UN calls on construction industry to adopt digital twins

  • April 12, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

To achieve sustainable infrastructure, the construction industry must adopt digital twin technologies and new materials, according to a report by the United Nations environment programme.

The report reveals that the construction sector accounts for 38% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, increasing in 2019 to their highest level yet at around 10 GtCO2, and is failing to slow climate change or contribute to the 2016 Paris Agreement sustainability goals.

This contrasts with the manufacturing, healthcare and technology sectors, which have embraced technological advances and refined their processes; these industries would be unrecognisable to a worker 50 years ago, but construction has not evolved anywhere near this pace, says the UN report.

Half of all existing US buildings were built between 1960 and 1999, with 21% made before 1960. These buildings are poorly insulated and energy inefficient. As a result, buildings contribute 40 to 70% of overall emissions in cities.

Research from the Saïd Business School at the UK’s Oxford University also shows that 90% of the world’s infrastructure projects are either late or over-budget. Berlin Brandenburg Airport was nine years late on completion and six times over budget, with 66,500 errors cited during construction. Such mistakes leading to higher construction times are due to lack of data and also cause higher emissions per project.

Paul Dunn, director of architecture company Callison RTKL, believes integrated technology and digital twins are the answer.

“To achieve transformational change in our industry, design, technology and construction must be fully integrated,” he said. “The industry must go further in embracing digital, advanced materials and new technologies. Technology and manufacturing will help evolve our buildings as products. We are living at a time when flawless quality is truly viable when digital models and simulations with real-world building data create endless possibilities for monitoring, machine learning and human-centred design. We must secure integrated whole-building design from inception to afterlife.”

Digital twins act as a collection of digital data representing a physical object, allowing the construction industry to use 3D models connected to AI-driven analytics to measure, predict and mitigate a building’s emissions output. Applying digital twins during construction can allow planners and builders to streamline the building process and avoid additional construction hours, costs and emissions on projects.

A recent Markets & Markets report estimates the digital twin market will grow from $3.1bn in 2020 to $48.2bn per year by 2026, at an annual CAGR of 58%

Some office spaces and city buildings closed during lockdowns last year adopted digital twin technology, gathering previously unknown data.

Jim Whittaker, engineering services lead at real estate firm JLL, believes the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating digital twins’ adoption. He said it was now critical for building owners to rethink how their properties were used and managed.

“Objective and credible data have always been needed to make decisions on property portfolios and inform investment decisions,” he said. “But agile, scalable and dynamic workplaces are needed now more than ever. Digital twins support these requirements by providing the data and visualisations needed to make more rapid and flexible decisions.”

Chicago-based digital twin provider Cityzenith’s CEO Michael Jansen also understands the importance of transforming the construction industry while reducing urban carbon emissions.

“The sector must catch up with the pace of emissions reduction in other industries such as manufacturing,” he said. “Powerful digital twin modelling by software like our SmartWorldOS can manipulate huge amounts of data to enable smooth and accurate right first time and on time construction on new projects and help retro-fit older buildings to cut emissions now and in the future.”

He said the company was already working with major cities worldwide, donating SmartWorldOS as part of its Clean Cities, Clean Future initiative.

“Cities and urban areas are responsible for 70% of global emissions, and the construction industry contributes significantly to this percentage,” he said. “With the impact of climate change looming, it is time to utilise digital twins within construction, modernise the industry and reduce emissions output.”