Digital Building Passports: The future of structures?

A UK government-backed commission has recommended that digital building passports be implemented to provide a permanent digital record of the construction and maintenance of structures in the country. Luke Christou explores how this would work, what benefits it will bring and what barriers the proposal faces

More than 170,000 new homes were built in the United Kingdom between June 2018 to June 2019 – the highest number built over a 12 month period in the last 11 years.

Despite that, 63% of UK adults continue to cite a lack of quality housing as a serious concern. According to the HomeOwners Survey, carried out by YouGov on behalf of the HomeOwners Alliance, BLP Insurance and architects, concerns over housing quality is the UK’s fastest growing housing issue, having climbed by 6% since 2018. That puts it ahead of concerns over affordable housing and the much-criticised leasehold system.

In November 2018, the UK launched the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBBC), an independent body tasked with advising the government on how to encourage high-quality building design for new build homes and neighbourhoods.

The commission published its final report, “Living with beauty; promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth”, in January. The report details plans for a new development and planning framework that will “ask for beauty”, “refuse ugliness”, and “promote stewardship”.

The commission believes technology can play a leading role in improving the UK’s planning process. Digitising and, when possible, automating data entry and processing can help to speed up the planning review process, freeing up time and resources for planning teams.

Likewise, increasing the use of digital technology would provide better visualisation of a project before it is approved, and allow increased engagement with the community. In turn, this would help to ensure that new buildings fit the landscape and meet the needs and expectations of the public.

“We are at present only scraping the surface of what should be possible,” the report states. “New technologies such as augmented reality, online surveys and visual comparisons can support hugely improved engagement with a much wider cross-section of the community, earlier in the process and with a more confident and truer understanding of popular needs and preferences.”

Introducing digital building passports

Among the key developments proposed by the commission was the implementation of “digital building passports” in order to encourage the production, collection, and maintenance of digitised records for each building.

The BBBBC’s proposal follows a recommendation made by the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (Hackitt Review) following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which exterior cladding that did not comply with building regulations contributed to the deaths of 72 residents after a fire broke out in the residential block.

The review proposed that responsibility to create, maintain, and handover information regarding a building’s design, construction, and management would fall on the client, principal designs, and principal contractors involved in its development.

Rather than a single dataset, the digital building passport, a commission spokesperson confirmed, would be a “golden thread” that “links multiple different datasets about the building throughout its lifecycle”.

“ In being able to compare assumptions versus outcomes, as the digital passport proposes to do, future projects can benefit from more precise, data-driven decisions in the planning process. 

According to the BBBBC, the digitisation of information should begin in the early planning stages, starting with single lines representing the boundary of the planning application. This information will grow throughout the planning stage as the building’s targets and requirements take shape, and will be used to create a Building Information Model (BIM) during the construction phase. By ensuring building data is collected and stored, it would prove easier to evaluate the impact that a building has over time.

“Building passports would allow us to link new and existing datasets on the performance of buildings and attempt to develop better metrics to understand their impact,” the commission explained. “They would also allow us to link performance data to planning data, so that we can validate our assumptions and better monitor the performance of our planning policies.”

Currently, the commission says, collected data is often discarded once it has served its primary purpose. With the introduction of digital building passports, valuable data will be maintained for “decades into the future”, creating long-term value.

“Digital passports are an intriguing proposal,” James Dean, Co-founder and CEO of geospatial technology startup Sensat says. “Not only will they generate value on projects in the short term as teams have greater visibility over the work and ability to collaborate, but long term value will be found too. In being able to compare assumptions versus outcomes, as the digital passport proposes to do, future projects can benefit from more precise, data-driven decisions in the planning process.”

Building digital twins for Britain’s buildings

The proposal envisions the data collected being used to create “digital twins” - a realistic digital representation of something physical - for each building. Powered by data collected through Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors within the building, digital twins update in real-time to accurately represent their physical counterpart.

“At present, they can derive data from a broad array of devices and sensors to provide comprehensive insights on everything from temperature, to foot-traffic, to which machines are in need of maintenance that empower decision making in infrastructure,” Dean explains.

Implementing digital twin technology could help to achieve many of the goals set out by the BBBBC. Local residents would be able to see how a proposed development would impact the view from their property during the planning stage, for example, or how it is likely to impact traffic and footfall in the area. Likewise, it would also encourage long-term stewardship by reducing the time and cost of continued efficiency monitoring, which would ensure that the development continues to benefit residents and the wider community.

“ The digital twin can be used to test new ideas or model scenarios without interrupting the actual physical asset and its users. 

“The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report proposes several ideas in line with the promise of digital twins: creating a predictable level playing field, incentivising responsibility to the future and promoting a wider understanding of placemaking,” Dean says. “These are areas directly addressed by digital twins, which provide greater and more efficient access to data, giving businesses access to the information necessary to make these considerations more widely available.”

“The digital twin can be used to test new ideas or model scenarios without interrupting the actual physical asset and its users. Successful results can then be implemented to help assets run more efficiently, saving time, money and disruption,” Sarah Rock, construction lawyer at Gowling WLG and member of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), adds.

Infrastructure firms can interact with a virtual copy of their developments through Sensat’s Mapp software. | Image courtesy of Sensat.

Sensat’s digital twin software uses data collected on-site to create digital copies of real world places. | Image courtesy of Sensat.

Barriers to adoption

According to Sensat, 40% of infrastructure firms that fail to embrace digitisation are likely to go out of business within the next decade. However, digital transformation is no easy task, and implementing the digital building passports proposal, or digital technologies more generally, would undoubtedly present challenges.

“Despite the many advantages of digital twins, there are a number of barriers to adoption of this technology and digital transformation more broadly within construction,” Dean says.

The construction industry is often labelled as a ‘digital laggard’, with 54% admitting that the industry has been slow to adopt digital technologies in a recent survey of more than 200 industry decision-makers.

Sensat’s research found that budget (38%) and lack of staff (38%) are the two biggest issues inhibiting the adoption of new technologies in the industry. According to Dean, the infrastructure industry needs an “attitudinal shift” in how it responds to technology. The digital building passports proposal, which would push those involved in the planning and construction processes to produce, collect, and maintain digitised records, could help to encourage this change in attitude.

“ Despite the many advantages of digital twins, there are a number of barriers to adoption of this technology and digital transformation more broadly within construction. 

The changes proposed by the BBBBC will likely cost those involved, but it would help to promote health, well-being and sustainable growth, as well as provide business benefits such as improved worker safety, increased development and maintenance efficiency, and reduced costs.

“For building developers or owners, there may be initial increases in cost or time as they adjust to digitising their processes,” Dean explains. “As we know, construction is a digitally laggard industry and new technologies are slow to see adoption, yet the amount of value they will provide to businesses is unprecedented.”