Categories:Feature Article

What’s the Link? Sustainability, FM & digital twins

PostedWillow Team

Sustainability has become a global priority. As temperatures rise and cases of extreme weather become more frequent, there is a growing urgency for carbon neutrality and sustainability. 

Countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and groupings such as the G20 and European Union (EU) aim to be climate neutral by 2050. Countries such as Germany, France, and the U.K. have already made net-zero pledges legally binding, and according to the United Nations, over 110 countries, including the U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea, are pledging zero carbon emissions by 2050, with China aiming for 2060. 

Large multinational and blue chip companies are following suit. For example, Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012 and plans to be carbon negative by 2030. They are not alone, Apple has pledged neutrality by 2030, Amazon by 2040, and even BP by 2050. As more organizations make similar pledges, the need for corporate transparency and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting becomes increasingly necessary. 

The world is embracing the concept of sustainability, and the pressure to lower emissions is only going to increase. Industries like commercial real estate are heeding the call, and the role of facility manager is continuing to evolve to serve the changing requirements of the industry. 

Regulations are driving the need for sustainability

When it comes to lowering emissions, the media focuses on issues such as the number of cars or coal plants. But numerous studies and reports have shown building and construction are responsible for almost 40 percent of all global carbon emissions. Only 11 percent of that is the construction process, with the remainder being operational emissions like heating, cooling, lighting and maintenance. 

Newly constructed buildings tend to be more efficient, but most structures that will be around in 2050 already exist. Western European countries estimate 80 percent of buildings 30 years from now have already been built. Consequently, the priority must be increasing efficiency and decarbonizing existing stock. 

For example, in the EU, more than 35 percent of buildings are more than 50 years old, and around 75 percent are considered energy inefficient. To overhaul 220 million structures by 2050, the EU has established a social climate fund worth €70 billion. 

In the U.S., various states and cities are driving their own initiatives and regulatory frameworks to decrease emissions. For example, in New York City, buildings with more than 25,000 square feet — of which there are around 50,000 — must cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Washington D.C. has created an energy intensity standard, applied to both public and private buildings more than a certain size. 

As demands for sustainability and social responsibility grow stronger, more companies are providing ESG analysis. The increased transparency provided by the reports helps assess the impact an organization may be having on the environment and provides value for long-term stakeholders. ESG reporting is mostly voluntary, but increasing numbers are seeing the benefits. In 2020, 90 percent of companies in the S&P published annual corporate sustainability/ ESG reports. 

Similar regulations and reporting structures are being employed worldwide. Whilst both governments and consumers alike are pushing for better sustainability practices and transparency in reporting, the undertaking of this journey is not straightforward. Organizations and key stakeholders (such as FMs) must be able to understand their assets’ performance and have accurate and timely reporting structures in place. 

Challenges for Facility Managers

Due to technological advances, the rise of smart buildings, and the demand for increased sustainability and efficiency practices, one role that is undergoing a significant transformation is that of the FM. 

There is a massive shift in workplace expectations as a result of the ongoing global pandemic and growing adoption of sustainability regulation worldwide. This creates a massive opportunity for FMs to emerge as leaders and influencers across the industry.” 

One major challenge FMs face is having a single source of truth of their buildings systems/data to understand performance. Traditionally, IoT devices (such as sensors, cameras etc.) that have been incorporated into the infrastructure of commercial buildings for decades have been popular with building owners as they drive efficiency and consequently decrease costs. As most of these costs come from heating, cooling lighting, or maintenance, they are also closely tied to sustainability and are crucial in meeting regulatory targets. 

However, the challenge is that a lot of these IoT devices, and their accompanying systems and components, are proprietary software packages. They are frequently provided and maintained by vendors who purposefully exclude external parties from accessing data to protect maintenance contracts. 

Having multiple vendors and proprietary systems makes facilities and operations management increasingly problematic as things scale up. The data, differing software languages and schematics can result in siloed information and a massive headache to organize and assess. 

Connecting, controlling, and monitoring assets and systems is challenging, and it grows increasingly difficult to aggregate data to obtain a bigger picture. 

Another major issue is that some systems still rely on static methods such as paper files or PDFs rather than real-time data. Sometimes this information is inaccessible or out of date. It is not just about sustainability — for safety reasons, FMs and engineers must possess a complete and accurate understanding of fire systems, plumbing, air quality, energy use and maintenance levels. 

Similarly, sometimes problems can be difficult to understand or access from afar, leading to further inefficiencies and waste as a site visit may be required. Issues within buildings are often dealt with reactively and having FM staff fixing problems instead of proactively preventing them is hugely wasteful. 

One emerging technology that has recently seen a surge in popularity is implementing a digital twin to help owners and operators gain a real-time understanding of asset performance, assist with forecasting and reporting and use data to drive decision making.

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a virtual real-time representation of a physical object. They can be used in various ways, but when applied to real estate, it allows for a digital 3D model that encompasses all aspects of a structure and its data in one place. 

The digital twin adds an extra dimension to traditional 3D Building Information Modelling (BIM) functionality. Early digital twins were primarily applied to BIM models but over the last couple of decades, thanks to technologies like IoT devices, buildings have linked systems and monitoring capabilities. As they became more connected, the benefits were soon realized in operations. 

Now, numerous devices can link to a central interface where all aspects and processes of a building can be monitored and analyzed. 

Digital twins are an intuitive way to store, organize and access the huge amount of static information and data generated by buildings that can be harnessed and applied to several high- value use cases. (refer to Figure 2). 

Using digital twins to help improve sustainability practices

By combining disparate data sets into a single source of truth, digital twins are proving to be a powerful tool for FMs, which is continuing to evolve into a multi-channel position, incorporating aspects such as IT and HR. It is estimated that implementing IoT devices and digital twins can lead to a 20 percent reduction in energy and maintenance costs. Digital twins can help improve sustainability practices by: 

1. Combining data into one source of truth to understand performance

A well-implemented digital twin with a unifying software language can bring together all the disparate information silos to a single point of access. This provides a level of oversight that was not possible before, allowing operators and managers to analyze every aspect of a structure and its systems (including BIM models, asset registers, IoT devices, occupancy data, etc.). Digital twins provide a clear view of the asset’s performance in real time, that can help cut down time spent on problem analysis, and makes system management more straightforward. Not only are all a building’s assets monitored live, related data and records are immediately at hand, minimizing potential downtime. 

2. Improving maintenance practices

Spotting issues quickly and fixing them improves efficiency but a digital twin also allows for improved predictive maintenance. For example, automated warnings can inform when an asset is due for servicing or if it has started to behave problematically. The software can also learn to recognize when an asset is becoming worn down and flag the issue. This often cuts down the need for FM staff to travel to problem spots, identify the issue, and then source the required equipment, as they will be better informed and prepared in advance. Over a year, in a large structure like a sports stadium or skyscraper, this can substantially cut emissions and costs. 

3. Optimizing energy usage based on Occupancy data

FMs can help reduce energy usage (and subsequently costs) by understanding the data within their asset. For example, a smart building filled with sensors and monitors can learn the behavioral patterns of its occupants. This will allow for vastly more efficient energy use as the insights result in more accurate adjustments to things like lighting, water management and heating preferences. This is significant when increasingly stringent sustainability targets need to be met, and emissions must be cut. Further efficiencies are achieved by the automation of mundane routine tasks and demand-driven operations. 

4. Supporting sustainability reporting

Digital twins provide a single source of truth for reporting energy consumption across assets within a building and across portfolios; a single data model for sustainability KPIs, and the ability to normalize and aggregate all energy consumption and emissions data sources. The sustainability reporting made possible by the twin goes beyond utilities and energy consumption. It can also be tied in with strategies for renewable energy or micro-grid capability, waste management, recycling targets and other efficiency strategies. 

5. Understanding asset performance at scale

In addition to monitoring a single asset, a digital twin allows for improved efficiency across a range of operations and assets. For example, by having digital twins of a building portfolio, owners can understand and benchmark performance such as energy consumption across several assets and understand trends in order to improve underperforming assets.

What is becoming clear is that the FM role is no longer about operations, data and performance of equipment, but instead becoming increasingly more dynamic. By harnessing tools such as digital twins, FMs can act as a conduit between utilization, tenant satisfaction and building performance. This relationship can turn cost centers into profit centers via a more efficient and productive employee experience or generating higher net operating income for building owners via higher tenant retention, lower operating costs, and beyond. 

The global drive for more sustainable environments and infrastructure cannot be ignored. However, advances in technology like IoT devices and digital twins are making regulatory targets more achievable. The traditional role of FM is evolving and becoming integrated with IT as changes and demands of the modern world elevate the importance and responsibilities of the position. Digital twins and related technologies are invaluable tools in helping to meet and overcome these challenges.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2021 issue of FMJ, The International Facility Management Association (IFMA)’s official magazine.

This article was authored by the team at Willow:

Elizabeth Kozman is director of product strategy at Willow Technologies. Kozman has nearly 20 years of experience in corporate and product strategy roles with high growth technology companies, with a focus on industrial IoT. Her education background includes bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering from Rose- Hulman Institute of Technology and MBA from Harvard Business School. 

Tobey Wood started his career at Goldman Sachs, and has spent the last 10 years working with C-Suite executives across Fortune 500 companies, helping them navigate the market and advising them on their investment and innovation strategies. Wood has extensive transaction and capital markets experience that spans, early-stage venture companies all the way through IPO, and has worked with some of the world’s largest institutional investors. 

Kendall Paix has more than 25 years in software, hardware and product development specifically for the built world. Starting his career at Honeywell from commissioning building and energy management systems through to serving as chief technology officer for Honeywell Building Management Systems worldwide, he has extensive knowledge of the breadth and diversity of technology and systems used today for smart and intelligent buildings. With Willow, Paix is focused on high impact outcomes for owners and operators. 

Camilla Newman is a marketing technologist, who is passionate about communicating the possibilities and value of technology products. Having started her career in brand management and then in management consulting at Deloitte, she has several years’ experience helping major organisations along their digital transformation journeys, from strategy and inception through to delivery. She is particularly passionate about her role at Willow where she gets to combine her passion for technology products with marketing. 

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