Property Database Aids Lifecycle Costing

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week 2005

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Landlords are under immense pressure to learn more about their properties. On the one hand investors and shareholders want evidence that assets are being sweated; on the other, a torrent of new regulations has engulfed even the smallest enterprise, demanding detailed information on issues ranging from fire safety to energy efficiency.  Card indexes have long been superseded by computer databases but even these are creaking under the strain. Sleep deprivation is at its most critical for local authority and housing association managers, struggling to apply draconian government regulations to massive estates.

  Officers sleep soundly in the London borough of Lambeth, however. Tenants are also a lot happier since the council put its database back into the melting pot and came away with a sophisticated analytical tool that can do anything from calculating the 30-year cost of meeting the government’s Decent Homes Standard to predicting when a little old lady on the 15th floor of a tower block will get her double glazing. The council was struggling to translate vast amounts of raw information from the 1998 house condition survey into a credible system for estimating the cost of meeting the new standards on more than 35,000 properties. Specialist surveyor Property Tectonics was able to provide a snapshot from sample inspections but the real step forward came when this information was worked up into Lifespan, an interactive analytical database.

  Initially this showed the council would need to spend more than £550m by 2010 and £1.5bn over 30 years to meet the new standards. That was far more than could be raised from grants and council tax, so it gave a solid base to plan property sales, says Bob Orwin, the council’s stock data and finance manager.  More importantly, because Property Tectonics is a surveying specialist rather than just an IT consultant, it could integrate costing information from its own experience. While the initial survey showed almost 15,500 properties fell below the target standard, manipulation of lifecycle costs revealed further property that would fail the test in future and require extra spending. 

     As the new system evolved, it began to spin off unforeseen benefits. Communication with tenants is always a high priority for councillors aware that they are also voters, but officers struggle to provide and evaluate detailed information on huge portfolios. Data is often scattered around between various departments and often lost in a bewildering array of PCs, filing cabinets and desk drawers – a picture many private sector landlords will find familiar.  Each property could have hundreds of files, says Orwin. Now, however, questions can be swiftly answered from a single source. A little old lady can be prioritised for double glazing rather than lost among a vast program of area upgrades. Meanwhile, lifecycle costing means hundreds of tenants who have bought council flats can be told when the roof or boilers are likely to replaced, so they can plan ahead and potential financial problems are thrown up early.

  Much of the benefit comes from continuous feedback. ‘There are a lot of management programs floating around but we went for Property Tectonics because they are so strong on partnership and ready to respond to new demands from users,’ says Lambeth stock control officer Dave Jervis.  One key issue was creating an ‘audit trail’. Annual inspections demand a record of property changes and who authorised them. In the past, officers took a screenshot which was printed and filed – adding to the vast array of scattered information, says Dave Bracegirdle, associate director at Property Tectonics.  This information is crucial not just for management control but to calculate key performance indicators which determine how much a local authority will receive each year in grants. Now it is swiftly accessible online because, unlike the previous system, Lifespan allows controlled input from authorised users.

  Another result of feedback revealed the importance of making information collection as easy as possible, says Bracegirdle. The software was developed to enable information and digital pictures to be recorded on hand-held computers and downloaded back at the office. They can even handle digital signatures from tenants and contractors.  More and more landlords will be looking for this kind of analysis, particularly as new energy regulations come in next year. But is such a system only for giants like Lambeth, one of the top 10 UK landlords? Not necessarily. Bracegirdle says Lifespan can cost between £6,000 and £40,000, depending on the size of portfolio. 

  In return, Orwin says it has already raised Lambeth’s energy assessment [SAP] ratings dramatically and enabled more vulnerable tenants to be given priority for central heating. Improvement in the housing service has also contributed to the fact that 63% of Lambeth’s value performance indicators improved between 2002/3 and 2003/04.

 After its success with housing, Property Tectonics is pushing into commercial property. Britannia Building Society is using Lifespan to manage some 300 properties including more than 200 branches.  Stock condition surveys are completed on the surveyor’s PDAs and uploaded onto the Lifespan system on return to the office.  The system then automatically updates the information held on each property in Britannia’s portfolio - its condition, any work in progress, work needed and when scheduled etc.

  The system also holds photographs, drawings, plans, CADs, asset registers including fire extinguisher and utility access and stop-tap locations, history of asbestos management and so on. That means what is usually a complex and unwieldy amount of information is easily accessed and reported upon.  This allows greater efficiency in everything from future work planning to reporting on regulatory compliance. As the data is securely web enabled, those who need access to information of a property before visiting it can access details from any desktop with access rights.  Future developments could see the information being accessible from the field allowing a surveyor or a building contractor to download full details to their PDA wirelessly when on site.