Housing Technology interviewed executives from CGA Simulation, Chimni, Civica, Gray Fox Consulting, NEC Software Solutions, Simul8 and Twinview about the role of digital twins in housing and how they can be used for better business operations, improve tenant safety and support more rigorous governance and regulatory compliance.
What is a digital twin?
Gray Fox Consulting’s CEO, Alistair McLeod, said, “A digital twin is a virtual representation of the elements and dynamics of a physical object. In housing, a digital twin is a complete, real-time digital replica of all your building assets. It provides performance data, specification information and the ability to walk through the buildings using immersive technology, all while sitting at your desk.”
Chimni’s founder and managing director, Nigel Walley, said, “A digital twin could cover a range of software types including, at its simplest, a digital building logbook that captures and stores information about a building or, at the end other end of the spectrum, a 3D digital model that enables the use and performance of buildings to be recreated and measured. When the underlying model has been created during construction using building information management (BIM) software then there would be a strong emphasis on operational and maintenance information.”
Civica’s product director, Helen Hurley, said, “A digital twin can be anything from a 3D model, such as a virtual representation of a property or an asset, through to populating the twin with data to support performance management, scheduling and monitoring maintenance routines, risk modelling and planning of future investments.”
NEC Software Solutions UK’s director of housing solutions, Trevor Hampton, said, “A digital twin is a complete representation of a physical building in digital form. The technology is still relatively new to the housing sector, but it’s an exciting advance that could have a really positive impact on tenants’ lives.”
What can you do with a digital twin?
Simul8’s CTO, Frances Sneddon, said, “Acting as a virtual test lab, a digital twin can run alongside and in constant synchronisation with a live system, thereby offering the prospect of real-time monitoring and improvements in process efficiency.
“The digital twin can be fed with data from across a housing provider’s business applications to create an accurate digital replica of its operations and processes. From there, you can run a variety of simulations to test different scenarios, in effect fast-forwarding to see the impact of decisions before they are implemented in the real world.”
CGA Simulation’s communications and business manager, Jaine Pickering, said, “A digital twin is a way of simulating, mapping and modelling the world around us. We use ‘found’ and ‘created’ data to build our digital twins; this means we can model situations for which data doesn’t yet exist. We’ve modelled road networks, autonomous vehicle technology, pollution and even the spread of coronavirus around a town.
“We use agent-based modelling (ABM) for our digital twins. ABM is a form of mathematical modelling that lets us model things, such people, vehicles, pollution or the placement of IoT devices on a 5G network. ABM assumes that each thing being modelled operates with individual agency, rather than as a ‘hive mind’, interacting naturally with the other things being modelled in the digital twin.
“This autonomy enables us to predict what the future might look like and, say, how homes and their surrounding networks might work together. This is useful for people designing the homes and neighbourhoods of the future because they can look at different options for housing design and technologies.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “Digital twins can help to make big data easier to interpret, analyse and act on. For example, a housing provider’s digital twin could augment its asset management strategy by modelling and forecasting various future scenarios or improve building safety through real-time, IoT-based asset monitoring and building information modelling.”
Twinview’s CEO, Rob Charlton, said, “A digital twin can provide accurate historic and current operational and performance data, which can be invaluable for compliance, communications and environmental controls. The benefits can be as simple as having access to ‘as built’ property information on a mobile device through to artificial intelligence to improve operational performance.”
What are the benefits of digital twins?
NEC’s Hampton said, “When overlayed with virtual reality, a digital twin could allow an architect or housing officer to ‘walk’ around the digital building and outside spaces and refine their designs in advance of construction, avoiding expensive reworks later.
“From a regulatory perspective, new building safety regulations are likely to be applied to most buildings so digital twins could be used to support fire-safety measures, for example, to map the journey of heat, flames and smoke in a simulated emergency situation.”
CGA Simulation’s Pickering said, “The benefits of a digital twin are manifold. A common premise is using one to explore and eliminate issues and pain points via in a safe digital space, before committing resources and money in the real world.
“For example, CGA Simulation has created digital twins of road networks in cities to test the safety of autonomous vehicle technologies and mapped out a hybrid 5G network in a dense city neighbourhood. These projects were both faster and less expensive than trialling the technologies in real life, and safer in context of autonomous vehicles.”
Chimni’s Walley said, “Beyond planning, design and construction, there is always an emphasis on digital twins’ ability to aggregate and report data on operational and maintenance issues. With good data like this, the more intelligent digital twins would support forecasting of maintenance issues and related costs.”
Twinview’s Charlton said, “The operational benefits include access to building information, communication with tenants and lower running costs. Financially, digital twins can reduce maintenance and energy costs through monitoring and prediction. Overall, a digital twin maintains objective performance and operational data in one environment, providing a single source of truth.”
Which housing assets & data types are most suitable?
Gray Fox’s McLeod said, “While digital twins can be created across all types of assets, it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’; there’s a sliding scale of information capture and operational gains. For large, complicated assets, the benefits of detailed asset information supported by 3D visualisation are clear, but it can also be useful for smaller, less complex assets for real-time monitoring of security, heating and cooling.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “The ability to analyse costs against benefits would help housing providers to target their investments where they will have the greatest impact. For example, this might involve using a digital twin to model whether changing access points or upgrading windows and doors in high transit areas of a building would reduce energy costs enough to warrant the disruption and expense. In future, digital modelling in the construction and management of multi-occupancy buildings will become increasingly important for achieving efficiencies and cost savings at scale.”
Integration with existing IT platforms & data hierarchies
Civica’s Rogers said, “From IoT device data, building information modelling, repairs and ASB through to tenancy data, in order to understand the whole picture of both properties and tenants, digital twins need to integrate with housing, asset and contractor management systems and reporting solutions to enable successful data management and effective outcomes.”
Chimni’s Walley said, “Depending on the nature of the reporting and forecasting capabilities within a digital twin, we envisage them eventually being incorporated into building maintenance and fault reporting systems, finance systems and customer management tools. However, a digital twin needs to be designed with these roles in mind from the outset.”
Gray Fox’s McLeod said, “Digital twins should be considered as an extension to the information you already capture. After all, most housing providers already have rudimentary digital twins in some form, based on the information in their housing management systems, even if they’re not formally referred to as a digital twin.”
NEC’s Hampton said, “A seamless link between a digital twin and a housing management system would capture a wealth of data that can be used to improve services. With details such as the number of people a building can accommodate, how many bedrooms or bathrooms there are and whether windows are double- or triple-glazed at their fingertips, housing providers could spend less time gathering this information manually and more time meeting tenants’ needs.
“As buildings are updated or occupancy levels change, integration between systems allows for a live data feed to be used to understand what impact these changes might have on factors such as fire safety measures and energy use.”
Chimni’s Walley said, “At the very minimum, a digital twin needs to be software that is configured such that it mimics the physical asset it’s meant to represent. At its simplest, this could be a system that stores information in file structures representing the rooms, layouts and major volumes of any building; for example, the simplest ‘digital property logbooks’ offer this functionality.”
CGA Simulation’s Pickering said, “Not all digital twins are the same; you can create a digital twin in 2D or 3D online, potentially with mixed and/or virtual reality. Regardless of the complexity of what you’re trying to do, your data is key because without data you have no scope for a digital twin.
“For example, CGA’s digital twins are underpinned by AI, so for the AI to work the algorithms must be fed as much relevant data as possible. They are self-generating and learn from the data they are fed, in terms of building the digital twin picture.
“To create a really meaningful digital twin, you also need access to external environmental data from organisations such as the ONS, Ordnance Survey, local authorities and other housing providers if you’re modelling IoT around housing; you need to know what’s where and why as accurately as possible.
“Finally, for a digital twin that is presented beautifully and realistically, you need somebody to design the assets and environments for you on an engine like Unity. In our case, we use our gaming experience to create photorealistic backdrops for our digital twins.”
Gray Fox’s McLeod said, “There are no minimum requirements; the more data you capture about your assets, the better your digital representation will be. Start with the data you already have and build up a coherent data set, driven by what you want to measure and how you want to improve your business operations and services to your tenants.”
Twinview’s Charlton said, “Digital twins work for both new and existing buildings. A model isn’t strictly necessary, but it does help with the data visualisation. Overall, for a twin to work properly, there needs to be a data connection between your assets and the platform of your digital twin.
“With an existing building, data builds over time; a simple 3D model can be produced and information added over time. With new buildings, the initial information is more detailed, with the priority being keeping that information up to date.”
BIM and digital twins
NEC’s Hampton said, “Using BIM, a digital replica of a physical entity can be manipulated and measurements of the available space can be taken with relative accuracy, but the scope for interaction with the space beyond that is limited.
“Enhancing this with a digital twin means an avatar could ‘walk’ through the virtual space, change lighting levels in a stairwell or check elevators are easily accessible and it would behave in a similar way to the physical building.”
CGA Simulation’s Pickering said, “A digital twin sitting alongside BIM software could be really useful because the twin could be a way of collating and capturing any BIM knowledge and presenting it in a dynamic and interactive way. However, the quality of the digital twin is critical because it would need to demonstrate something beyond what was already available via the BIM software.”
Gray Fox’s McLeod said, “BIM is a key data source for any twin, but BIM alone can’t answer the operational questions facility managers might have about optimising their operations. BIM provides information about the asset; digital twins provide data about how that asset performs and how it needs to be maintained.”
‘Baby’ digital twins
Chimni’s Walley said, “We’re not sure that scalability has been built into the early concepts for digital twins in housing, but the idea that the underlying data model should get more extensive, cleverer and offer richer functionality over time is compelling.
“It’s likely that most of us will start with a ‘baby digital twin’ in the form of a digital property logbook, and it’s also likely that housing providers and local authorities will head towards ‘digital tweens’, with simple, lo-fi models of the surrounding areas. These would be considered ‘babies’ in terms of their capabilities, even though their geographic remits would be quite large.”
Civica’s Rogers said, “Given that data is expensive to create and maintain, some simple 3D models coupled with meaningful asset data is a great way for housing providers to start with digital twins. You can then build out from there once the return on investment has been understood and proven.”
Simul8’s Sneddon said, “It’s a myth that digital twins are only the preserve of large companies, requiring huge investments in IT to produce complex, futuristic models of their operations. In fact, digital twin technology has now been democratised to the point where just about any organisation can tap into their benefits.
“Digital twins aren’t about creating large, complicated replicas of an entire organisation, but about zooming in on individual processes to find ways to streamline and improve them or to plan ahead to deal with any possible contingency.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Jaine Pickering (CGA Simulation), Nigel Walley (Chimni), Helen Roger (Civica), Alistair McLeod (Gray Fox Consulting), Trevor Hampton (NEC Software Solutions), Frances Sneddon (Simul8) and Rob Charlton (Twinview) for their comments and editorial contributions to this article.