Goals. An example of the clever application (and adaptation) of these technologies is our work at Preoptima, where we have evolved the Digital Twin into the Carbon Twin. Our Carbon Twins (created through our AI-powered generative design or by importing your own massing model) act as specialised digital representations of buildings that focus on analysing, avoiding and managing carbon emissions throughout an asset’s lifecycle. Preoptima’s Carbon Twins serve as virtual models that mirror both the as-designed and as-built physical assets and provide real-time insights into the carbon impact of design choices, construction materials, operational efficiency, maintenance practices and demolition scenarios - all using accurate, geolocated, and transparent whole life carbon (WLC) analyses and all as early as the concept stage.
We ensure that carbon-based decisions can be made at every single stage of a building lifecycle and that the entire building is optimised, from the building shape, to structural and envelope materials, to building services and energy use. In addition to our live carbon impact data, we provide unprecedented access to an accurate bill of quantities and associated material and structural impact information.
The creative application of these digital technologies to what has been a laggard sector will be imperative if we are to cope with the global challenges that lie ahead - there is no other way around it than diving in head first. We have to home a rapidly growing population whilst addressing existing and impending societal inequalities and risks, as well as restoring and protecting our natural world - all within a carbon budget! There is a lot to do within a short period of time and embracing digital technologies is the best means to getting the job done.
It’s time to embrace the digital era
Aside from what's good for the planet, embracing the digital transformation is critical for all built environment stakeholders if they are to be competitive and future-ready.
Architects and designers can leverage digital tools to visualise complex designs, identify and mitigate impact hotspots, and optimise building performance. Contractors can improve project planning, streamline workflows, and enhance safety. Product manufacturers can gather real-time feedback, create environmentally-friendly products, and optimise supply chains to meet evolving market demands. Government agencies can be key drivers in the digital transformation by establishing standards and creating an enabling environment for innovation - such as the EU’s Digital Decade initiative, which aims to leverage digital technologies to drive economic growth, foster innovation, enhance sustainability, and improve the lives of European citizens by 2030. By promoting this collaboration and data sharing, policymakers can also foster the development of connected assets and smart cities, unlocking economic growth, sustainability, and improved quality of life.
Thankfully, there is a lot that all of us can do to ensure that we protect our precious planet and those that occupy it - and it all starts with going digital!
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