From RIBA to Reality

An estate-wide digital twin to help building operations adapt to changes in user behaviour.

Last updated: 13th January 2022

Date uploaded:

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Innovation Lead: Liam Winder
Project number: 105874
UKRI funding: £886,295


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The Covid-19 pandemic and climate breakdown is changing the way people use and interact with buildings, and changes in people's behaviour can have a huge impact on a building's overall performance. City Science is leading an industrial research project to embed all the RIBA design stages to improve operational performance. It uses digital twinning technology to elevate Building Information Models (BIM) so operations teams can simulate or track human usage and energy demands to build a live heat map. The project - RIBA to Reality - is centred around two university buildings as real world test-bed with the aim of making them carbon neutral buildings of the future.

Innovation type: Digital, Process
Organisation type: Innovative SME, Research centre

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Project pioneers

City Science is a data analytics business specialising in how people interact with their environment – from people in buildings to communities in cities. It believes that better data informs better decisions and better decisions lead to better lives.

The problem

Poor operation of complex Building Management Systems (BMS) can lead to poor building performance. It can make things worse when there tends to only be one or two members of a building management team that know how to use a BMS and run the building properly. So when one person with BMS skills leaves a building management team without passing on their knowledge, building performance plummets and is very challenging to get back on track. These teams also have limited bandwidth to adopt new systems or adapt operations to new user behaviours. Without enough understanding around how people actually use and interact with a building, it ends up performing below expectations. This is becoming a significant issue as buildings need to be net zero. When buildings are managed as a system, such as on a university estate, this issue gets compounded further. The pandemic and growing awareness around climate breakdown has changed people's behaviours and relationships with buildings A complex estate like a university is not always set up to be able to respond and adapt to this.


RIBA To Reality is a project that will help take learnings from existing buildings and their usage to inform new building operation and monitoring. It blends the RIBA Stages with digital technologies to create a digital twin that can be paired to its real-world counterpart. The digital-twin will take into account the behaviours of building occupants, and local surroundings and environment. This will allow estate managers to monitor and model the whole-life performance of its buildings in real-time, to increase efficiency and productivity for the building owners and users.

Key Insight

City Science had already been working on projects that use sensors and smart meter data to model energy demand, yet this work has only really focused on operational demand and performance. It realised that to truly deliver net zero buildings then performance shortcomings throughout design, construction, handover as well as operation must be addressed. City Science appreciated that these models must build on established and recognisable processes rather than introducing new ones. It turned to the RIBA Stages, as well as core aspects of the Construction Playbook, and looked for a way to blend these with innovative digital twinning technology. The team wanted to ultimately create a familiar but more effective solution that could be used to model user behaviour and improve a buildings performance - from planning through to operation.

First step

City Science looked to engage its long-standing partner, the University of Exeter, to apply for funding to develop this idea and test it in the real world on its planned North Park site development. It was an important partner as RIBA To Reality is an estate-wide solution and it has a vested interest in the performance of its campus as an owner and operator. City Science persuaded AECOM, as the principal designer of the site, to come onboard as an unfunded partner. These three partners came together to develop a commercial solution and value proposition around the idea. Despite the COVID-19 lockdown delaying the completion of the North Park site, as a first step the collaborative were able to work together on the physical installation of equipment to build the digital twin.


Buildings that are designed and run around cost alone don't always perform best for the people that use them, or are as efficient or sustainable as possible. A better understanding of human usage will help embed whole-life value right from design stage through to operations, giving asset owners and managers the ability to maintain performance even while user behaviours change.

Digital Innovation

RIBA To Reality advances the use of digital technologies - including BIM, sensors, data analytics and smart systems - to pair a digital system to its real-world counterpart. This will enable live monitoring and modelling of human and energy usage across a building or whole campus of buildings. It will create a heap map for operations teams to make decisions about where they can improve efficiency. The solution starts with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stages which cover everything from transport assessment, design, handover, operation and use. The aim is to create digital twin pairing (including data sharing tools for different platforms and accurate people and behaviour detection) not just for buildings but estate-wide and real-time energy modelling to increase efficiency. The digital technologies are being used in the following ways:

  • Developing data interoperability solutions to support seamless, efficient and cost-effective data sharing between different systems.
  • Building data Internet of Things platform for the collection of data from diverse sensor-based assets to underpin the project
  • Creating an occupancy detection system and digital modelling for wider movement to provide low cost, accurate data on occupancy and behaviour .
  • Wider estate modelling for use in the planning process and site optimisation e.g. automated travel planning to and from the site.
  • Developing a tailored system for digital planning using the application of movement modelling and energy modelling alongside the RIBA stages and digital designs in BIM.
  • Designing a real-time energy model based on understanding of uncertainties from sensors, occupancy monitoring and other (e.g. Met Office) data to further optimise in-use building performance.

By following the established RIBA Stages or plan of works, and using a digital twin of the real-world asset to ensure the final development meets the original design specifications, some of the principal flaws of construction are also avoided - such as unknown materials, poor installations, inadequate handover and poorly managed building operation.

Whole life innovation

Building usage has changed, much of it by Covid-19 and climate breakdown. This project was developed on the principle that buildings must serve the purpose of the people using them and benefit the places where they are built. This is backed up by research from the World Green Building Council that shows that good air quality, thermal comfort, lighting, selection of materials and layout can improve health, satisfaction and performance of residents, students and workers. The research suggests that a better indoor environment can lead to productivity improvements of 8-11%, and the an interior of a building is configured has been found to have an impact on concentration, collaboration, confidentiality and creativity. Having a building that performs well, operates at the lowest cost possible and is beneficial for occupant wellbeing creates both financial and social value in the long term.  The project is being test in two real world settings - The Living Systems Institute and at the University of Exeter's North Park site, which is a £70m visionary capital investment which is in the early stages of development but has the ambition to be carbon neutral over its lifetime. This programme will explore how the new technology can then be used to support design decisions at critical stages, in particular looking at how the building could exceed its already ambitious energy targets by taking into account its wider footprint.


City Science is project lead. It has a long-lasting relationship with the University of Exeter and has previously collaborated on energy and data modelling projects. The University’s Institute for Data Science and AI is focused on how machine learning and statistical pattern recognition can produced actionable insights.  University of Exeter is the client and offered the new North Park development as a real-world site to test the technology. AECOM, as the principal designer of the North Park site, took part as an unfunded partner to give commercial advice and suggest practicalities of the solution, seeing as designers need to be involved from the get go.

  • City Science
  • University of Exeter

Lead support

In addition to the support from Transforming Construction, City Science engaged with Centre for Digital Built Britain (part of the Construction Innovation Hub) and the National Digital Twin programme (NDTp). The University of Exeter has been actively engaging with the Active Building Centre on the opportunities afforded by the North Park site in particular. The next step is for City Science to complete the testing and commercialise the product. It has based UK market share estimates at 12.5% and estimated £20m revenue for the consortium per annum by year five.

Long Term Vision

This digital twin embeds whole-life value by drawing on the established RIBA design, planning and operation stages. It will ensure enough thought is given to how people will live and use a building and will make construction more sustainable, and operations more efficient and productive. Importantly it will increase user well-being and satisfaction from buildings and spaces. Movement modelling will enable transport flow and site access to be managed at much lower cost than current approaches. All this will enable much greater engagement with occupants and the ability to adapt in real-time to changes in behaviour and other external changing factors.

Human Stories

This project focuses on improving the performance of buildings and estates that are used by hundreds of people every day. By ensuring they are thermally comfortable, optimally designed, and well-performing, it will ensure the best experience for users. It will also ensure that, during construction and operation, our buildings are as efficient and sustainable as possible for people and the environment.

Powerful Processes

RIBA To Reality uses digital technologies such as BIM, sensors, data analytics and smart systems to pair a digital system to its real-world counterpart. This will create a digital twin that enables the monitoring and modelling of an assets whole-life performance to increase efficiency. The solution integrated the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stages with a digital twin pairing it with a real-world asset to create an estate-wide, real-time model that can unlock user insights and improve efficiency.

Fascinating Facts

A better indoor environment can lead to productivity improvements of 8-11%. The consortium companies have been able to increase R&D by up to 750% with significant exploitation, staff recruitment and regional benefits. City Science has based UK market share estimates for the outputs at 12.5%. Additional revenue to the consortium is estimated at £20m per annum by year five. The RIBA To Reality project is estimated to create more than 50 new high-tech jobs and strengthen a research partnership in the South West.


The project is focused on ensuring that net zero targets for buildings are achieved by using occupancy detection to optimise building management and performance. Companies can routinely save around 10% on their energy bills by improving their Building Management Systems usage. One of the technology packages in this project looks to take that further. Current estimates are that it could provide a further 5-10% improvement for purely energy benefits.

As a direct result of securing Innovate UK funding for this and previous projects, the consortium companies have been able to increase R&D by up to 750% with significant exploitation, staff recruitment and regional benefits. This has been enabled by profit increase and ongoing reinvestment rates to support long-term competitive advantage.

Regional Balance
Based on the considerable growth rates observed in the digital twin market (the BIM market IS expected to reach USD 13bn by 2024), the RIBA To Reality project is estimated to create over 50 new high-tech jobs and strengthen a research partnership in the South West.

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