How digital innovation supports sustainable building portfolios

Digital twin technology can play a key role in decarbonising built assets, helping companies meet net-zero targets and drive down rising energy costs

Decarbonisation is now a priority, not only in construction, but across the entire design-build-operate lifecycle of real estate assets. Developers and property portfolio holders are looking to reduce their carbon footprints to achieve net-zero goals and reduce operational costs, as they grapple to mitigate the climate impact of their buildings and deal with energy price shocks.

Many organisations have committed to sustainability pledges including Race to Zero and SBTi, says Sadaf Askari, sustainability partner manager at IES, but most still have some way to go in defining and implementing decarbonisation strategies. “With buildings accounting for almost 40% of global emissions, companies and portfolio holders need to make decarbonisation investment decisions based on data they can trust,” she adds.

What they may not know is that technology – referred to as ‘digital twins’ – can provide just that. By enabling the creation of real-time digital counterparts of buildings and portfolios, companies can analyse their carbon output and find ways to reduce it.

Digital twins allow companies to make sense of their data, predict a diverse range of scenarios and ensure they are on track to reach their decarbonisation goals

IES, which develops digital twin technology to reduce the environmental impact of buildings and cities, sees several ways the technology can support decarbonisation; helping inform net-zero investments, divest from fossil fuels, mitigate rising energy prices, and even optimise conditions for building occupants.

IES’ ICL digital twin suite has helped companies simulate entire building portfolios to monitor operational performance in real-time, understand the impact of net-zero investments and identify inefficiencies and improvements. This can help inform decarbonisation roadmaps, showing what actions are needed to meet client targets or by identifying shortfalls in existing plans. “Our digital twin is a model of the actual building representing its performance at any point in time,” says Askari. “We use data and physics powered simulations to understand a diverse range of scenarios and support decision-making.”

As countries seek to cut reliance on Russian gas and the need to divest from fossil fuels gathers pace, many are also turning to digital twins to identify alternative energy solutions. “The technology can be used to simulate whole energy systems and assess how groups of buildings integrate with heating and cooling networks, renewables, EV charging stations and demand optimisation solutions,” says Askari. “We can identify ways to reduce reliance on the grid, share energy locally and increase the capacity of renewable energy generation and storage to improve resilience.”

That’s without even mentioning the ability to support the regulatory minefield that is ESG. Like many sectors, real estate owners are facing pressure to bolster their ESG credentials, with 60% – according to Deloitte’s 2022 ‘Commercial Real Estate Outlook’ – believing ESG initiatives bring new opportunities and give them a competitive edge. “This is another area where digital twins can help,” says Askari. “Portfolio owners can measure and continuously monitor ESG KPIs, identifying improvements via bespoke dashboards. That helps them meet reporting and disclosure requirements, but also minimises potential investment risks.”

Using technology to boost your buildings’ environmental credentials can raise their value and lower associated climate risks, but the business benefits extend to occupants too. Research suggests better indoor air quality can lead to productivity improvements of 8-11%. In organisations where 90% of typical overheads are spent on employees, minor improvements in productivity can substantially impact turnover and profit. Portfolio owners can balance energy use with occupant needs, using their digital twin to monitor and improve air quality, comfort and ventilation. “The wellbeing of occupants remains a top priority of building management. You can’t reduce energy use to the level that occupants are unhappy,” adds Askari.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to decarbonisation. However, the power of digital twins for real estate lies in their ability to handle complex and dynamic building portfolios, analysing data and producing highly accurate simulations to inform business decisions. “To have a real-time understanding of your portfolio you need to accumulate multiple sources of data in one place,” says Askari. “Our digital twins allow companies to make sense of that data, predict a diverse range of scenarios and ensure they are on track to reach their decarbonisation goals.”

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