How digital tech and big data is transforming buildings

Digital technology and big data promise a range of benefits to building developers, owners and tenants, including increased rental yields, improved employee retention and lower operational costs. The property sector, however, is behind others in realising technology’s enormous potential, a new report from Arup has found.

Reimagining Property in a Digital World says the ways in which buildings are designed, constructed and used are already being altered thanks to advances in digital technology and big data.

“Digital technology is redefining the property sector as we speak, bringing the potential to radically improve our working lives, increase asset value and create more sustainable buildings,” Arup global digital services leader Volker Buscher said.

But while there has been uptake of digital technology and big data solutions, what’s occurring across the sector now is nothing compared to the disruption that is expected. And when compared to what’s happening in other sectors in regards to sensors, flexible IT systems and cloud computing, the Arup report said the property sector had unfortunately not kept pace.

Multiple benefits expected

The benefits, though, promise to be massive, and can be applied to all stages of building including project planning, design and engineering, construction and fit-out, operation, asset renewal and whole-of-portfolio strategies.

For example, digital tools and platforms can mean:

  • better design, engineering and construction performance through faster delivery, fewer mistakes, comprehensive coordination and more data- driven decisions
  • better performance of assets through higher asset utilisation, lower energy and water use and lower cost of operations
  • better end-user experiences through higher degrees of control, greater flexibility, more efficient feedback loops and more seamlessness
  • better potential long-term valuations through brand lift, higher awareness, increased demand for space, and flexible, future-proofed assets.

The report provides a number of case studies that highlight the potential for digital technology across the entire building lifecycle.

Portfolio strategy

The report said a data-driven investment strategy improved decision-making and returns, while portfolio-level performance analysis led to operational cost savings.

As a case study, the report looked at Digital Globe, a company creating a national GIS database of all building assets across Australia. The company is working with governments to create a product called Geoscape, which will provide easy access to the physical attributes of more than 15 million structures across Australia.

“The tool comprises high-value location and structural data on buildings, including features like footprint and height, rooftop material, and solar panel coverage.

“Geoscape will support evidence-based decision making across a wide range of business scenarios, including planning, risk estimation, site selection, transport analysis and emergency response.”

Project planning

In terms of project planning, the report found that digital visualisation and engagement tools were helping to better involve stakeholders in the decision-making process early on, “giving them a greater sense of ownership and better insight on the impact of the project, ultimately reducing project risk”.

One example is an app called “Cityswipe”, which has been referred to as “the Tinder of stakeholder engagement”.

The City of Santa Monica in the US is using the app to get public feedback on their new urban plan, “on every aspect from benches and parking to lighting and public art”.

“For the time being, it’s fairly basic: a photo of some street art appears with a caption asking: ‘Do you want more of this?’ But by engaging public stakeholders in this familiar way, it’s hoped the planning process will better represent the preferences of the target audience, resulting in better urban experiences and greater local support.”

Design and engineering

Technologies such as 3D scanning, LiDAR and photogrammetry are enabling faster, cheaper, and more accurate existing conditions modelling, enabling high quality retrofits and renovations. Digital design simulations also promise to improve future user experience.

“Data-driven simulation allows planning, design and engineering teams to produce hypotheses and test them systematically. This means optimised user experience outcomes and a reduction in the likelihood of costly mistakes.”

An example given is 3D scanning technologies, which have been used by Arup to create 3D representations of public and private spaces across the globe for VR, analysis models, construction modelling/planning and engineering retrofits.

“The team recently coupled this approach with a powerful 3D rendering and light-modelling tool to develop photo-realistic views of a Janet Echelman sculpture that will be installed in a corporate lobby in the US. The approach is helping ensure that the investment made by the building yields the most delightful experiences for the viewing public upon completion.”

Construction and fit-out

We’ve all heard about the benefits of building information modelling – faster, more cost-effective and accurate project delivery; safer, smarter construction; and a reduction in waste.

An example given is the new Maine General Medical Center.

“A centralised BIM model allowed for seamless coordination between design, engineering and construction, speeding up the problem solving and the decision making processes … As a result, the consolidated hospital campus was completed more than 10 months ahead of schedule. The collaboration BIM facilitates also enabled the delivery team to return approximately $20 million in value-added savings to the client.”

Another example involves sensors used on building sites that alert on water, fire, mould and other on-site hazards.

Asset operations

Data is leading to huge cost savings and environmental outcomes in buildings.

“A major UK developer we’re working with has achieved a 33 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint since 2013 by tracking energy usage from 500 metering and sub-metering points and then acting aggressively on the insights gained,” the report says.

Data is also being used to understand what occupants really want from their buildings.

“Whether to improve employee or tenant retention, increase productivity, or simply create more enjoyable environments, real-time understanding of the tenant experience will reveal new opportunities for the end-user experience, and ensure you stay competitive.”

One example of how technology is being used to interface with tenants is an app created by co-working outfit WeWork, which enables employees to use their smartphones to change temperature, humidity and light.

“The system integrates with existing BMS and HVAC systems to give users a degree of control over their environment.”

Sensors and big data are also being used to efficiently control things like lighting and ventilation.

An example of where we may be heading is given in a case study on The Edge, a “responsive building” in Amsterdam.

“A day at The Edge in Amsterdam starts with a smartphone app that checks your schedule and a building system that recognises your car when you arrive, directing you to a parking space.

“Workspaces are based on your schedule: sitting desk, standing desk, work booth, meeting room, balcony seat, or concentration room. Wherever you go, the app knows your preferences for light and temperature and it tweaks the environment accordingly.”

Asset renewal

Having portfolio-wide data on buildings mean upgrades can be strategic and targeted. And at end of life, online platforms will enable the sharing, sale or reuse of valuable materials.

For example, Globechain is a reuse platform that matches businesses, charities and individuals who want to acquire or give away unwanted or surplus stock and equipment in the construction, retail and office sectors.

“By gathering and analysing data, the company also evaluates the social, economic and environmental impacts of the exchanges to enable businesses to assess and report on the effects of reusing, upcycling and recycling items.”

The report concluded that digital technology was beginning to impact the sector, but remains a “series of tactical implementations” unconnected to other elements of strategy, design, construction or operations.

The leap forward will happen when sector leaders begin to join the dots across the different stages of a project.

“With the right strategy in place, we can align the property sector with the demands of our digitally enabled society and truly deliver buildings for the future,” Buscher said.

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