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September 3, 2020

The 65-story skyscraper at 311 South Wacker Drive in Chicago boasts magnificent views of the Chicago River, Grant Park and even Lake Michigan. However, for the owners, visibility of the building’s inner workings was more important, and more difficult to access. To help, Zeller Realty employed a technology that exposes potential problems in the building’s HVAC systems — technology that has become exponentially more valuable during the time of COVID-19, and is often used in digital twins.

The digital twin market — the phrase used to describe a virtual copy of a physical building, combining a 3-D model of a facility with the dynamic data needed to show visualizations and analysis — is growing at hyperspeed. And real estate is one industry that has used it to uncover value during the coronavirus pandemic.

Originally developed for the aerospace industry in the 1960s, digital twins are expanding their footprint across industries due to improved Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, modeling and other technologies. The industry is projected to be worth US$35.8 billion in 2025, compared to $3.8 billion in 2019, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. The team at MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab says the benefits of digital twins for the commercial real estate industry are many, including management of building occupancy, increased budget reliability and faster delivery in the construction realm.

According to Jim Whittaker, Engineering Services Lead at JLL, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating adoption, particularly in the built environment, where it’s now critical for building owners to rethink how their properties are used and managed.

“Objective and credible data has always been needed to make decisions on property portfolios and inform investment decisions,” he explains. “But, agile, scalable, and dynamic workplaces are needed now more than ever. Digital twins support these requirements by providing the data and visualizations needed to make more rapid and flexible decisions.”

Monitoring during vacancy
Following months of lockdowns, many organizations are still maintaining a remote work mandate for employees with uncertainty around the return to the office.

With so much vacant space, digital twins are helping owners keep tabs on their buildings, using data from newly implemented technologies.

“We have installed IoT sensors, gateways and remote monitoring software applications to reduce the need for on-site staff or truck rolls at sites that have been mothballed or where staffing has been highly reduced,” Whittaker says.

One such application is JLL’s IntelliCommand, a commissioning platform that helps proactively identify problems and anomalies that often go undetected in buildings. Since introducing IntelliCommand a few years ago, Zeller Realty’s 311 South Wacker has seen a 24 percent drop in electricity costs and 20 percent reduction in requests to raise or lower temperatures.

Supporting safe re-entry
As organizations begin to plan their return to shared workspaces, their top priority is employee safety in line with changed spatial regulation. This includes modifying or adjusting seats, furniture and workstations where possible to maintain social distancing of six feet between employees.

Digital twins play a key role in supporting the technologies needed to ensure employees are maintaining these regulations.

According to Whittaker, one of the most pronounced impacts digital twins have had is in supporting social distancing software applications and analytics. Virtual employee and occupant traffic pattern analyses help evaluate workflow patterns and adjust workplace designs and protocol to better manage social distancing.

One such application is VergeSense, a JLL Spark-backed space utilization and occupancy planning tool that provides data-based insights to help efficiently manage the real estate footprint. Now, during COVID-19, its sensor technology can provide maximum utilization rates, smart cleaning reports and social distancing scores.

“VergeSense can detect two people sitting close together. And while we’d probably configure the solution to set off a workflow and notification direct from the VergeSense application, it’s absolutely possible that it could also trigger the system to notify the digital twin,” says Dusty Duistermars, Global Product Manager, WPM Product Innovation at JLL.

With concerns over HVAC systems potentially spreading infected droplets far and wide, digital twins are providing support where physical distancing might not always guarantee employee safety.

“Digital twins have also been used to support the improvement of indoor air quality in facilities by operating HVAC systems with an eye to occupancy patterns,” Whittaker states. “Using real-time data, digital twins help introduce adequate levels of fresh outside air and minimize recirculation.”

IoT sensor-based technologies and processes aren’t new. But their convergence to power digital twins in the built environment is a fairly recent development. The pandemic truly has highlighted the importance of digital twins to go beyond reliability, productivity and human experience — to create an interrelated, enhanced-resilience perspective.

Click to read more about how landlords are racing to improve air quality in buildings.

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Jim Whittaker

Engineering Services Lead at JLL, United States

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