The potential of property technology – proptech – in construction is undeniable, and there have been many surveys and reports showing that businesses operating in the sector see technological changes as an opportunity to become significantly more efficient and productive. Innovations such as 3D modelling and building information modelling (BIM) yield benefits now widely realised in the new-build sector, and it is common to read articles citing the many advantages of proptech while peddling the urgency of adopting it to maintain a competitive edge.
But what is the situation with existing stock? Feedback from surveyors working on such buildings shows there are still many reservations about how the high-level benefits of proptech can be adopted, beyond simple survey applications. There seems to be a long way to go before existing building stock can enjoy the same technology benefits as new build. To test this hypothesis, RICS invited a range of industry thought leaders to a proptech leaders forum in November, to canvass their opinions on the hurdles we face in adopting technology in the existing building sector and what looks likely for the future.
"There are still many reservations about how the high-level benefits of proptech might be adopted beyond simple survey applications"
The event started with a series of presentations showcasing the way technology has been successfully adopted in various existing building scenarios. The Department for Education provided details of how KyKloud survey software was used to streamline and standardise condition surveys for 22000 schools in England and Wales, and was critical in maintaining consistency in data collection and analysis across a huge sample.
Hollis then discussed its use of drones to collect rich site data, and how it has been addressing the challenges of analysing, storing and presenting the vast data sets that suit its clients. The next presentation, from Charles Russel Speechlys, looked at the acceleration of technological developments in property, and the effects on partnership opportunities construction techniques, data security and leasing. The firm offered an interesting legal perspective on how gains can be made from technological advances.
Askporter then gave a presentation on how it has adopted artificial intelligence in the property management market, using a digital assistant to relieve the burden of multiple management tasks. Demand Logic talked about how climate change is influencing building technology, and its own successful implementation of energy performance monitoring software in some large existing portfolios where it found a gap between certified and actual energy performance. VINCI Facilities then concluded the presentations with an overview of how technology, including BIM, has been used to great effect in providing smart facilities management systems and workplace services.
These diverse applications show the way that technology can be successfully adopted in existing building stock. But why is there still a perception of hesitation? What are the remaining barriers to adoption, and what lessons can be learned from the successful integration of technology?
It was apparent from the presentations that some tailoring is necessary to adopt technology successfully. This tends to be more important in existing stock, or where processes already in place are too complex to bend to a rigid application. The more the software can be tailored to surveyors' or clients' needs therefore the more successfully it will be integrated.
Flexible software was considered especially important for work on heritage buildings, where survey requirements can vary considerably and off-the-shelf applications are less likely to satisfy. High-resolution 3D scanning was thought to have significant potential in this area, with the recent restoration of Notre Dame in Paris following a fire being cited as a good example. Such scanning could either be used to create a record of historic properties for future generations to enjoy or to help with repair liabilities in listed buildings, for example.
The potential for proptech in heritage was thought to be vast, but only providing it can be tailored to the complexities of the work.
Turning to applications in more modern stock, it was acknowledged that BIM is still not fully employed even in new builds, typically only adopted where it is either mandated by the client, for example on government projects, or in larger developments when all parties can provide and use the modelling information in the specified format.
The major challenge for BIM is undoubtedly in existing buildings. Although scanning the visible, physical parts to create 3D point-cloud data is becoming more efficient and affordable, we must bear in mind that this is only creating the model part of BIM: there is still a need to populate it with information, the materials, services assets, documents and so on that are often lost or incomplete in the as-built data set.
To avoid inadvertently reducing the pool of service providers, it is worth considering that the model has to be useable or adaptable by, say, smaller contractors and consultants, which may have little intention of investing in or devoting time to use 3D modelling software.
Poor adoption was found where technology was being used as a mere like-for-like replacement of an existing survey process – for example, effectively as a substitute for paper documentation.
It was noted that a short-sighted use of technology in this way can lead a surveyor down a particular route that is difficult to abandon, which then stems the potential uses of survey data. It is therefore beneficial to look beyond just the data collection process and think about what can be done with the information, and how both surveyor and client can benefit from an analytical process.
Further adoption issues relate to integration with other systems, for example building sensors, computer-aided facilities management or the building management system. These issues are likely to be addressed as part of the natural move toward using BIM levels 2 and 3, creating digital twins, accurately recording materials and components and the way these are repaired or replaced over time before re-use. In these areas, more detailed information will be required, and will be expected to be maintained and updated over a building's lifetime.
However, it will again be difficult to adopt this vision in existing buildings, and whether current systems might talk to proposed new technology or become obsolete has to be considered.
The term proptech can ironically also be a barrier in itself when contemplating the use of technology in property, due to its inherently generic nature. This ambiguity might also affect consideration of a particular application or a realistic return on investment when more granular detail would be valuable.
Interestingly, the consensus at the forum was that the word proptech is now a bit out of date, having been used to convey the unfamiliar message of technological innovations in property to an older generation, who have worked with traditional processes. It was also felt that the use of the term will possibly phase out naturally as a younger generation of surveyors come into the profession with prior understanding of the high-level benefits technology offers.
There is still a long way to go in using technology in existing buildings, but the key to progression may lie in ditching the proptech tag and instead focusing on the specificity of tailored applications while demonstrating good practice and successful case studies to emulate.
Craig Ross MRICS is RICS associate director of the built environment firstname.lastname@example.org