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Death to Condition Surveys

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Death to Condition Surveys

Prof. Trevor Mole BSc(Hons) FRICS.

Undertaking stock condition surveys are no longer a sensible option for many social landlords

The approach and philosophy behind them no longer contribute to an effective asset management strategy and needs to be replaced with a new methodology. Condition surveys were a useful device in helping landlords understand their stock and its condition at a time when little was known about what was on the ground. Its development was supported by advances in computer technology which enabled surveyors to collect lots of information on site and have an ability to analyse it and present it as meaningful management information. It was the first step on the road to creating informed asset management and investment decisions, which was particularly important in the stock transfer of council housing to other not-for-profit organisations. It was good strategically but much less effective in the detail especially when sample surveys, grossing and cloning were the order of the day.

The situation is now quite different. Most social housing landlords have a reasonable amount of good information on their stock, having invested in additional condition surveys and asset management systems. They will have changed and updated their estate data within their systems over time, including the replacement of new building components, expected life cycles and cost profiles etc. and will have added new data such as energy performance and compliance etc. Today, asset management systems are not only needed for strategic purposes but are information models that support strategy and operations. In these circumstances, continuing with the condition survey methodology is inappropriate and out of date and a new approach is required in the form of Asset Surveys.

Asset surveys are quite different from condition surveys as they will deliver quite different requirements, namely:

  • Audit, Update & Extension
  • Performance Evaluation (physical & social)
  • Enhanced Data Validation

Auditing, updating and extending asset information is the focus for asset surveys. There is no point doing the same surveys remotely and repeatedly, which is the limitation of condition surveys. The existing asset database, if it has been managed and updated properly, is alive in a sense, as it contains the latest details and information on each dwelling. It is therefore nonsensical to undertake surveys in a vacuum without this information, expecting surveyors in the field to second guess new data when much of the existing information is correct and based on reality. For example, the existing database would have records of completed works, showing when a component such as a window had been replaced. So why ask surveyors to determine a predictive replacement life, without informing such a decision with details of when the window was last replaced?

Surveyors should be armed with the existing data on site so that they can make good use of the information by applying an auditing approach to update, amend and extend data as they see fit, based on existing information and what the property is like on the ground. In this way the survey, if done properly, will be much more valuable, accurate and reliable. There seems to be a reluctance by some managers to allow surveyors to have this information because they fear the surveyors might be led by the existing information rather than act independently. However, this worry can be overcome by using the right people, with the right interpretive skills, good training and effective technology. Having the right IT is fundamental in ensuring that surveyors make decisions and cannot simply accept the existing data provided. In other words, the existing data cannot be a offered as substituted for new data in the software, but it can inform the surveyor in providing a completely new survey. See the section on enhanced data validation below.

The design of the asset survey should include the notion of extension, where additional strategic information is collected where possible within reason, otherwise the cost of the surveys will become prohibitive. Many of the fields in the survey are duplicated across different modules such as EPC, Decent Homes, HHSRS, Condition. With good IT, multiple entries can be replaced with a single-entry saving time and money and improve consistency and accuracy enormously. The use of photographs, strategically placed in the survey data, is beneficial and modern asset surveys should seek to enhanced visual representation. The collection and updating of energy efficiency data using the latest version of RdSAP should be considered fundamental. Whether the EPC data is lodged or not, surveyors will use the latest government accredited conventions and protocols, which are so helpful in regulating much of the content in an asset database, if used and connected wisely.

Performance evaluation is a new concept which will take time to develop and mature. The quest is for surveyors to undertake a building performance evaluation whilst on site. To do this it is necessary to establish several pre-set evaluation measures which will inform strategic decision making and property performance analysis. There are already good measures which can be employed in this type of analysis such as energy, decent homes and HHSRS, but what is lacking is much of the softer issues associated with resident satisfaction and what is good and bad about the accommodation; issues around desirability, serviceability and quality. There is no magic bullet here but by extending hard building data with objective and subjective feedback on how the building is performing and resident experience, is a valuable addition to developing good asset management strategies in the future.

It could be argued that the difference between a good survey and a bad one is fundamentally a question of how much data validation and checking has been included. Most surveyors undertaking surveys have a certain level of experience and competence which is enhanced by companies providing good training and support. However, they are human, and they make mistakes, which is so easy given the enormous amount of data being gathered and recorded by them. The commoditisation of condition surveys is also a major factor, with surveyors having to do more and more for less and less money with predictable consequences. Part of the new challenge is that it is eminently sensible to do fewer better-quality surveys, that are rigorously validated, for the money. Notwithstanding, the only sure way of overcoming poor quality data is by employing good data validation techniques which help surveyors whilst on site and supports them by others working off-site.

It’s all about good validation

Good data validation is a new phenomenon which exploits the speed and accuracy of smart technology and strategic human intervention. The development of data validation tools is an absolute necessity and is a continuous process from the minute the data is collected and recorded to the time it is uploaded into the customers live site. Surveyor gismos can no longer be simple recording devices, they must be an on-site resource, containing information and existing dwelling data; they have to carry advanced data validation and checking tools that highlight inconsistent, missing and inaccurate data and they have to provide a hard validation gate to stop poor surveys being uploaded.

Site validation is not enough, and survey data must first pass through the data validation play area where the power of computer technology will trawl through the information with speed and efficiency applying smart computer techniques to highlight poor quality data so that they can be corrected. The principle here is that asset surveyors are responsible for ‘survey and report’ and their work does not end on site but in the office, ensuring what the smart computer audit picks up is corrected properly. Computers don’t do everything, for example that photographs are good ones and show what they are supposed to. There can be no substitute for human intervention and the asset surveyor must examine the final (report) results in the asset management software and sign them off.

 

Property Tectonics is committed to innovation and the advancement of knowledge. The company was one of the original condition survey specialists dating back to the 1980’s when the company used MS-DOS IT systems and mobile technology powered by battery belts. It pioneered the commercial application of whole life costing techniques and building asset management and has been committed to the notion that one can’t manage anything without information and measurement. Condition surveys in social housing were a good solution but it is now time to move on, we have the technology, we have knowledge and we have the creativity to re-imagine asset information modelling of the future.