Sometimes the world of residential property can appear a little behind the times. Partly that’s because there are so many stakeholders involved in every building/project that no single individual or party is in a position to implement change, so the easiest thing to do is stick with tried and tested ways of doing things, even when they aren’t the most efficient or economical. Then something like Covid-19 comes along, and there’s no alternative but to try new ways of doing things.
The good news is that over the past year, building surveyors and our clients in residential property have improvised new ways of working, including using digital technology, to ensure we safeguard the health of residential blocks even in less than ideal circumstances. Some of these new ways of working will be temporary. Others are likely to become permanent. Either way, it’s worth reflecting on developments over the past 12 months to assess when and how we might be able to return to the ‘old normal’ in some respects, but also in what ways we might want to embrace a ‘new normal’ in 2021 and beyond.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Covid-19, the resulting lockdowns and ongoing restrictions, have been devastating for many sectors of the economy. In the case of residential property, it has meant many buildings have not had the attention they normally would. There have been fewer routine inspections and less attention to maintenance. In 2020, many companies reduced their weekly inspections to perhaps monthly inspections, and there were added complications with vulnerable leaseholders, so inspections inside flats may have been missed or issues not reported, which obviously carries the risk of problems going unnoticed, and consequently allowed to deteriorate.
To make matters worse, there are two other major issues the sector is grappling with right now.
One is a knock-on effect of Covid and the restrictions, which is that with thousands of people either not able to work at all or on reduced incomes, some leaseholders have struggled to make their service charge payments. In turn, that has meant property managers’ budgets have taken a hit. The second issue is cladding and fire safety, which has been a major issue for obvious reasons ever since the Grenfell Tower disaster. It’s been estimated that replacing unsafe cladding in London alone will cost £4 billion, and it is now common that leaseholders are having to pay fire wardens thousands of pounds a month to keep their homes safe.
These combined issues mean that many if not most landlords and managing agents have had to reassess their overall maintenance strategy. For many, the focus for the next two or three years is going to have to be reactive rather than proactive – the opposite of what building surveyors like me have always recommended – but bowing to necessity in this way does not have to mean abandoning a strategic view altogether. For the time being, though, taking a strategic view might mean making a conscious decision to be reactive, and making sure everyone is aware and aligned with it, at least as a temporary measure. If we’re going to have a reactive regime, we can at least ensure it’s a ‘planned reactive regime’.
First things first, we know many buildings are going to need urgent major works to put in place fire upgrades and cladding replacements, and those things are going to take a massive chunk out of budgets, possibly leading to a backlog of other maintenance priorities. We simply need to accept that these unexpected ‘big ticket’ items are going to dictate the shape of maintenance cycles for the next few years. In that context, the focus has to be on realignment. It’s a case of doing what needs to be done now, and then assessing where that leaves us in terms of future priorities, as well as the budget to pay for them.
In other words, making a deliberate decision to postpone other works is very different from simply forgetting about them. When we’re all under pressure in terms of time and money, there’s always a danger that we simply react to one crisis after another, rather than thinking more strategically. Instead of that, we can retain a big-picture strategic view, which means at least making a note that these other works will be required in due course, and monitoring the situation to check for any further deterioration. In other words, better a backlog you know about than one you don’t.
This point cannot be stressed enough at a time when traditional planned preventative maintenance is going to be seen by many building managers as a luxury they can’t afford. Never forget that a good maintenance strategy will save money in the long run. Even in these more straitened circumstances, then, it’s important to plan as strategically as possible, and to have a good understanding of the condition of your building and any works that are going to be necessary.
That means dropping routine inspections altogether is not an option. The good news is that planned maintenance checks do not have to be all or nothing. It is possible for surveyors to carry out a more basic ‘health-check’ on buildings to flag any issues that are obvious to a trained professional but might be missed by someone else. That way, they can offer reassurance where appropriate, or advice about interim measures that might be necessary even in lieu of full repairs.
Another consequence of the restrictions we have all had to get used to is that businesses everywhere are taking advantage of online video apps to hold virtual meetings and presentations, and the residential property sector is no different. Similar technology can be used to put together more time and cost-efficient alternatives to a written planned preventative maintenance plan and regular comprehensive inspections.
It’s now possible to conduct an interactive survey or ‘video walk-through’ – effectively a virtual or ‘smart health-check’. A surveyor can simply walk through a building, area by area, to point out issues the manager should be looking out for, which the manager can then use to guide their own inspections, calling in additional help if they have any concerns.
Another piece of technology that has come into its own over the past year is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone. Drones enable us to carry out remote surveys by studying video without necessarily visiting the site itself, which is obviously more economical as well as more practical at a time of social distancing. They also provide visual access to areas that would not otherwise be accessible without expensive scaffolding, and frankly offer better views. Better still, the footage taken from drones provides a permanent record that can be viewed again and again. This is an example of a technology that has not only come in handy in exceptional times, but we can expect to be with us for good.
Digital technology can also be used to generate 3D visualisations of a site, especially before and after works, creating a real sense of space and perspective before work on a site begins. 3D models can include accurate, densified point clouds and geo-referenced orthomosaics, which can then be used in a wide range of applications within surveying, construction, architectural design and civil engineering. And digital mapping allows properties and their surrounds to be viewed in high levels of detail, providing visual resources that facilitate much more detailed and granular planned maintenance, as well as planning for major works.
So digital technology is undoubtedly going to play an increasingly important part in the future of planned maintenance, long after the pandemic. In the short to medium term, though, we should be taking advantage of innovative techniques as well as new technology to ensure that, whatever immediate priorities come up and have to be dealt with, we never give up on proper planned maintenance. The long-term consequences of allowing it to slide could be dire for the condition of buildings, making matters even worse in terms of strain on budgets.
So, let’s be realistic. The past year has been tough for everyone, and we’re probably going to be struggling through the consequences for some years to come. But if we continue to think strategically, and we’re careful and deliberate about the trade-offs we make to cope in these difficult times, it is possible to minimise the damage and ensure our buildings come out of this in the best possible condition, so we can pick up any issues when things are a bit more under control.
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