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Solving the Design-Build-Operate Divide with Ontology-based Digital Twins

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“I think it is key that the smart building design and operation phases be better joined up. That’s the most important technical gap in my opinion, which must be addressed to trigger the biggest impact on smart buildings,” Ray D’Urso, building technology consultant, told Memoori. “I agree, there is a significant divide between the design, build, and operate processes. When the buildings are being built there is just not enough engagement, even with BIM. That’s the biggest problem with smart buildings.” added Infrastructure Services Director at LMG, Mike Hook, during our February webinar on tech obsolescence.

Building design tools, construction methods, and operational approaches are so fundamentally different that the information lost in translation between these phases is the root of many problems that buildings face. To address that root cause, we must develop a single system that allows construction and operation experts to influence design, then utilize that co-creation to direct construction and drive operational performance. That solution now exists with the emergence of digital twins for buildings, but for digital twins to truly incorporate design, build, and operate phases, all three must speak the same language.

That common language is likely to take the shape of a building ontology, as we have seen with Project Haystack, Brick Schema, or RealEstateCore. These ontologies are essentially shared data models that simplify the process of connecting applications in a particular domain, be it on a system level or entire facility scale. Ontologies are critical to the development of digital twins, providing that common language that allows all stakeholders to co-create detailed digital versions of a building before construction begins. These digital twins can describe every element of the physical building, then combine to create an integrated digital twin of the entire structure that all stakeholders can both influence and feed off.

“An ontology must balance power and comprehensiveness with simplicity and ease of use to generate enough adoption,” said Tony Shakib, IoT general manager at Microsoft Azure, one of big tech leaders in the digital twin movement. “Many building management and automation vendors have attempted to limit buildings to custom, proprietary ‘walled garden’ approaches that can hurt clients in the long run.”

To drive the development of digital twin technology for buildings, Microsoft has partnered with RealEstateCore, a Swedish consortium of real estate owners, tech companies, and research groups. The partnership aims to make a smart building ontology for Azure that will integrate with various industry standards to enable the various building stakeholders, (owners, vendors, construction teams, facilities management, and even users) to engage in collaborative design on all aspects of the building. Our smart buildings are complex structures, however, so we must be able to view systems and even devices in isolation but also as part of a wider ecosystem.

“I have been designing ontologies for many years, decades even, and the most important part of my learning is that you actually know the business case that you’re trying to solve. So, we go through all the standards that apply to the domain, and if none of them solves the problem, you just invent another standard,” Erik Wallin, founder of RealEstateCore and CEO of Idun Real Estate, told Memoori in a late-2019 webinar. “When we started out doing RealEstateCore, or actually the predecessors, the biggest business case was energy optimization.”

Digital twins promise significant ROI for building owners and operators across the board by improving the categorization, integration, and fidelity of data. Microsoft has been utilizing these techniques on its own portfolio of buildings to achieve as much as 20% to 30% energy savings, simply by harvesting data from existing building control systems to identify and resolve inefficiencies. Through Project Bonsai, Microsoft has been able to find an additional 10% to 15% in energy savings by applying Artificial Intelligence to optimize for even greater efficiencies. 

Like the IoT and smart buildings, energy savings are just the start. We are now seeing digital twins being used for space optimization in buildings, as well as for enhancing occupant health, wellness, comfort, and productivity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, NYC-based RXR Realty has been using the Azure Digital Twins to combine building data with people counting, social distance detection, face mask detection, and air quality monitoring to provide a building wellness index. New applications are emerging all the time and all because the ontology allowed such innovators to capture and use a wide variety of accurate and real-time building metrics.

“Ontology-based digital twins are a requirement for autonomous building systems, self-assembling data, unified building APIs, and smart city energy networks — filling a huge gap in the market that has until now been largely focused on the retrospective effort of tagging and topology semantics, or creating BIM-like digital twin middleware,” Troy Harvey, CEO of Passive Logic, wrote in an article on the Quantum digital twin standard.  

“Buildings are the largest controlled infrastructure in the world economy, yet our automation systems are still not equipped with the full picture of what they are supposed to control,” he continued. “Digital Twins can address this gap by providing the automation platform with a complete picture of the system that can self-introspect and solve for the ideal optimization control path in real-time.”

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