Pioneers of the built environment

Built environment jobs are evolving at a rapid pace, demanding innovative new skills and better ways of working. We spoke to five people rising to the challenge


  • Brendon Hooper

18 April 2020

Employing machine learning to improve data handling

James Fiske, director of product delivery and operations, RICS

For nearly 50 years, RICS has been collecting, analysing, modelling and interpreting cost information using its Building Cost Information Service (BCIS). The service's global relaunch is being spearheaded by James Fiske, director of product delivery and operations at RICS, who is applying machine learning techniques to manage the new influx of data.

For professionals to compare performance against projects, there needs to be sufficient data about those projects available in a comparable format. At present, the BCIS team manually input that project data into a consistent format. It's a labour-intensive task that can take a team of four analysts up to three days to complete, and there can be differing opinions about into which categories certain data should go. In some large organisations, which might use less experienced staff to manage data, this can lead to inconsistencies and issues with quality control.

"We thought that if we could help the industry become more efficient at analysing data, and give them a secure place to store that data, then this would benefit the profession as a whole, as everyone in the profession could access it", says Fiske." This is the impetus behind the global expansion of BCIS. And as we're going from solely focusing on buildings in the UK, to including buildings and infrastructure globally, we're going to need to crunch through far larger amounts of data."

James Fiske, RICS James Fiske, RICS

This is where applying machine learning has the potential to vastly improve the processing of global project data into consistent formats. BCIS' current prototype takes data from one format, analyses it and puts it into another, but crucially allows a human professional to check that the machine has put the data into the correct category. If it hasn't, it can be corrected, and the program learns why it was corrected, so it won't make the same mistake again. This means the next time a project is put through, the machine's accuracy improves.

"It takes away the huge burden of masses of data to crunch through"

"The important thing is we're not relying on the machine to get the answers right, there is still a professional checking and validating the data, but what it does is help take away the huge burden of masses of data to crunch through," says Fiske.

Ideally, BCIS is looking for 100 or more projects per quarter to flow into the system. However, it will take many years of project data for it to realise its full potential.

For more information, go to the BCIS website 

Cleaning up money laundering and cutting down on corruption

Geraldine Mash, compliance director, CBRE

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the amount of money laundered globally per year could be 2-5% of global GDP a figure that equates to between $1.6tr and $4tr. Geraldine Mash, compliance director at CBRE Capital Advisors in London, is helping to lead the fight against financial crime in property, by implementing new automated systems that seek out suspicious transactions.

As a global company with almost 100,000 staff worldwide, it is almost impossible for an organisation such as CBRE to rely on manpower alone to check hundreds of thousands of daily real estate-associated transactions, for issues around corruption and anti-money laundering.

"Although there should always be professionals to have an eye on the detail, we've found it incredibly helpful to build a system that points you in the right direction in finding possible corruption in the first place," explains Mash.

Geraldine Mash, CBRE Geraldine Mash, CBRE

Two years ago, CBRE contracted accountant PwC to develop a data analysis system to help identify and combat financial crime. Each quarter, the system sifts through several thousands of payment transactions made to vendors, or expenses paid out, and analyses them for certain words. Analysing metadata, it identifies and flags up high-risk terms, such as "gift" or "cash", as well as any suspicious vendor payments made to staff bank accounts.

"Rather than having to employ a huge team of people to manually analyse this enormous amount of data, the automated system allows us to focus on a much smaller number of problematic transactions," says Mash. "Of course, not all are fraud related sometimes members of staff accidentally put payments through twice, but whatever it is, the system helps us account for every penny in the business."

Marsh and her CBRE team have also created a similar centralised database to combat money laundering. In the system's new end-to-end process, every piece of documentation relating to anti-money laundering (AML) cases can be found in one place, so if HMRC requests to look at a specific AML case, it can easily and clearly be displayed on the system, rather than having to chase down documents located outside the company.

Sometimes, of course, it may be too late in the day to stop corruption that's already taken place, but using the new technology the firm can much better prevent further loss, alert the authorities, and flag not to work with certain companies again.

"None of these systems are perfect, but unlike before, we now have a 'fail-safe stop' to prevent any more money being possibly laundered into property, if suspicions have been raised," says Mash.

The RICS professional statement, which sets out the mandatory requirements for RICS members and RICS-regulated firms in relation to bribery, corruption, money laundering and terrorist financing, took effect on 1 September 2019. 

"The new system helps us account for every penny in the business"

Introducing international measurement standards to infrastructure projects

Martyn Gannicott FRICS, commercial services director, Highways England

Since early 2019, Martyn Gannicott FRICS, commercial services director at Highways England, has helped apply International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS) to Highways England's underlying data structures, thereby bringing greater transparency and lower costs, and reducing risk in infrastructure projects.

Having worked closely with RICS to begin applying the standards, all of Highways England's cost and work breakdown structures are now aligned to Levels 1 to 3 of ICMS, representing '5.69bn of price data across 36 projects. It represents a huge leap forward in how the organisation can consistently measure and benchmark infrastructure construction costs, explains Gannicott. "As well as improving our own benchmarking, our data will also be shared with RICS for an international pilot that will compare highways projects on a global basis, helping similar organisations lower costs and bring added value across the board."

Martyn Gannicott, Highways England Martyn Gannicott, Highways England

The ICMS pilot is currently collating infrastructure data from the governments of Hong Kong, Singapore, the Republic of Ireland and Canada. What this data will eventually give the industry is a direct comparison of elements of global construction projects, while removing some of the challenges around currency fluctuation, helping to promote consistency and transparency, raising confidence and increasing global investment in construction projects.

"What's key is data sharing," says Gannicott. "Once data is in the right format to be used for making comparisons, it can also be used to calculate, in broad terms, how much things should cost. There are significant benefits to this: sharing data brings in a high degree of transparency, and helps with people's expectations of what the costs might be to build, for example, a section of road or rail."

However, the global drive to benchmark using ICMS is not just about cost reduction – it is also about getting greater value for money: "Are we comparable to the rest of the world in the way they build their highways, and are our projects cost-effective?" says Gannicott." It's about reducing risk by getting a higher degree of financial certainty at the outset of a project. Furthermore, although we can always find a way to build more cheaply, at what cost will this be to the environment? Launching this year, the next stage of ICMS will also consider and compare the carbon costs associated with global infrastructure projects."

ICMS is a global standard for benchmarking and reporting construction project costs. It covers capital and whole-life costing, while providing a way of presenting costs in a consistent format.

"ICMS is all about reducing risk by getting a higher degree of financial certainty"

Tackling gender inequality and under-representation in the profession

Rosemary Silver FRICS, associate director, Avison Young

Alongside working as a busy building surveyor, Rosemary Silver FRICS dedicates much of her spare time to ensuring that women at all stages of life have fair representation within the profession.

As a chartered building surveyor with more than 30 years' experience, Silver is concerned that women are still so under-represented in the profession. In 2017, after noticing that the vast majority of surveyors at three major conferences were men, she decided to spend more of her time raising awareness about the property and construction industry's gender gap.

Rosemary Silver, Avison Young Rosemary Silver, Avison Young

"I was shocked that there had been so few changes over the past 30 years," she says. "Although RICS says the overall percentage of women entering the profession is now about 30%, those who are chartered and remain in the profession make up just 15%."

In 2018, Silver moved to Avison Young, in part because of their forthright approach to growing the representation of women in surveying. "One of the reasons I liked the firm was their positive attitude towards my questions about my continuing involvement with the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)," she says. "I was also impressed to see the City of London-based office of 400 people where I work is headed by a woman, Ros Goode MRICS."

Since joining Avison Young, Silver has been supported by the firm, which has hosted NAWIC committee meetings. She has also helped organise events including a site visit to the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, and an event for 90 people where the audience were encouraged to have a "growth mindset" as opposed to a fixed mindset, in order to live a more fulfilling and healthier lifestyle. Last November, Avison Young also sponsored the first RICS conference for 200 women in construction, which Silver co-organised through NAWIC.

"It was uplifting to see such a strong presence from women and men across the profession, coming together to make strides in diversity within the property and construction fields," says Silver. And thanks to her request, on International Women's Day on 10 March 2020, RICS held a series of talks and events at its London headquarters aimed at celebrating women's achievements in the profession.

"So many talks or magazine articles feature the top per cent, or the first woman president, or the first female on a board," says Silver. "But events should include and celebrate all working women. It's important to make diversity within one group include us all – whether young or old, whatever background, colour, sexual orientation or ability. Everyone should contribute and be included. Change has been frustratingly slow, but it is happening."

NAWIC is an international organisation of women working in the construction industry, whose members include architects, lawyers, engineers and chartered surveyors. 

"I was shocked that there had been so few changes over the past 30 years"

Cutting costs and improving services for clients by using drones

Richard Huffer FRICS, Partner, Daniells Harrison Chartered Surveyors 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have taken off in a big way in the industry. Richard Huffer FRICS, partner at Daniells Harrison Chartered Surveyors in Fareham, Hampshire, began using drones to improve his company's commercial offering and provide a better service at a lower cost.

Drones are revolutionising how surveyors work, none more so than traditional firms who have invested in offering aerial surveying services. But although the technology looks exciting, only those who understand how to get the most value from it will benefit from the investment.

Richard Huffer, Daniells Harrison Chartered Surveyors Richard Huffer, Daniells Harrison Chartered Surveyors

"We didn't consider buying a drone until we were sure the quality of the high-resolution photographs and videos it was able to take was good enough for what we needed," says Huffer. "Grainy photos and videos are not much use for bringing back to the office to analyse. In 2018, we invested in a DJI Phantom 4 Pro with a 4K camera, which does everything we need it to do."

Huffer explains that adding the drone to Daniells Harrison's multidisciplinary practice has been transformative, but it was crucial to integrate it into the professional valuation, property management and building surveying services the firm was already providing. "Principally, our building surveyors do a lot of dilapidations work, and the drone has revolutionised how we examine the roofs of buildings," he says.

"Previously we'd have to go through the time and cost of hiring a cherry picker, with someone manually inspecting the roof over crawl boards. Using the drone means we don't need to do that any more, which saves a lot of costs for the client, plus it's a far quicker way of completing the job."

"We fly the drone to inspect residential and industrial buildings, and we've even used it to ascertain the condition of the timbers on an old Victorian bridge, which was almost impossible to get to any other way, due to the strong tides underneath."

As well as getting into tight, almost inaccessible spaces, the firm uses the drone to get a high-resolution overview of large-scale developments. From a maximum of 400ft (122m) above, the drone is currently monitoring the progress of a 41-house residential development, helping contractors pinpoint the position of plots and drainage systems. "It's brought added value to our clients, because we're not dependent on third parties," Huffer says. "We can do the jobs whenever we like, as long as we have the relevant permissions, and, of course, with weather permitting."

"The drone has added value for our clients, as we're not dependent on third parties"

IIllustrations by Mercedes Debellard/Folio Art