Property management and FM software merge

Copyright: David Lawson - Property Week 2004


Property technology walks two parallel paths. One is crowded with tools for valuers, asset managers, sellers and investors. The other is just as heavily populated by programs dedicated to building and running premises.

  Rarely do the paths cross. The separation is historic. Traditional leases handed over repairs and maintenance to tenants, so landlords didn’t care how buildings were run. Occupiers were not interested in how well their bricks and mortar performed. They just wanted to know how much furniture they had, where pipes and cables ran and when they might need maintenance. Pinstripe suits did property management for the owner: boiler suits did facilities management for the occupier.

  But the paths are converging. Corporate occupiers  and investors have woken up to the importance of running property efficiently as both an asset and workplace. Whole-life costing is gaining recognition while environmental demands tax skills of professionals ranging from sub-contractor through designers to fund managers.

   Familiar property names have crossed the divide. Argent chief executive Roger Madelin and Hammerson’s John Bywater will lecture at next month’s  Building Performance exhibition in London’s Olympia. Top software developers such as Raindrop will be at the exhibition spinoff devoted to technology, aptly named  PropIT.  A couple of weeks later they will be repeating the exercise at PCS Expo – formerly the Property Computer Show – at the Design Centre.

   FM specialist MASS is launching its dedicated online system Desktop at PropIT  but then moves across to PCS Expo. Raindrop will also be at both,  introducing an integrated FM suite for industry leader Manhattan.

‘Property management and facilities management departments have always installed separate IT systems designed to meet their specific requirements. But an integrated system allows users to extract management information from the data flowing through the whole organisation in real time - adding further value to property-related departments’ risk management role within a company,’ says  Steve Vatidis, group managing director of Raindrop Information Systems.

  ‘Integration of all departments with responsibility for property can substantially cut  total cost of occupancy and cost per head of workspace across the whole property life-cycle.’

   But experts are wary about confusion and hype as the paths converge. Lifetime costing, for instance,  is a vital topic across the whole industry, particularly with the advent of 30-year PFI schemes, says Bernard Williams,  managing director of International Facilities and Property Information. A new edition of his industry-standard tome Whole Life Economics of Building Services, written with Ron Hurst and Malcolm Lay, shows that maintenance, energy and replacement of components comes to more than three times initial installation costs,  an important consideration in the context of sustainability.

  But simplistic techniques such as setting energy targets are flawed. The study shows energy costs per square metre varies by almost 100% as between small and very large buildings, making targets impossible to achieve for smaller premises. Focussing on energy efficiency can also distract from the real aim of producing ‘intelligent’ buildings.

   The term itself is confusing. At one level, it can be applied to sophisticated technology developed by firms like Cisco and Honeywell to bring heating, security and ventilation under central control for analysis and planning preventative maintenance. Techniques like Archibus and Fsi’s Concept System present the information in graphic form on computer screens. Every square foot of space and every stick of furniture can be tracked and plotted for space planning through asset registers.     

  Making the crossover should not be difficult for those more used to estate management software, says Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting. Leading systems like Trace, Fraser Williams and Raindrop should handle the extra tasks. But the end result should not be merely cost control. ‘Intelligence is about people rather than things,’ says Williams. The overall aim should be to improve comfort and flexibility to raise productivity of an occupier’s most valuable asset – its staff.

   Some insiders doubt whether the paths have truly integrated. Mark Purnell, managing director of FM services supplier Derek Smith Associates,  derides the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of sales patter and fears management systems and ‘bolt-ons’ often offer more than they deliver. They concentrate on the fabric of buildings but ignore the people they are meant to serve.  An asset register will note the condition of every light fitting and when it will require maintenance but not whether the staff member below it last had an eye test.  ‘True integration should include every personnel and health and safety,’ says Purnell.

  He also echoes a common complaint about property management software: systems are too complicated. ‘They are trying to do too much. Facilities management is not rocket science. It is simple service supply. You ask questions and get answers. ‘But programs are often designed by technicians with little feel for property. The sheer complexity frightens off users,’ he says.   He cites one system that distributed hand-held devices for inputting information. ‘Tiny keyboards. Engineers with fingers like shovels. How reliable do you think the information is likely to be?’ 

What is FM software?

CAD-based  –. Onscreen representation of assets and services. Useful for space planning and preventative maintenance. Commonly used by - or for - large occupiers. Capable of showing plans in layers of different uses that than can be overlaid. These often draw in other applications as ‘bolt-ons’. Major players include Archibus and Fsi Systems

Building management systems – Integrate all building’s services into a single control panel for  monitoring and maintenance. Global leaders in equipment such as Toshiba, Honeywell and Cisco are investing heavily in automation, integration, wireless and remote links.

Applications  - a host of suppliers offer services such as helpdesks, stock control   and document  management. Many adapt off-the-shelf programs for individual users and are integrated into CAD packages.

Source: International Facilities and Property Information