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Can we close the whole-life data loop?

Words:
Matt Thompson

Share your building data in digestible form and whole life design could let you better manage buildings, track reuse, share lessons and answer questions we’ve not yet thought of

Digitising an existing barn allowed new insertions to be accurately modelled. Here a CNC-cut CLT element fabricated off-site to fine tolerances is lifted into the barn at Anstey Hall, Cambridge, avoiding complex temporary works and breathing new life into the heritage structure.
Digitising an existing barn allowed new insertions to be accurately modelled. Here a CNC-cut CLT element fabricated off-site to fine tolerances is lifted into the barn at Anstey Hall, Cambridge, avoiding complex temporary works and breathing new life into the heritage structure.

We have a deep reserve of computing power at our fingertips. Astonishing innovations in digital automation afford us never-before-seen design capabilities. The case for switching to advanced manufacturing principles is compelling. 

But in all this there is a crucial missing link: whole-life integration. If the industry continues simply to spew out projects without understanding how they perform in operation, it can’t improve. It will carry on shooting in the dark, aiming for good long-term value but never knowing if it hits. For an industry that generates 9% of UK GDP and 40% of carbon emissions, this looks like an oversight.

On many functional levels, of course, the industry is already extremely effective. Unfortunately, this is no longer good enough. With need outstripping the industry’s capacity to deliver and global threats galloping towards us, our social, economic and environmental stability is at risk, alongside ageing infrastructure, urbanisation and growing populations. Public opinion, investor pressure, and stringent regulations are forcing the industry to address its increasingly hard-to-justify carbon footprint and contribution to natural resource depletion.

The singularity response is to create ‘digital twins’ of assets and close the data loop. This means designing with the building’s operation and end of life in mind. Too often, the farthest horizon for design is handover, storing up trouble for later. It’s the difference between cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave or, better, cradle-to-cradle boundary conditions that are considered in Life Cycle Assessments. 

A cradle-to-cradle system diverts materials from landfill by designing-in adaptability and reuse, an important stepping stone to a circular economy. Championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the EU, practical tools that can help you to make the right design decisions for circularity are still maturing. Once again, turning the physical into data is key. As BAM’s group director of sustainability Nitesh Magdani puts it, ‘Material without information is waste.’

Fortunately, the EU’s Building as Material Bank project tackles the issue, introducing the concept of materials passports. Cambridge University’s Dr Michael Ramage, director of the Centre for Natural Materials and academic advisor to the Centre for Digital Built Britain, describes a precursor example of how this might work. Microtec makes digital twins of logs to optimise their milling. ‘Every plank is tagged and tracked through its life. While it’s still in a building, you can find a home for the timber before demolition, yielding economic and sustainability dividends.’ 

Information from assets in use has three useful destinations. It can cycle forward to benefit the facilities manager. It can bounce out of the construction ecosystem to inform business, public policy, and the third estate. Or it can cycle backwards to validate design and allow lessons to be shared. 

Gavin Pike, associate director at Bennetts Associates a member of the Get It Right Initiative (GIRI, a UK construction industry group dedicated to eliminating error), is frustrated that capturing lessons does not happen more often: ‘Some clients don’t see the value. The learning is never reinvested.’ Repeating mistakes costs the industry £10-25bn per annum, according to GIRI.  

Post occupancy evaluations are important in tackling the climate emergency, but say little about other value indicators: occupant wellbeing, worker productivity, patient recovery rates, educational outcomes, local economic impact, and so on. David Miller of DMA says such quantitative feedback ‘would allow architects to argue for design on the basis of evidence rather than gut feeling’.

The BlokSense Insights Dashboard is pre-installed in a hardwired system built into the Blokable Building System, equipping community and property managers with software tools to monitor safety and performance, manage access, and improve comfort..
The BlokSense Insights Dashboard is pre-installed in a hardwired system built into the Blokable Building System, equipping community and property managers with software tools to monitor safety and performance, manage access, and improve comfort.. Credit: Blokable

Change is coming

There is a groundswell of change underway. The UK Government is acting under its Transforming Construction agenda, and the whole-life value of public assets is one of the main focuses of its innovation funding drive. 

The CDBB has laid out a vision for a National Digital Twin. The idea is that public infrastructure assets will all have interconnected operational avatars from which performance and value can be monitored. Governed by the Gemini Principles, CDBB says it could release £7 billion of benefits per year.

Tech companies are on the march too. Although their focus is smart asset management, the potential for other destinations for their data is tantalising. Their tools are connected sensors, secure Internet of Things ‘edge’ technology, and AI-powered facilities management software. 

Blokable, for example, pre-installs connected Bloksense hardware in its prefab building system, which reports to an Insights Dashboard designed to help owners minimise maintenance, repair, insurance and other costs with alerts, usage monitoring, and trends. Iotium’s edge tech allows automated on-site sensors to connect securely to cloud-based applications. In the offices sector, Sensat, Cohesion and Thoughtwire promise proprietary digital twins to, respectively, ‘build a more sustainable future’, ‘optimize portfolios’, and ‘orchestrate data from people, processes and connected devices’. ClearEdge 3D and Airsquire capture as-built buildings digitally. 

Making sense of the tsunami of data will rely on AI, the one feeding the other in a virtuous spiral of increasing usefulness. With iron-clad information security and benevolent human governance, the resulting intelligence has unlimited potential to refine our actions for the good of people and the planet. 

The applications of this intelligence are limited only by our imagination. Within the construction ecosystem, one can imagine it tracking materials to optimise end-of-life strategies for buildings and to calibrate their residual value. It could improve the next generation of platform components. It could inform regulations, codes and benchmarks, perhaps even updating them automatically. It could provide the evidence to strengthen town planning decision-making, dovetailing nicely with Royal Town Planning Institute research into better, more accountable benchmarks. It could help to automate the design and compliance process and even, says Michael Ramage, provide answers for questions that we haven’t thought to ask yet.

Jaimie Johnston of Bryden Wood admits that collecting data about people in buildings is ‘a bit Big-Brothery’ but does relish the prospect of a building that learns automatically. 

David Miller is sceptical that commercial jealousies and intellectual property concerns won’t get in the way. ‘The data’s actually got a value, so I suspect it won’t happen,’ he says.

Gavin Pike is more optimistic. ‘With Architects Declare, there’s a rejuvenated purpose to encourage collective action. That may well drive more sharing.’
Let’s hope that happens. Closing the data loop in these ways will complete the proposed singularity, delivering, as CDBB director Andy Neely puts it, ‘A perfect utopia of a successful society enabled by data to be efficient, sustainable and enabling people to flourish.’

Implications for architects

Neely recognises that the Transforming Construction vision might appear ‘unachievable’ but does not think that should stop the attempt, and he encourages industry leaders, including architects, to engage with the CDBB.

Miller favours the direction of travel but thinks much of the profession is unprepared. ‘Machine learning and AI is going to come at us quite fast. It’s a difficult change, and you can see the resistance building already.’

Ramage savours the prospect of being able ‘to make use of someone else’s proven expertise’, which will accelerate improvements in how the industry operates. 

Bryden Wood has written about the potential for more creative freedom from a truly circular industry. ‘If architects didn’t have to build everything with a 60 year life span, if the building was likely to be re-purposed in 20 years, this gives unprecedented freedom in design, and a much greater level of flexibility within the urban landscape.’ 

Securing data to inform design will almost certainly mean changes to how buildings are designed in the first place. Cordless Consultants warns that there are ‘multi-faceted complexities involved in designing and deploying a smart building’; architects will have to accommodate them. 


See more on the digital revolution:

Is The Singularity tech’s new dawn?

Mass customisation: MMC beyond boxes

Could AI be your superpower?

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