Smart Retrofitting

Nathan Doughty, CEO of Asite, talks us through the company's recent report on decarbonizing the built environment

The awakening of our society to the need to take action on climate change has been the driving force behind the multitude of global initiatives and agreements focused on decarbonisation. Buildings account for the largest share (39%) of global energy-related carbon emissions. So with 80% of the homes that people will inhabit in 2050 already built and up to 75% of today's buildings expected to still be in use in 2050, our priority must be the retrofitting of existing buildings, both residential and commercial, at scale to meet energy-saving targets.

In its latest report, Asite explores the technologies that can expedite the retrofitting of residential and commercial buildings and, therefore, mitigate carbon emissions. The report, 'Smart Retrofitting: The Key to Decarbonizing the Built Environment', provides insight into the burgeoning role of digital twins in the industry's journey to net zero and examines how digital engineering will help us achieve a resilient and sustainable built environment.

The AEC sector, alongside asset managers, software providers and manufacturers, is key in advancing our net zero carbon goals. Within engineering and construction, digital engineering and the tools and processes that it encompasses could bolster our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and overcome existing obstacles. Moreover, these technologies allow for greater network interconnectedness among regions, which is imperative to a global approach.

Asite's report focuses on a number of key transformative technologies, which can overcome barriers and address some of the key areas preventing the sector from realizing its decarbonization goals.

A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems to bring clear environmental, social, and economic benefits. These principles, which enable a restorative and regenerative built environment, also drive retrofitting programs.

The EU-funded BAMB (Buildings as Material Banks) project works to enable the shift to a circular building sector by championing the repair, reuse, and recovery of building materials and components. The BAMB Circular Building Assessment (CBA) is a methodology that compares and assesses product and material resource flow during the lifetime of a built asset and beyond. BAMB CBA also includes extending the life of buildings through increased adaptability and flexibility.

The method is being developed into a prototype BIM-compatible software product that can access data from BIM/CAD models combined with BAMB-generated datasets, and other external or user-supplied data, to provide an assessment of reuse potential, transformation capacity, resource productivity, and energy performance.

To establish long-term circularity in the built environment, we need quality, open ingredient data on what materials are in a building. Material passports are qualitative and quantitative documentation of the material composition of a building, showing their recycling potential and environmental impact. Creating value through recovery and reuse is a key part of the retrofit process, and this requires that information is easily accessible - material passports offer an effective tracking mechanism.

To support this, computational technologies, such as BIM and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), allow for the modeling and analysis of building stock, in terms of material composition, and the creation of a public material register. BIM-based material passports can support the optimisation of the retrofitting process. BIM offers a knowledge base for geometry and material properties and coupling to further databases to assess eco-indicators and recycling potentials.

As it stands, existing power grids are insufficient when it comes to energy efficiency, reliability, security, or the integration of renewable energy to meet our net zero goals. With little change over the last decade, the deployment of low-carbon technologies will result in less predictable electricity production, changing load patterns, and a need to enable electricity flow in both directions. Therefore, new flexible ways of balancing supply and consumption are required.

Smart grids help optimise energy use. They are fitted with information and communications technologies (ICTs), including sensors, in-home smart meters, and automation systems, to the electricity network to enable real-time, two-way communication between suppliers and consumers. This creates a more dynamic interaction on energy flow, which will help deliver electricity more efficiently and sustainably. Here, connected buildings become both receivers and energy distributors, enabling end-user energy management.

Connecting the existing building stock to integrated infrastructure, supported by intelligent technology, has a key role to play in handling rapid urbanisation, reducing our environmental impact, and "future-proofing" our societies beyond our 2050 targets.

Smart buildings use a range of technologies, such as sensors and actuators, to gather activity data on elements within a building that can then be analysed and measured to produce useable insights to automate various processes, such as HVAC systems. Critically, these systems and devices are connected and "talk" to each other as well as a central system to make the building more efficient, reducing its environmental impact. The collection of status, automation, and actionable data means that issues are quickly detected and addressed.

Cloud computing alongside affordable Internet of Things (IoT) technology has made building-automation systems economically viable for a wider range of organisations, thus overcoming many of the financial barriers associated with retrofitting older buildings. Furthermore, every building type and nearly all historic buildings can benefit from smart systems and management platforms.

While the technologies mentioned above can transform individual processes and help the retrofitting process, using them together can have a more significant positive impact on a built asset. As a holistic monitoring resource for tracking an asset in real-time, digital twins offer the most comprehensive means of retrofitting at scale.

A digital twin is a digital representation of an asset, process, or system. Supported by a constant stream of real-time operational data provided by IoT technologies, digital twins use AI, analytical software, and cloud infrastructure to transform data into actionable insights in the form of perception, prediction, recommendations, and simulation.

A calibrated model can be created through the interrogation of data from the built asset, which is used to determine the appropriate inputs for a simulation model that, in turn, is compared to measured sensor and meter data. This calibrated model then becomes a digital asset. Simply put, digital twins help visualise the invisible.

In the case of retrofitting, digital twins enable the retrospective analysis of existing structures, including the ability to identify inefficiencies, track usage, enable predictive maintenance, visualise how humans interact with a space, and simulate future building conditions, ultimately helping to optimise decision-making.

These abilities provide an understanding of real-world conditions, which supports the long-term sustainability of an asset and offers continued purpose and value to the built environment, even beyond the attainment of global 2050 goals.

Amalgamating technologies, a digital twin brings together resources and information on a shared platform, providing a single source of truth for the asset it virtually replicates. This approach utilises a variety of technologies allowing us to not only achieve our goals but future-proof our buildings beyond 2050 decarbonisation targets.

To extract value from the technologies and resources currently available and create a built environment underpinned by resilience and sustainability, the industry needs to operate in a holistic manner with regard to operating and maintaining existing buildings. Expanding our technical infrastructure to enable data connectivity and a bidirectional flow of information will be necessary to connect real-world assets to digital twins via IoT, sensors, and real-time data.

To learn more about how value can be extracted from technologies to support the delivery of retrofits at scale and help the construction industry meet its decarbonisation goals, read Asite's latest report Smart Retrofitting: The Key to Decarbonizing the Built Environment, which is available as a free pdf on their website.