How data repositories can help surveyors
Article originally published in the RICS Built Environment Journal.
Collecting and storing data on individual buildings from design to demolition can offer an effective solution to long-standing problems for the profession.
Author: Rupert Parker
Originally published 01 April 2021
© Rupert Parker
In light of global technological trends and recent UK regulation on environmental, social and corporate governance as well as building safety, there is an ever-growing demand for data on buildings. At the same time, however, traditional data collection and reporting methods such as spreadsheets or documents remain inadequate for these modern demands.
In order to tackle data scarcity, reliability and accessibility and achieve efficiency and transparency, we need to move away from siloed storage towards industry-wide, cross-stakeholder data collection on a building-by-building basis.
In July 2020, the European Commission published Definition of the Digital Building Logbook, a report that offers a potential solution to some of these issues. In addition, Built Environment Journal has previously explored building life-cycle information, while the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction is due to publish its Practical Guidelines on the Building Passport imminently.
All of these agree on the fundamentals of a solution: a repository of accurate and verified information associated with a specific building throughout its life cycle, which is stored digitally and securely. The building owner is responsible for this, controlling and monitoring access; those with access are able to contribute to the contents, and ownership of the repository is transferred as building ownership changes. But how does this affect the work of surveyors?
Due to the individual complexities of real-estate assets, and the continual changes made to even the smallest buildings during their life cycles, building surveyors produce and process a lot of information. A traditional survey, for instance, will consist of one or more physical inspections supported by any historic knowledge or available information.
However, this is where the problem lies. The full history of surveys, design and details of amendments to a building are rarely available to a given surveyor, leaving them unable to report comprehensively, and potentially resulting in them giving incorrect advice.
Another issue is the number of surveyors who may be appointed to carry out inspections of a building through its life cycle. A building can change hands a number of times, play host to an array of tenants, and be managed by a number of different parties. As separate parties appoint their own surveyors, it is rare that one practitioner will remain associated with a building throughout its existence. This results in duplication of effort as new practitioners familiarise themselves with a building, which therefore ultimately inflates costs to the client.
In some cases, there are also elements of a building that, in isolation, do not comply directly with the Building Regulations but instead use bespoke fire-engineered measures to fulfil safety requirements. Without understanding the overall fire strategy, which may compensate for the non-compliant elements, subsequent building alterations could create a significant fire risk.
An information repository transcends the issue of various surveyors being appointed at different times and prevents the loss of any valuable insights. Maintenance reports, certificates, operation manuals, and any other non-sensitive information that the owner is comfortable sharing will be available to all professionals appointed by the owner, reducing the time they need to familiarise themselves with the building.
Transparency and trust
One of the inherent quirks of real-estate transactions is that the purchaser should rely on their own survey and inspections, and this is often used by vendors as an opportunity to omit selected information that may be to the detriment of a sale. Caveat emptor.
As the banking, financial services and online retail sectors have shown, increased transparency of information eventually leads to greater trust and efficiency in the marketplace. So we as a profession need to decide whether we want to continue in a trust-deprived market, or whether we want to use the ability to collect data in a uniform manner to reduce conflicts arising from misunderstandings or misinformation.
If we decide to strive for collecting perfect information, there are a number of changes we can expect. First, having a fundamental understanding of a building will lead to greater confidence on life-cycle costing, more precise asset pricing and quicker due diligence, leading to improved liquidity in the market. The impact on real estate as an asset class could therefore be significant.
Second, in the event of a building sale, an up-to-date collection of building information can immediately form the contents of a deal room – that is, an online portal where solicitors or agents, among others, can put information a prospective seller wants to see. This saves cost on dedicated software, the professional fees associated with filling the room, and the weeks or months it takes to source the data. On the building's sale, ownership of the repository – and thereby control over access – can also simply be transferred to the new building owner, saving them the angst of setting up and maintaining their own reliable data management system and time spent chasing documents for due diligence.
Present and future benefits
Storing data on a building-by-building basis will bring clarity, enabling us to benchmark our assets more effectively from an environmental, safety or maintenance perspective, for example.
Tracking building changes will help those involved in refurbishments and redevelopments and, depending on the records, remove the need for repeat measured surveys; after all, how often do the exterior walls of a demise move? Refurbishment works could also be more accurately planned on the basis that we can be certain about the structure, materials, age and design of the building.
There are further potential benefits that warrant exploration, such as sharing information with emergency services. Imagine a world where the fire service can access information about a building's layout or whether it houses any particularly vulnerable people before attending an incident. Equally, imagine the power of being able to carry out reliable desktop studies on a building's fire prevention measures to reduce the chance of incidents occurring in the first place.
"Storing data on a building-by-building basis will bring clarity, enabling us to benchmark our assets more effectively from an environmental, safety or maintenance perspective"
However, with all the benefits come an array of additional challenges. The reliability of information depends greatly on why it was created, who created it and the extent of their liability. Then we must consider how identities are proven in a digital environment – an issue currently being addressed by a number of working groups.
The need for accessible, reliable building information is growing in urgency, increasingly brought into focus by the Building Safety Bill, Fire Safety Bill* and British Standards. Meanwhile, intensifying environmental pressures are driving the need for somewhere to store and display energy use data.
There are already leading building control companies, large multidisciplinary surveying firms and architects offering building data repositories as a service to their clients. Building owners across asset classes such as student housing, retail, office and co-living are also piloting the concept.
If we have learned anything from the internet banking boom, it will only take a small number of stakeholders in the real-estate market to adopt transferrable building-by-building data repositories and realise the inherent benefits for the entire sector to get on board.
Rupert Parker MRICS is founder and chief executive officer at Building Passport.
*the Fire Safety Bill became the Fire Safety Act on 29/04/21, after the original publication of this article.