Realizing the potential of digital twins for building preservation and restoration efforts

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A digital twin is a data-rich, interactive model that replicates its built asset. Leveraging a 3D, BIM (building information model) design, it acts as a common interface—centralizing data for the entire building’s lifecycle. It brings a contextual awareness to asset information that’s valuable to the AEC industry and its clients alike.

In an age when sustainability practices are front of mind for most, this innovative technology doesn’t just offer cost efficiencies, it helps to make your workflows more sustainable too. From construction right through to restoration, a digital twin will deliver data-led insights. These can help reduce the risk of rework, optimize operations, and preserve historic buildings.

Building an understanding of existing assets

For the AIA’s (American Institute of Architects) 2024 Architecture Firm award winner, Quinn Evans, it’s all about eBIM (existing building information modeling) and HBIM (historic building information management).

We revitalize places by listening to the community and applying our technical expertise.”

Rob Fink, Senior Associate and Design Technology Director, Quinn Evans

Founded in 1984, the firm has always been dedicated to sustaining and renewing the built environment. To help them achieve this, they have a strong interdisciplinary team inclusive of architects, preservationists, interior designers, landscape architects, historians, planners, and IT professionals.

Rob Fink, Senior Associate and Design Technology Director, and Charles Thompson, Associate, at Quinn Evans shared their experiences on how they’re using digital twin technology, what value their clients see in it, and why they’re raising awareness of its capabilities across the industry.

Charles explained, “In the handover of BIM there can be significant data loss. Especially when the dynamic 3D models get translated into static 2D drawings. Now with digital twins, especially for models that we have to make with higher LODs (level of development), there’s a real craft to how we’re creating and authoring these models. It’s more reminiscent of how the buildings got put together. You have to think about joints and masonry and implementing that into a digital realm. By doing this, you get a better sense of how the building can physically perform. Being able to track it digitally helps us understand how it works physically.”

Being able to track it digitally helps us understand how it works physically.”

Charles Thompson, Associate, Quinn Evans

Recording every data point

Many existing and historic buildings don’t have all the proper as-built documentation. Digital documentation is even less likely. This can make Quinn Evans’ work more complex.

On their 40-year journey to date, the Quinn Evans team has explored various solutions for how to effectively document the history of properties to better support successful restoration and preservation efforts. For Rob, Charles, and the team, 2014 was a significant year. This is when they first developed an HBIM system.

To create accurate documentation of their facilities, they would go through a ‘scan-to-BIM’ process. Using photogrammetry and terrestrial LiDAR, they’d visit sites to capture the measurements of the built asset and create point clouds (a mass grouping of data with XYZ coordinates of surfaces). These would then be registered in Autodesk Recap and modelled in Autodesk Revit.

From this, they then tried to organize the model as the framework for a database—in a web-based platform. While this was a breakthrough moment—offering added value to their clients—it was also a very long-winded process. As such, when digital twin software solution Autodesk Tandem came along, this was quickly and eagerly adopted.

Offering a fast and repeatable process for building accurate digital replicas, it soon upgraded their workflow. As Charles said, “We really think of the digital twin as the evolution of what we had started with. It’s made the process much smoother and much more readily accessible, using out-of-the-box tools.” He added, “it incorporates more elements too—like the integration of MEP systems—giving us a more holistic view of the asset.”

It’s made the process much smoother and much more readily accessible, using out-of-the-box tools. It incorporates more elements too—like the integration of MEP systems—giving us a more holistic view of the asset.

Charles Thompson, Associate, Quinn Evans

Since Rob and Charles had already implemented a scan-to-BIM workflow, it was simple to add digital twins to this process. What’s more, as Tandem ingests Revit models and seamlessly integrates with ACC (Autodesk Construction Cloud), adopting this technology has evolved and streamlined Quinn Evans’ workflow. It’s also made it easy for their clients to access their facilities’ information—without the need for technical BIM expertise.

The exterior of the Michigan State Capitol digital twin in Autodesk Tandem.

Inside the Michigan State Capitols digital twin.

Accurately documenting the past for future gains

The background knowledge required to effectively and authentically restore a building or asset of cultural significance is substantial. Digital twins, in addition to offering core data like what an asset is and how it’s performed over a certain time period, can also offer invaluable information for preservationists and historians.

For instance, from understanding the story behind a façade, like knowing who put it there, and when and why it was installed, to learning what techniques, materials, and skills were involved, “if you’re in the business of having to maintain that or restore it, you need to know that information,” Rob explained.

A glimpse of the highly detailed digital twin of the Michigan State Capitol.

“You need information, you need to make decisions faster. We’re just not conditioned to wait a week to hear back from somebody. As a result, we need to have a platform that responds to the way we work now.

Rob Fink, Senior Associate and Design Technology Director, Quinn Evans

Putting important information at their clients’ fingertips

Often working with decades-old—or even centuries-old data—the job of sourcing and collating historic building documentation like O&M manuals within a digital twin is a complex and time-consuming activity. But Rob explained the true value of this for his clients, “As a society, our patience is not what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. You need information, you need to make decisions faster. We’re just not conditioned to wait a week to hear back from somebody. As a result, we need to have a platform that responds to the way we work now.”

Naturally, when working with such old buildings, you can only begin to imagine how many boxes of paperwork there are to wade through. With the transition to digital twins, Quinn Evans’ clients can access decades of institutional knowledge that was once hiding in boxes, an old file system, or a retiree’s head, and get to it in minutes. All within the context of an interactive, data-rich 3D digital replica.

To ensure the data they are populating digital twins with is as accurate as it can be, the team has developed a methodology for measuring its reliability. Prompted by a client’s request for BIM guidelines, the ‘degree of reliability’ scale was implemented. Every resource is graded based on how accurately it represents the physical asset. Of course, as time goes by this degree of reliability is likely to degrade. As such, Autodesk Tandem can be leveraged to help the team monitor this and regularly check that the live digital replica reflects the changes of every renovation project.

Every door in the Michigan State Capitols twin highlighted for ease of use.

“It’s about the amount of data we put into the project—and the information our clients already have at their disposal—and making sure that it’s all organized in a manner that’s actually useful to them.

Charles Thompson, Associate, Quinn Evans

Solving preservation and restoration challenges

Since integrating Autodesk Tandem into their workflow, the team has been able to deliver a data-rich digital twin for the Michigan State Capitol. Giving this kind of institution a user-friendly way to access all historic and near real-time data and documentation associated with their building’s assets and spaces goes further than being a rich information hub. It enables a smoother process for ongoing preservation and modernization needs.

For instance, in the near future the Capitol will be able to tackle its ongoing issues with leaks by using Tandem. By leveraging the Systems Tracing feature, the team will be able to determine exactly where their plumbing systems are, how they’re connected, and what spaces they service. So, instead of cutting into walls in search of the leaks, they can pinpoint with precision where the work needs to be completed. Not only will this save them time, resources, and money, it also enables the team to run projects more sustainably. Crucially, it protects the property from unnecessary repairs and restoration efforts—preserving more of the historic building’s features.

Sensor data has been connected to Tandem so the temperature can be visually illustrated and tracked via times series graphs in the Digital twin.

Laying the virtual foundations

Looking to the future possibilities of digital twin technology for Quinn Evans, Rob and Charles are confident that their upfront investment in building these accurate, detailed twins is paying off. They’re able to transform ‘resource dumps’ into a structured, sustainable way of storing past, present, and future data.

As we progress further into the digital era, the team is also finding that fewer models need to be built from scratch. They’re seeing clients come to them with existing BIM models, wanting to start another renovation project. When compared to National Historic Landmarks that pre-date all such technology, the time it would take for these clients to realize the benefits of having a digital twin is dramatically reduced.

The value of digital twins is abundantly clear to Quinn Evans, but they admit that as much as there’s an appetite, many of their clients are yet to act. Charles explained, “I think there are a lot of people who are interested, but they don’t know yet what it involves.”

In an effort to raise more awareness, the team is committed to speaking at industry events and sharing their learnings and insights. Rob told us, “We want to get more clients interested in this, because we believe it’s in their best interest to have more up-to-date information about how their buildings are functioning.” Charles added, “We’re all big fans of what Tandem can do. We’ve been discussing it with a wider audience, and we will continue to do so.”

“Preservation is a field that’s rooted in the past, but the tools that we use don’t have to be.

Charles Thompson, Associate, Quinn Evans