While digitizing design is decades from new, using a comprehensive digital twin that simulates and monitors building systems in real time is an emerging—and potentially reliable—way for architects to deliver on sustainability goals. By using digital twins, designers can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings by up to 50% and reap cost savings of up to 35%, according to an Ernst and Young study.

“Design firms are really starting to utilize the idea of a digital twin,” says Brent Trenga, director of sustainability for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. “They're starting to see the value-add down the road. Construction industries are served by cost and profit, and it's once you make the connection that there's a profit to be gained and a cost savings of time and money—in terms of construction management, change orders, and conflicts—that's when the tools get adopted.”

There are different levels of digital twins.

With roots reaching back into the 1960s NASA space program, when ground-level systems simulated and assessed conditions on the unsuccessful Apollo 13 mission, the use of digital twins have evolved into a best practices mode for many fields to improve systems while saving time and money. As a tool for smart city infrastructure planning, wastewater management, human organ research, cosmetic testing, supply chain management, and architecture, the global digital twin market is expected to grow at about 60% annually to reach about $73.5 billion by 2027 with more than half of global software decision-makers using them from design through maintenance.

“There's different levels of digital twins,” explains Sandra Del Bove, head of innovation at Kingspan Group and IKON Innovation Centre, which aims to find innovative solutions for sustainability, performance, and efficiency in construction. “Effectively, Level 1 has a lot of sensors in the building and it monitors. And then at Level 5, the building automates processes, and you don't need a building manager anymore because the building does that for you.”

Digital twins are dynamic decision-making tools.

By simultaneously simulating and monitoring building systems and materials, climate, and operation, a digital twin leverages existing data while using sensors to gather lifecycle inputs and explore potential scenarios, simplifying real-world decisions about building systems and maintenance. And the results can range from small decisions like raising and lowering window shades to adjust for heat gain and unblocking toilets to larger issues like efficient urban planning, where the use of digital twins is expected to save $280 billion by 2030.

Essentially, an architectural digital twin is a living archive of a building that offers the key aspects of visualization, forecasting, and diagnostics that support designers in making informed decisions about the ever-changing landscape of sustainable building products and environmental effects.

“When we built IKON, we said 'this should be not just a building, but we should actually show how a building today can be built with the most advanced materials, but also in terms of digitalization and what's possible today’,” Del Bove says. For example, IKON is among the first digital operating twins that use the Invicara Twinit.io platform with sensor integrations and building system outputs that reveal how low-carbon and low-energy buildings of the future can be managed.

Reliable digital twins depend upon consistent and widespread standardization.

However, creating a nimble and reliable digital twin system among AEC firms requires consistent dynamic data inputs, widespread adoption, and standardization. But these traits are far from realized.

Data needs to be dynamic.

Digitization depends upon data that’s consistent, timely, and in a usable format. While there is more detailed data collected and reported these days, it’s often static. A data sheet about a building product that’s in a PDF might be better than no data, but often data and EPDs are based on averages among a maker’s product line or created with industry averages. The information can be out of date quickly.

“If you think of artificial intelligence, and if you think of digital buildings and digital designs, everything comes back to having the data and in a format that our customers can use. We at Kingspan were working towards our data being connected, and we're trying to help other players do the same,” says Del Bove, who also has a creative solution for ensuring accurate product data: “Imagine you can scan a product, and it tells you exactly what the carbon is that was used for this specific product.”

Lagging adoption curve must accelerate.

As more designers use digitization tools like digital twins, the demand for increased data and innovative will push the adoption curve could make it easier to gain insight and achieve sustainability goals.

“Kingspan is a small part of the entire component of information that needs to make a digital twin viable,” Trenga says. “You've got industry leaders that are pushing this down the road faster and like anything, there's going to be an adoption curve. The rest of the industry is going to come along and then there's going to be a lagging group behind who’ve missed the opportunity and got to play catch up.”

Standardization is essential.

Even though it seems like there should be a standardizing authority for how digital twins are created and how data is collected, reported, and shared, so that it’s easy for AEC firms to develop and communicate through digital designs, there isn’t. Companies who need to collaborate on projects are developing their own standards, and integrating them can be incredibly difficult.

“It's something that keeps us awake at night at IKON to come up with some solutions around it,” Trenga says, “but I think that digitization is going to be big when we talk about sustainability and understanding what drives sustainability in a building as we see it today.”

Learn more about creating IKON and creating digital twin buildings with BIM technology at Kingspan.com.