Upgrade Estate provides housing for students, young professionals, and growth companies in Belgium. They strive to increase social impact in a value-driven context through an economically sustainable model. While real estate forms the backdrop, Upgrade Estate provides the setting where people connect, study, live and build a network for life.
From student apartment blocks to semi-furnished apartments for young professionals, Upgrade Estate works on construction projects that capture the entire build process from planning and design all the way through to build and operations. Koenraad Belsack, co-CEO and Founder of Upgrade Estate, has a firm vision on the important link between sustainability and innovation. “At Upgrade Estate, we have a goal of being entirely net zero by 2035. This means we’re taking steps now to reduce embodied carbon in the design, build and construction of our buildings as well as in our operations of our assets,” remarks Koenraad.
The team has been working on small to medium sized construction projects for the last twenty years. In the past, they outsourced a lot of their design and construction operations but, after a trip to China, Koenraad was inspired by what could be achieved through more innovative methods of construction. Koenraad reflects: “I had seen a construction project using BIM as well as offsite manufacturing to speed up the delivery process. They built a tower block in a few short weeks. I asked my team why we couldn’t do that, and this marked the beginning of our journey to digitalisation.” Upgrade Estate began to bring many of their construction processes in-house and created working practices underpinned by digital technologies to improve quality, collaboration, and productivity.
Katrien De Norre, BIM Manager for Upgrade Estate, joined the company in 2018 and was tasked with piloting these new methods of working on a new student tower in Ghent, Belgium. The structure had 20 floors and 311 carefully designed student rooms as well as 41 communal areas such as living rooms, kitchens, and a study café. The team developed a digital replica of the building by creating a 3D BIM model. They also used virtual reality devices to do a virtual walkthrough of the asset which included interior finishes like materials as well as heat pumps, light fixtures and so on. The success of this experience showed the team the value of designing their assets digitally first and the benefits a digital twin could provide when it came to planning how an asset would be managed after handover.
At Upgrade Estate, there were varying levels of digital competency and the need for standardisation was high when it came to document management, digital collaboration workflows as well as engaging with supply chain partners. Sharing information was time consuming and often employees relied on email or using screen grabs from their digital models with external parties.
“There was a risk of losing important project data with our old ways of working,” reflects Katrien. “We acknowledged the necessity to look for a more robust solution, but it was only when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived that we had to accelerate this search as our VPN was not reliable for remote working.” The team worked with GeoIT – an Autodesk channel partner in Belgium – to identify the best solution for their needs.
Koenraad says: “We wanted to find a solution that allowed us to work collaboratively on models and Autodesk Construction Cloud’s BIM 360 platform allowed us to link our Revit models in our common data environment.” Upgrade Estate was introduced to the solution by GeoIT but their facilities team were also looking at how this solution could allow them to capture and retain all the build information they would need to manage the asset efficiently.
Upgrade Estate piloted using BIM 360 on a student accommodation project that consisted of 131 student apartments in Brussels that needed to be completed by the fall of 2020. The project was already underway when implementation began but the team was impressed with the intuitive features. “We carried out some training for our external partners as well as employees, but most of the feedback we received was around how easy it was to use BIM 360 and navigate the workflows,” reflects Katrien.
The project team used BIM 360 to manage meetings and reports, approval checklists and certain workflows like issues management with their external project partners. “The willingness of our external partners to embrace the technology was integral to the successful implementation,” says Koenraad.
When it came to integrating BIM 360 with previous practices, Katrien reflects: “Having all of our project team working from one place has been transformational.” Internal team members such as designers and engineers as well as external partners like architects and supply chain contractors can access BIM 360 and the project data from anywhere. This has reduced time lost to miscommunication as well as time lost waiting on documentation to be shared.
Collaboration and communication improved dramatically on the pilot project, and for Koenraad this success displayed the innovation and forward-thinking mindsets employees at Upgrade Estate possess.
“We’re really keen to attract talent into our business that have the same ambitions as our company, so embracing technology and being unafraid to try new things is really crucial,” says Koenraad. Upgrade Estate have their own training academy which focuses on developing the skillsets of their employees proactively as they believe learning is a lifelong journey. Koenraad states: “Seeing the way our team embraced this new way of working confirmed to us even more that our employees understand, value and strive to achieve our mission.”
For Upgrade Estate, using BIM 360 on their pilot project and subsequent projects has meant that the team has been able to focus on pre-engineering more. The project team reviews the 3D model to make improvements with a particular focus on reducing waste on site and during the build phase of a project.
Koenraad says: “We’re able to use BIM 360 to design our assets better, meaning that we can identify clashes in the pre-construction phase of our projects as well as issues that could affect our activity on site.” This means quality is instantly improved – more time can be spent on identifying and resolving quality issues. As well as this, the team has more time to align their construction goals and even look at factors that could delay their project progress like recruitment needs.
Communication related to issues in the model takes place entirely in BIM 360 with all project team members. “External supply chain partners have shared the feedback that working in this new way means projects are smoother and more transparent. Resolving issues is much quicker because the model is always up-to-date so our partners can access the important information they need whenever they need it,” says Katrien.
On a commercial level, having the most accurate information on a project means Upgrade Estate and their project partners have more certainty on project costs. Katrien affirms: “As an example, we identified around 9,000 clashes in pre-construction on our pilot project using BIM 360. We were shocked and we also began to think about how we resolved this prior to implementing BIM 360. Our team must have spent a significant amount of time manually completing this activity which is not only time consuming but also open to human error.”
Upgrade Estate’s ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2035 are at the forefront of their approach to construction projects. “We have invested in our own ESCO (Energy Saving Company), and we will use wind turbines to power our buildings so that we have an entirely circular energy system within our buildings. We know we need to evolve from working with carbon and remove this from the building phase entirely. We are connecting our off-site manufacturing practices into our model in BIM 360 and longer-term we plan to use the solution to track, monitor and manage our sustainability plans on our projects,” says Koenraad.
Upgrade Estate uses the Future-Fit business Benchmark – an international standard to monitor business goals which are in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This tool helps the team to guide progress towards making the SDGs a reality in their business activity. “Collaboration software is the ideal support in our human centric approach,” says Koenraad. “And it will be core in allowing us to become an even more sustainable business that is not harming the planet but in fact contributing to our society, the communities we serve and paving the way for sustainable construction practices.”
The next stage for Upgrade Estate involves testing more functionality that will allow them to automate their workflows in BIM 360. They also plan to optimise the time they have gained through digital work practices by evolving their BIM models so that they can capture both their environmental footprint on projects as well as integrating solutions like HSBCAD and HSB Share to directly link the material in their factory with the asset’s BIM model.
Looking to the future, digital technology is an enabler for Upgrade Estate to continue to deliver their social and durable mission. With a focus on socially responsible living, reducing damage to the environment and ecology of the planet as well as futureproofing, their goal is to ensure that sustainability is a way of living for all those who encounter their business.