Asset management: dealing with uncertainty

How well do you know your asset?

21 March 2016

George Mokhtar argues that a steady flow of consistent, rich and accurate data can help organisations deal with uncertainty and better understand client needs

Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this is predicted to jump to 66% by 2050. Cities will become more densely populated and technology will radically change the way people live and work. The need to create an adaptable asset becomes even more pressing when the likelihood of extreme weather events and rising temperatures is considered.

Designing a highly adaptable structure is one way of hedging against the unknown, but it may not be necessary for all scenarios. An alternative and potentially less costly approach is to focus on gathering relevant data and engaging stakeholders as early as possible. The guiding principle is to track every element and how the occupants behave. Detailed, consistent data leads to greater knowledge, the bedrock on which confident decisions can be made in later decades.

Much of this knowledge can be embedded in one shared digital model, created and developed by the asset’s builders and designers, and then handed over to the client on completion.

Knowing every element of your building or asset, and how it was constructed, could shave months off remediation work or retrofitting in future years.

At its simplest, building information modelling (BIM) creates an exact 3D digital design of the physical asset. More sophisticated models also contain hosted and relational information on every object inside. They archive everything from materials to appliance installation instructions and maintenance logs.

The most obvious benefit of digital models is that they aid efficient operation through the life cycle of an asset: employees are able to locate hidden pipes and power networks, know whether ceiling fans are under warranty and even understand how to dismantle sections at the decommissioning stage. A well-populated model can also be a powerful tool for forecasting operational costs, predicting spending peaks and troughs in planned maintenance and replacement schedules.

Knowing every element of your building or asset, and how it was constructed, could shave months off remediation work or retrofitting in future years. Imagine that an adhesive commonly used in building materials is suddenly discovered to be dangerous to human health. A model could not only identify the location of every element containing the toxic matter, it would also show how it was installed and which materials surround it. Contrast that with the complex, expensive and time-consuming surveys that must be carried out when searching for asbestos in older buildings today.

The people factor

As the above example illustrates, BIM offers some tangible benefits for managing assets in the short and medium term. But when combined with other technologies, it can offer far more exciting possibilities, enabling objective decision-making.

Social data, gathered from sensors or mobile phone apps (see How social data can transform assets, below), can radically shift the perceptions of how people interact with assets. For example, a university recently decided to build an extension to cater better for its growing student population. This was based on the assumption that the seminar rooms were constantly full, as the timetabling system indicated.

To test this, carbon dioxide sensors were installed in every room. It quickly became apparent that many venues were booked but regularly left empty. As a result, the university could review its booking system and avoid a costly building project.

Thanks to advances in technology and cloud computing, the cost of embedding such sensors into building and asset management systems is much lower than it was 10 years ago.

Owners have the opportunity to measure everything from temperature and humidity to motion and flow of people. Sensors will become an increasingly powerful means for tracking how an asset is being used in real time: identifying common areas of wear and tear; supporting planned and even predictive maintenance; and providing true insight into capital investment planning, optimisation and portfolio management.

Sensors built into supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems can monitor and control everything from power stations to pumping in water treatment plants. They can be installed in major infrastructure assets such as tunnels to monitor ground settlement.

But they are also increasingly helping asset managers to manage the expectations of the general public: a simple example is the digitised information that tells passengers when the next train or bus will arrive.

Right first time

When considering how to futureproof an asset, it is critical to ensure that all parties are comfortable with the design in the early stages. All too often, occupants do not get to see a facility until the project is far too advanced or even completed. The later that changes are made to a project, the higher the subsequent cost in time and money.

The challenge is how, ahead of completion, to help staff, customers and end users visualise how they will interact with the asset. Hotel and retail chains often construct physical models to test the design, finishes or layout of a room, substantially adding to costs and significantly extending the project timeline.

The principle is to build modules that can be dismantled and moved about within the outer shell of the building.

Although physical mock-ups are unlikely to be replaced entirely, BIM provides interesting alternatives: with a data-rich 3D model, stakeholders can experience virtual interiors or enter computer-augmented virtual environments (CAVEs).

As well as facilitating feedback during early design stages, these tools are useful for staff training and helping occupants familiarise themselves with the facilities before they open. BIM will play an increasingly important role for smooth handovers, sometimes referred to as ‘soft landings’.

BIM can also safeguard a facility against possible health and safety breaches. For example, digital modelling on a recent hospital project predicted that the airflows would be ineffective in the new operating theatres, with a risk that air could stagnate around open wounds, leaving patients vulnerable to infection. Altering the position of air vents during the design stage avoided costly delays in the construction and fit-out phases.

Conceiving a building that can successfully adapt to future needs remains a major challenge, but BIM can help to speed up decisions: certain elements of the design could be fixed in the digital model, leaving interchangeable sections that could be moved around and tested against different scenarios. This could also be carried out when anticipating future expansion strategies or kept as a record to inform a future design team, acting as an executive or pre-emptive design exemplar.

Going one step further, some forward-looking firms are now creating physical structures that can be almost as easily remodelled – or ‘hacked’ – as the virtual ones. The principle is to build modules that can be dismantled and moved about within the outer shell of the building. Thus, room sizes can change and new spaces emerge with the minimum of cost or effort. The building becomes a dynamic organism, creating an adaptive environment for an evolving community.

When planning for the long term, all we can be certain of is that the future is unpredictable. The problems that preoccupy us now may be irrelevant in a decade. New obstacles will emerge.

Consistent, rich and accurate data is our greatest tool for dealing with uncertainty. Knowing and understanding your asset, and closely tracking how occupants are using it, is essential preparation for the unseen challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

How social data can transform assets

Developments in cloud computing are making it increasingly easy to link building control systems with data from sensors or electronic devices such as mobile phones. This creates new opportunities for asset owners to engage with customers or occupants, understanding their motivations and behaviour patterns. It can also help to build brand loyalty.

For example, luxury retail and hotel chains record the habits and likes of a frequent user on a central database. So whichever hotel the guest checks into, from Boston to Beijing, the building control system will automatically adjust the room to suit their preferences. On opening a door, their favourite radio station could be playing, and the lights dimmed to the right level. Linking social data with the building’s supervisory control and data acquisition systems creates a tailored ‘home from home’ environment for each guest.

For leisure, retail and residential complexes, the asset owner could get closer to residents and visitors by encouraging them to download an app that can enable them to control the appliances in their homes, report problems and gain access to restricted areas as appropriate.

An app that tracks movement could also provide valuable feedback to the building’s designers. It could identify, for example, that no one in a certain block goes out onto their balconies, or that some corridors are not being used.

Ultimately, social data will play a vital role in creating smart cities, but only once data is truly standardised across municipalities and regions. This is underpinned by intelligence and information model management systems. It all starts with BIM.

George Mokhtar is an associate director at Turner and Townsend

Further information

  • Related competencies include BIM
  • This feature is taken from the RICS Construction journal (February/March 2016)