BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Digital data collection on site

Digital data collection on site can offer a faster, more consistent and more flexible way of carrying out surveys than the traditional approach

Author: Vicky Green

27 November 2019

Planned maintenance surveys involve identifying the condition of elements and finishes then prioritising and costing remedial works, before presenting findings to help clients plan and define budgets and inform their investment decisions.

But for clients with large property portfolios, condition data should be consistent to enable analysis. With this in mind, is the traditional surveying approach still viable, or are proptech and electronic data collection now a necessity for large volumes of surveys?

A traditional approach generally involves carrying out a pen and paper survey, noting the area and identifying, grading and costing the issues and life-cycle requirements. Activity cycles should be included, covering any remedial works required, as should photos, ensuring these are clearly related to the defects described for ease of reference later.

Back in the office, data must be entered into a spreadsheet, photos matched up and copied in, and costs worked out by cross-checking images. Price books also need to be reviewed, activity plans worked out to include recurrent life-cycle costs and produce the schedule, and the findings summarised in a report.

When other professionals such as mechanical and electrical consultants are involved, their reports are needed as well so costs can be compiled into a single planned maintenance programme.

When large portfolios are being surveyed, information must be kept consistent – which requires considerable checking and streamlining of costs, and element and defect descriptions. Quality assurance of the surveys is a huge task in itself.

The data-driven approach

Opting for a data-driven approach, particularly for a portfolio of surveys, has a number of benefits. First, data can be collected on site ensuring consistency, and second, it helps analysis and reporting.

Element lists in the reporting software can be pre-populated in line with industry standards, with templates prompting surveyors to gather all required information in a consistent way. Costs and activity cycles can also be pre-populated against the individual elements, as can room lists and descriptions of defects, and these can subsequently be tailored to each element.

This means surveyors across the country can use the same element and remedial works descriptions, costs and activity cycles. Photos can also be taken, automatically tagged, and transferred directly into reports.

Third-party consultants can likewise carry out surveys using the same method, and the reports seamlessly combined. Data can be uploaded in seconds to a secure, cloud-based service where it can be interrogated before report generation.

Recent improvements in standard data collection software have led to a far wider choice of output formats, ranging from prioritised lists of works required to document reports analysing the data that is specific to clients' requirements, with table and graph summaries showing where to focus expenditure.

Many packages are now able to perform the required technical tasks, such as instantaneous analysis and reporting of higher-priority remedial works or health and safety issues. Software can also be used to group remedial works into packages, for instance window replacement programmes across a region. Report data from complex, multiple site surveys involving teams of surveyors can be rapidly summarised and the results collated into a single report.

"Electronic data collection should be seen as adding value to the services we provide, and there will always be a demand for our specialist knowledge"

Outputs can also be tailored to fit existing computer-aided facility management (CAFM) systems, so that information is uploaded seamlessly into databases. In contrast, traditional surveying involves a vast amount of manual input, leading to inefficiencies in terms of time and an increased risk of errors.

The standard lists allow for works to be analysed by element, whether report by report or across an entire portfolio. The latter can offer an indication of where expenditure needs to be focused, enabling evidence-based investment decisions and subsequent economies of scale when procuring works across a portfolio.

Surveyors who carry out planned maintenance surveys in a traditional way may believe the data-driven approach means they cannot exercise their professional judgement, thinking that recommendations must fit into the software rather than the other way around.

But electronic data collection should be seen as adding value to the services we already provide. There will always be a demand for building surveyors who have specialist knowledge, experience and the ability to think reflectively to inform the advice they provide to clients.

Proptech in practice

Trident Building Consultancy was approached by two large charities to carry out planned maintenance surveys on portfolios across the UK.

One portfolio included more than 100 buildings over 20 sites. This client's aim was to prioritise and budget its expenditure over five years. We were provided with floor plans and were therefore able to populate the data capture software with room names before going on site.

We worked with the client to produce a report output that analysed the data to ensure that work packages of higher-priority items could be defined, and developed a planned preventative maintenance schedule that the client could upload into its CAFM system.

Surveys were then carried out by ten surveyors across five different offices. Because the same template was used, all surveyors worked with the same element list, cost information and defect descriptions. Free-text input was always an option, though, to ensure that non-standard defects could be picked up, and consistent reports were produced for each site.

We were able to produce an asset management portfolio dashboard for both charities, because the elements were recorded in line with a standard list. The dashboard analysed the data, allowing the clients to forecast their most urgent expenditure by region or by element, and to define work packages across regions to achieve economies of scale.

One client also used the dashboard to budget its expenditure for the next two years. Trident helped by defining work packages, and carried out contract administration services on the works.

Although the traditional approach is still viable for one-off surveys, it is increasingly being superseded by electronic information sharing. Data collection means that surveys can be more streamlined, with more effective quality and assurance processes. The structure in which the data is collected allows for strategic analysis, so it can then inform investment decisions and enable procurement efficiencies.

In contrast, a traditional approach involves a vast amount of additional time, inconsistencies between surveyors, added difficulties in manipulating data – and limited intelligence in analysing it – as well as the need for substantial manual input, increasing the risk of errors. As clients are becoming more aware of the advantages of the data-driven approach, many are specifying that they want data to be collected electronically so it can be seamlessly integrated into CAFM systems.

It is clear that recent digital developments have begun to disrupt the daily work of building surveyors, which will continue to change with the increased adoption of emerging technologies. As businesses take on different ways of working and complete surveys of large portfolios more quickly, consistently, accurately and cost-effectively, their rivals will have little option but to seek the same technological improvements.

The companies that can respond to clients' ever-changing needs in an agile way will be the most successful building surveying firms of tomorrow.

Vicky Green is an associate director at Trident Building Consultancy  vicky.green@tridentbc.com

Related competencies include: Building pathology, Data management, Fire safety, Health and safety, Housing maintenance, repairs and improvements, Inspection

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