Creating the single source of truth for buildings
May 10, 2022
May 10, 2022
Why we made a platform for digital twins
This article first appeared as “A single source of truth” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 14.
You may have heard the phrase “digital twin” used in connection with smart buildings and drawn a blank. Perhaps an analogy will help explain the concept. Let’s think of a smart building as an elite athlete who has been hooked up to every biometric sensor on the market. They can analyze their training, their competition, and their conditioning, but have yet to connect those sensors to apps on their mobile device. At worst, all that data sits there, unused. At best, their coach must click through ten different apps to get to the information, then export it to a spreadsheet to analyze it. What if this elite athlete had a “mission control” where all that data is available on one screen; health data, performance and injury data, training regime, diet, and equipment history, all in a graphic that maps precisely to the athlete’s body—heart, lungs, arms, legs. Wouldn’t that be an advantage? That’s the digital twin.
Everything that we produce and everything that we consume today has a data component to it. During the pandemic, we saw a race by organizations to leverage their Internet of Things (IoT) technology and data analytics to find efficiencies and prepare themselves for the arrival of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). The design industry, like any other industry, must prepare itself for transformation that new technologies such as machine learning and AI will unlock. Before the industry can harness these technologies, however, it must be able to organize its data.
Project data in our industry comes from multiple sources—architects, consultants, contractors—and increasingly flows in from smart devices and sensors in our buildings. This data can include design documents, three-dimensional models, PDF images, and live sensor data. But in the AEC space, there are a variety of standards, best practices, types of content, nomenclature, and even different types of sensors in devices we’re using—the data comes in 31 flavors. So, while building owners and operators have access to an overwhelming amount of data, it is siloed, fragmented, and disorganized. This makes it all difficult to navigate, even useless.
Data is critical to the success of organizations today and increasingly it is a critical component in design.
At present, however, there is no single solution that aggregates all of that information. We were inspired to create a solution to this pervasive industry problem. As an additional benefit, this created the opportunity for us to help our clients better organize, and therefore interact with and leverage their information. We set out to build a platform for digital twins.
Digital twins are literally data. While the definition of digital twin continues to evolve, fundamentally a digital twin is a virtual replica of a thing. A digital twin is a combination of live and static data that pairs with the real object that you can recall, append, or interact with through a mechanism like an app.
One can have a digital twin of a floor of a building, an entire building, a city block, or a city. A digital twin platform allows the user to curate, centralize, and then interact with that data. It’s mission control.
Digital twin platforms make it possible for users to analyze and gain insights to inform future decision-making. The digital twin provides users with a graphic interface to interact with data that would otherwise be nearly impossible to understand for the average person.
We wanted to create a platform—a digital twin interface—that could be a single source of truth for our clients. We call our prototype platform Project Gemini. (Project Gemini is an internal designation. We will give it a new name when we take it to market.)
It aggregates all types of data. Project Gemini acts as a single source of truth for our clients. It aggregates info from multiple sources, bringing it all together. Project Gemini can handle standard 2D documentation, drawings, images, laser scans, systems data, and 3D models. It doesn’t matter where the data originates.
It centralizes data in one place. Project Gemini aggregates that data in a central location, so the user can interact with a single source of truth. This centralized aggregated data allows us to perform building system reports and analysis automatically. It enables us to execute predictive modeling, even look at behaviors like throughput and people flow, predicting building and space usage, and much more.
It offers a graphic, navigable experience for accessing data. The building model itself acts as the navigation environment. Project Gemini provides a graphic representation of the built environment as an analogy for the user to access its data. So, for example, one can inspect the lighting system in a conference room by navigating to that space using Gemini and clicking through to the information desired.
Project Gemini potentially means we can extend additional services to our clients to append the technology with additional functionality such as space optimization, wayfinding, safety, emergency simulations, and other applications.
A digital twin could leverage well-organized building data in 100 different ways. We can use it for basic asset management or total facilities life cycle management. Two years into a global pandemic, our clients are trying to make strategic decisions about space. Organizations could use Project Gemini’s building data to understand their space usage in real time and optimize their spaces on the fly.
We see immediate value in leveraging Project Gemini for building safety and emergency. We can equip a digital twin facility with data including the building model, floor plan, badge information, seating information, emergency response sensors (smoke and fire), and connected lighting and messaging systems. In the event of an emergency (or drill) we can use building automation to deliver routes for emergency egress and exit and muster points directly to occupants’ mobile devices while activating building lighting for wayfinding.
Digital twin platforms make it possible for users to analyze and gain insights to inform future decision-making.
In design, we continually strive to achieve the best form and function for the client and the community. Project Gemini allows us to deliver and improve upon the promise of design.
Today, we simply don’t have all the data we would like to validate and evaluate our designs. We rarely have the data to show that buildings are performing as intended. And we often have to contend with changes made between design and construction and opening. As a design and engineering firm, our role often ends with building commissioning. It’s very rare that we have access to either the building performance data for the months and years after opening, or the behavioral data on how humans are using the building.
A single digital twin platform like Project Gemini enables digital knowledge transfer back to design. It captures all the historical information about a project (from design through construction to opening) and gives us anonymized, live, operational data so we can fully understand how our design choices play out in the world. It closes the loop in the design, construct, operate cycle by connecting it to the next design project. Digital twin technology changes the nature of the design industry and design consultancy by changing the conversation with our clients from “I think” to “I know.” With this feedback on building and systems performance, we can better design for our clients to, for example, meet their sustainability goals or manage operational costs.
Project Gemini can also inform the continued evolution of our design tools. Today, Stantec is already using AMP (formerly Audet) and other computational design tools to automate the more repetitive portions of the design process and build generative design into the early stages of our process. Once we create a feedback loop from Gemini with operational data from built projects, we can train our design assistance tools to be more predictive. If, for example, a building owner wants to understand how their operating costs would be affected by a 5% rise in ambient temperature, we could run a predictive model in our design applications that draws on live data. In this way, Project Gemini is a key piece in our quest to build intelligent, predictive, and truly automated designs.
Stantec is charting fresh territory by developing a digital twin solution for availability in the mass market. Like any good software developer, we beta tested our product ourselves with our new headquarters building as a test bed. Stantec Tower in Edmonton is a new building with “smart” systems and controls. As the anchor tenant and designer of our space with a good relationship with the property owner, we were able to use the design models, documentation, and data from the building systems as a proving ground and develop the core concepts for our digital twin solution. With that work complete we are currently engaged in developing a customizable version of our digital twin platform to meet client needs. Our next goal is the full application of an operational version of Project Gemini on a state-of-the-art smart building. We believe the potential for the digital twin is virtually limitless.