With the construction sector responsible for much of the planet's carbon emissions, Glasgow-based simulation software firm IES believes its new 'digital twin' models can solve many problematic issues with built environments, reveals Andrew Collier


WHEN it comes to tackling climate change, the construction sector has a huge amount of work to do. It accounts for nearly 40 per cent of global emissions – a sobering figure. So it has to work to find solutions.

Some of the things that need to be done, such as better insulation and use of more efficient materials, are straightforward. 

However, designing and operating the built environment is complex, and it’s an area in which technology can provide profound benefits.

That includes helping drive the move to net zero. Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) is a Glasgow-based company that is a world leader in simulation software that models making buildings, either individually or as clusters, more energy efficient.

Its technology solution is called Intelligent Communities Lifecycle (ICL). Crucially, this does not just look at the design stage, but also evaluates the actual operation of the buildings in the real world once they are completed.

“We have created a digital twin that allows us to look at what needs to be done at a very early stage and at scale”, explains Don McLean, the company’s CEO. 


“But the operational stage is much longer than this, and this is where our digital twin really comes into its own, enabling buildings to be continuously monitored in real time to detect faults and anomalies that can then be fixed to ensure the building is operating as intended. Design might take a couple of years, but the structure might stand for 100 years or more.

“So the issue is: how do you make it perform better? And if you have a building that performs better, how do you make a community, or city or a country do that?”
Most organisations take a very simplistic approach, he adds. “There are currently no real tools to allow them to look at the surrounding infrastructure, so they use very simplistic approaches, but that rarely works.

“That means that building equipment tends to be oversized in terms of the actual building's needs - they are not designed properly in order to achieve true efficiency.”

A lot of countries bring in their compliance and regulations at the design stage, Mr McLean says. “That is logical from a policy perspective, but it means you look at the building when it is empty.

“In theory, you can compare it against other buildings and give it a rating to assess the asset. 

“But when people actually populate that building, it becomes very different. The design is based on a demand that doesn’t include a lot of things like computers and charging points.

“That leads to something that is notorious in the construction industry - a performance gap - because buildings never operate in the way they were designed to do. But building regulations define that the compliance aspect has to be done in a certain way.”

He gives an example of how regulations can create real world difficulties and compromises. In Ireland, buildings have to be airtight to make them compliant, but during the current Covid pandemic, this isn’t actually desirable as ventilation needs to allow air to flow.

“Governments have a major problem because as soon as you move into the operational phase, every building becomes different. At an early stage you have a way of comparing it with others, but you don’t see how it is actually operating. 

“It’s a sanitised solution and when you take it into the real world, it doesn’t work. That’s the big problem.”

In essence, he says, this means that compliance is actually introducing issues rather than solving them. “Our software tries to overcome that and to look at how we can decarbonise as best we possibly can.”

In a bid to gauge the construction industry’s feelings about this, IES has commissioned a detailed research project. Titled 'City Of Tomorrow – The Road Towards Net Zero', this investigates the views of leading built environment professionals about the current status of sustainability methods and targets.

The study shows that there appears to still be a lack of information about the industry’s contribution to CO2 emissions, with only 20 per cent estimating this correctly at between 31 and 40 per cent. The other 80 per cent got this wrong, with most people believing the figure was lower.

There was better news when respondents were asked if the organisation they worked for was actively working towards net zero in its built environment projects or buildings. 

A big majority – 79 per cent – said that it was, with only 5 per cent saying it was taking no action and had no plans to do so. More than half of those surveyed in the sector, a total of 51 per cent, reported that they felt achieving net zero by the UK Government’s target of 2050 (Scotland’s is five years earlier at 2045) could only be achieved through further legislative action.


Worryingly, though, some 58 per cent of respondents still believe that the sector is doing enough to tackle its carbon emissions. However, an overwhelming 91 per cent said that they at least sometimes were able to predict the carbon emissions of buildings before they were constructed.

Don McLean says he believes that people working on the design side of construction are beginning to realise that things have to be done in a different way. “It’s not just about upfront legislation, but about how we operate the buildings.

“The methods we have at this moment in time will not solve the problem because of the inherent inefficiencies that have been put into the system through the way that regulation is currently used.

“What is done on paper from a design perspective works well in relation to compliance, but those who are trying to make the building work and are looking at the energy bills see a very different world. 

“Some are actually using twice as much energy as they are supposed to. It’s the operational aspect that is more critical, but there’s still a disconnect there.”

So how can this be solved? “I don’t think that there’s an easy solution to this. As a company, we can’t make governments do things, but through our physics-based digital twin technology we can give people the tools to look at the building. 

“We can then provide a very, very accurate representation and show what can be done to identify the best way to decarbonise. If we look more closely at how buildings are being used, and where energy is consumed and wasted, that can make a big difference.”


Sector must rise up to challenges of meeting emissions targets


THE task the construction sector faces in moving towards net zero is a huge one. According to official figures, in order to be on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, carbon output will have to fall by a massive 50 per cent.

At the same time, indirect building sector power generation emissions will be required to drop by an even greater 60 per cent by 2030

These may seem daunting challenges, but those at the centre of the debate believe that if the will is there they can be overcome. 

According to the UN Environment Programme-hosted Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), the task of meeting these objectives within the sector is “considerable but achievable”.

GlobalABC’s report for 2021 says that a triple strategy needs to be adopted urgently if there is to be any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goal,now being discussed at COP26 in Glasgow, of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius.


This triple approach involves reducing energy demand, decarbonising the power supply and addressing the issue of carbon stored in building materials.

It points out that the current Covid pandemic has had a positive impact on reducing CO2 within the sector, leading to a 10 per cent drop between 2019 and 2020. 

However,  the study adds that this is only likely to be temporary, with the long term outlook being bleak. It says: “The buildings and construction sector played a critical role in pandemic recovery plans. 

“Around 14 per cent of total recovery funds are focused on building improvements and elements of these initiatives will have a beneficial effect on decarbonising the sector. However, these efforts are insufficient for a sectoral transformation.”

“The lack of real transformation in the sector means that emissions will keep rising and contribute to dangerous climate change.”

According to the report, one bit of good news is that global investment in the energy efficiency of buildings increased by an unprecedented 11 per cent, though this is qualified by the fact that it is limited to a few countries and dominated by EU investments. 

“The flow of finance to this area continues to accelerate but is still too small a fraction for transformational change.”