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Developers and property managers can 'walk through' a digital replica of a construction site or existing building to oversee construction, make changes and fix problems in real time.Handout

COVID-19 has been disrupting the world of real estate, land use and construction, yet the biggest changes may be coming as the property sector gets to know its digital twin.

Digital twinning is one of the tools at the front end of a technology revolution in property technology, or proptech, that has been picking up speed since the first lockdowns in March.

“It’s the virtual representation, on a screen, of the static and active assets in a building,” says Terry Olynyk, managing director of Multiplex Construction Canada Ltd. and a member of the management committee at the Toronto chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

With worldwide consulting firm PwC, the ULI, an international network of property and land use experts, has released a new Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2021 report. This report identifies proptech, including digital twinning, “at the top of the list of real estate disruptors” in the sector in Canada.

“After years of talking about how the real estate industry was on the cusp of proptech adoption, digitization has truly accelerated during the pandemic,” the report says.

“From tools to monitor buildings remotely to project management software that streamlines operations on a single platform, interviewees [in the property sector] have told us how the pandemic has sped up their search for efficiencies through proptech,” it adds.

“Digital twinning and other proptech tools allow owners and operators to not only understand everything that’s going on in that building, but also to optimize performance,” Mr. Olynyk says.

“It’s really a way of constructing a building in a digital world,” says Noah Dolgoy, chief executive officer of Tread Inc., a four-year-old Toronto-based company that puts together digital platforms for developers to manage job sites and building material deliveries.

“The technology helps people on a site manage the logistics of moving aggregate, soil, rock, asphalt, concrete,” he says. “We create a virtual fleet, so everyone knows where all the materials are and when they’ll arrive.”

This proptech can also enable real trucks to move 25 per cent more material with the same fleet, Mr. Dolgoy says.

“We can drop the amount of time site managers spend on the phone by as much as 90 per cent and save individuals as much as six hours a day of waiting time. We literally can turn hours into minutes by managing it digitally,” Mr. Dolgoy explains.

Digital representation and visualization of sites has been particularly handy in this year of COVID-19, says Hamid Alemohammad, chief executive officer of AOMS Technologies, a Toronto-based firm that produces sensor-laden platforms for mapping and watching big buildings.

“You can get a detailed image of a site using digital twinning and make sure it’s safe, including seeing whether everybody has PPE [personal protective equipment],” he says. “But perhaps the biggest impact on construction and property is predictive analysis, which can help with preventative maintenance.”

Digital twinning “can tell you when equipment needs maintaining or replacing,” Mr. Alemohammad says.

Michael McGrath, president of Tucker Hi-Rise Construction Inc. in Toronto, has created a digital construction tech lab that can “walk” an owner or manager through a virtual twin of a building.

“Everything you see on the twin is real – real concrete and real materials in real time,” he says. “It means more components can be prefabricated, fit and installed, and the person in charge has the information to make quick decisions,” Mr. McGrath says.

“This relies on data that you might not have been able to gather to this degree five or six years ago,” he adds.

The sophistication of digital twinning is underscored by David Hayes, chief executive officer of AVO Inc., a Toronto start-up that began by making sensors for self-driving vehicles but has moved into proptech.

“When we talk about collecting data in real time, we’re talking about up to 10 times per second,” Mr. Hayes says.

According to Joseph Ogilvie, who founded Archangel Ventures, his own proptech firm in Toronto, and teaches construction project management at York University’s Schulich School of Business, the proptech field is crowded with competitors and innovators.

“It’s growing so fast that there’s a division emerging in proptech between companies that specialize in development and management tech and those that focus on the construction,” he says.

COVID-19 has changed attitudes in the property sector, Mr. Olynyk says.

In the past, construction could be laggard when it came to adopting new technology, but now companies know that “proptech means they can schedule all the materials to arrive at once and on time, instead of waiting for hours,” he says.

“They’re learning that information is power, and the digital twin is the ‘North Star’ of all this information.”