Smart Cities

Can Digital Twins Offer Long-Term Solutions to a Building Safety Crisis?

On June 14th 2017, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential block in northwest London, and claimed the lives of 72 people. The subsequent inquiry found fundamental failings at every stage of the building safety process, from construction, to regulation, inspection, and emergency response. In reaction, the UK government launched a review of hundreds of buildings across the country and have already found the same or similar problems in many modern buildings. The owners of units within the affected buildings face huge financial hardship and while blame is spread widely, the construction industry is firmly in the spotlight.  “In the analysis that we've done, about 90% of modern buildings contain combustible elements in the facade, and about 60% of those fail The Cladding External Wall System 1 (EWS1) with a B2 grade,” Matt Hodges-Long, Founder of the Buildings Safety Register, told the BBC. “So that's thousands of buildings across the UK, we haven't […]

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On June 14th 2017, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential block in northwest London, and claimed the lives of 72 people. The subsequent inquiry found fundamental failings at every stage of the building safety process, from construction, to regulation, inspection, and emergency response. In reaction, the UK government launched a review of hundreds of buildings across the country and have already found the same or similar problems in many modern buildings. The owners of units within the affected buildings face huge financial hardship and while blame is spread widely, the construction industry is firmly in the spotlight. 

“In the analysis that we've done, about 90% of modern buildings contain combustible elements in the facade, and about 60% of those fail The Cladding External Wall System 1 (EWS1) with a B2 grade,” Matt Hodges-Long, Founder of the Buildings Safety Register, told the BBC. “So that's thousands of buildings across the UK, we haven't got a full number for it but it’s multiple thousands of buildings. There are around 80,000 medium rise blocks in the UK, if one in five were affected, you might have 20,000 unsafe buildings in that medium rise category, and then you would be talking about the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.”

Those many leaseholders within affected buildings saw the value of their property drop to zero after the results of the inspection, while their insurance costs grew up to tenfold overnight. Many of the millions of people affected could be forced into bankruptcy unless bailed out by government or compensated by industry, but neither appears to be taking responsibility. The inquiry demonstrated that the construction industry cut corners to the point of breaking regulations and putting people’s lives at risk, but it is the government's role to enforce those regulations and protect its citizens. The staggering results of ongoing inspections now threaten to ruin millions of people’s lives and create an economic crisis in already challenging times.

“Still people who don't yet know if they have a problem where they live, but they will when their buildings are checked —legally responsible as lease holders, even though technically they don't own a brick. The question you must be asking yourself is how could it be that so many modern buildings could have been constructed so poorly?,” asks Lewis Goodall, policy editor at the BBC. “The answer lies both in systemic failure in the construction industry, but also on behalf of successive governments who have pursued a policy of deregulation, both of the construction industry itself, but also of the building inspection regime since the 1980s.”

In January 2021, in the extended wake of the Grenfell inquiry, the British government released its new Building Safety Bill but it did not take long for property owners to label the policy “a complete mess”. One of the headline policies is to extend the period in which homeowners can claim compensation from developers for sub-standard construction work from six years to 15 years. While that initially sounds positive, research by the UK Cladding Action Group shows that 72% of affected buildings are ineligible as they were built more than 15 years ago. Furthermore, the Bill focused primarily on cladding, the headline issue of the Grenfell tower fire, but the subsequent inspections have uncovered many more widespread issues, such as flammable insulation, timber balconies, and missing fire cavity barriers, among others.

The reality is that successive governments have given the industry too much power to figure out safety measures for themselves. In an industry that is driven by cost saving, this has inevitably led to a race to the bottom in terms of quality, for all parts of the construction process and in companies across the sector. Knowing this, successive governments’ actions have deliberately encouraged developers to find the cheapest possible solution to every problem and when it comes to safety, that means risk. Now, Boris Johnson’s government has failed to secure private compensation for the majority of affected homeowners and also fallen well short of the scale of the problem with their £5 billion solution.

“We deserve better from the Conservative government, who know that the problem is worth far more than £5 billion. And, it knows that it's trying to pass the buck on to the people who are in no way responsible for it,” says Liam Spender of the UK Cladding Action Group. “Is it doing that to protect the people who donate money to the Conservative Party? Is it doing it because of incompetence? Is it doing it because it doesn't care? We don't know. We need to find out. We need to come up with a solution.”

Those are all very serious allegations to explain the massive failings in what is becoming a major construction scandal for the UK, but this issue is not limited to the British Isles. The tragic building collapse in Surfside, Miami, this summer was found to have ignored recommendations of a 2018 inspection that warned of “structural concrete damage” and triggered a rethink of state building codes. After a spate of fires in high-rise buildings in Dubai, UAE, scrutiny has been focused on the materials used for external cladding, like in the UK. And, a recent apartment block fire in Milan, "closely recalled Grenfell Tower" according to local officials.

"The causes of the fire are still being investigated. What became clear from the beginning, though, is that the exterior coating of the building went up in flames all too quickly, in a dynamic that closely recalled the Grenfell Tower fire in London a few years ago,” Milan mayor Beppe Sala said in a post on Facebook. “The Torre del Moro was built a little over 10 years ago and it's not acceptable that such a modern building proved completely vulnerable.”

The incidents in London, Miami, Dubai, and Milan are just the tip of the iceberg in a much bigger global building safety problem being revealed by reactive inspections in affected regions. The source of the problem lies somewhere between irresponsible construction industries and negligent governments that will never have the resources to inspect every building. While a full review of regulations and their enforcement is essential, the best solutions may come from the emerging smart buildings industry. Existing technology can ensure safety in the design phase, drive that design data into the construction phase, and bring about real-time automated monitoring of all building safety features throughout the building lifecycle, if used properly.

Building Information Modelling (BIM), is a widely accepted process for the design and construction of buildings allowing real estate developers to boost productivity and quality in construction. BIM can create a Digital Twin of a building using real-time and static data to monitor the safety and performance status of every element of the structure, as long as it is accurate and up-to-date. However, “it's very easy for a building to be built in a way that wasn't specified,” say Hodges-Long, referring to construction companies going off-plan to save costs without telling anyone. Proper enforcement of BIM design implementation in construction projects would improve safety issue identification and accountability throughout the lifecycle of a building.

“Buildings are comprised of multiple layers of materials and components, each with its own lifecycle of maintenance, decay, and replacement. Time horizons for future-proof interventions will depend on the expected serviceable life of the building but can vary from months for rapidly developing new technologies, to decades for major structural works,” explains our Future Proof Buildings report. “Using technology to understand expected component lifecycles and attempting to align their refurbishment can help designers and building owners to plan more effectively, optimize building performance, reduce cost, and improve building safety.”

The emergence of BIM may have come too late to save many property owners from this growing construction scandal but by using BIM to mandate digital twins in new and existing buildings we create a sustainable long-term solution to a wide range of safety issues. While in the short term, smart tech also offers safety monitoring infrastructure, such as the new IoT and blockchain-based Safety Check-up Platform for Risky Structures in Seoul, South Korea. Today, regulatory reviews, legal reform, and fair compensation are all vital aspects of any solution to this crisis, but digital twins fed by smart building data offer a solution to avoid a range of future safety issues, as well as bringing hugely valuable efficiency and performance benefits. 

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