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The Value of HELIX Twins for Architects

"It is infinitely easier to visit a building online than in person"

For over a year HELIX has offered "digital twins" to large technology tenants and owners looking for accurate existing conditions documentation. Our clients paid for "CAD plans" or BIM LOD xxx fast and for less, but they got much more. A digital twin appears to be a convenient way to view and download accurate plans/models and it is. But the real value of a digital twin lies in the fact that it is infinitely easier to explore a building online than in person. This was true before COVID-19 and it is painfully, unavoidably more true now.

When a building is fully digitized, not captured in a pretty 3D "doll-house" or a rendered fly-through of the public areas, but completely and accurately captured, good things happen. It can be explored, analyzed and inspected anywhere, anytime and unexpected value surfaces. Architecture, construction and real estate management, government oversight, insurance and finance, all stand to benefit from ready and complete access to building information online, but none more, and more immediately than architecture.

Before buildings can become something new, they must be "captured". Since a diminishingly small number of buildings have accurate and up to date digital plans, this means someone, or a team, must measure and record the "existing conditions" and convert them into a CAD or BIM model. This work has three unfortunate characteristics: 1. Skill, education and experience is required to gather the right information and to infer what cannot easily be seen. 2. The work of collecting the measurements and translating them into a digital model is time consuming and, typically, not the type of work that skilled and experienced architects find particularly rewarding. 3. In most, if not all cases, information is missed in data collection leading to return visits and lost time and money.

For a quick read on using the HELIX Platform for generating existing conditions drawing check out this post.

Once a building has been converted to a digital model, the design intent must be communicated to contractors and material/systems suppliers to understand the potential cost of design directions. This introduces a couple of issues. Contractors and fabricators need to generate accurate bids in order to ensure project profitability (and feasibility). More visits to the site are required. Multiple meetings and reviews with team members on all sides are held to understand what is desired and how to meet, approximate, or adjust expectations in order to achieve their business objectives and still allow for quality design. Every site visit, every meeting, costs time and money and every miscommunication leads to delay and/or compromise. A complete, easy to digest digital version of the design that can be simply communicated with remote teams and illustrated with thorough photographic documentation of existing conditions promises to reduce the number of visits and meetings. Better information, available when and where required, holds the promise of bids with less "padding" and execution with fewer mistakes.

Once upon a time, owners trusted architects. They selected an architect or firm based on their portfolio of work and believed that the architect knew Architecture better than they did. A great architect with a strong track record could say "trust me", "you like my work and you will love it when it is finished." This is rarely the case now. Owners and clients actively engage in the process with strong ideas of what they do and do not want, what is valuable and what is not. A good architect knows that intangible elements of design matter, but communicating this to clients is a challenge. In the absence of the power to say "trust me", tools that allow them to say "let me show you what I mean" are the next best thing. In fact, since some new ideas turn out to be less great in real life than they seemed on the "drawing board" the potential for an architect to show themselves as well as their clients might be the best path of all.

The true promise of "digital twins" for architecture may lie beyond accurately capturing a building or communicating intent clearly over great distances. Once many buildings are digitized, easily visited, and monitored over time, we will have an important new source of design input. We can develop new ways to evaluate design success. How does the building "perform"? Does it grow in value? Are its users happy? Are they more productive? Does the building cost less to operate?, does it hold up better in fires, wind, floods? The data required to answer these questions about a single building are rarely if ever available. But what if they were? and what if data about many buildings could be aggregated and cross-referenced? How would this influence Architects and their clients?

The budget for creative design in architecture is too small and constantly under attack. "Value Engineering", program changes, labor and materials price increases and, of course, miscommunication, leads to issues and change orders and ultimately compromised design. Tools that allow more comprehensive, more accurate and simpler to use digital representations of buildings and building designs promise to clarify design intent, more powerfully communicate new ideas and avoid accidental or intentional misunderstandings that stand in the way of great Architecture. HELIX is building a platform to transform existing buildings into shareable data that may become the cornerstone of the next generation of design.

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