Lee McDougall, Director at architecture and building consultancy practice AHR, discusses how housing estate management should turn towards data and digital modelling to drive efficiency and ensure high service standards are maintained.

Registered social housing providers face three key pressures in today’s market: improving services, building more homes and ensuring they can deliver within reduced budgets. Technology has a fundamental role to play in helping to manage these pressures and meet requirements.

A key focus for the sector has been ramping up development – many housing associations are becoming active developers to combat housing shortages in their communities. The task is no small feat. The Building Homes Building Trust report in 2018 found that housing associations will need to at least double their development output to around 80,000-100,000 new homes annually over the next decade. Meeting these targets is a significant challenge and many housing teams struggle to keep on top of their expanded portfolio once these homes have been delivered.

At the same time, providing quality, secure homes is a key feature of the Government’s Social Housing Green Paper. As a result, service improvement will continue to be fundamental to portfolio management and landlord services.

These challenges are also set against the backdrop of years of budget restrictions and this has left many estates teams short on both time and resource. This isn’t a trend that is set to change any time soon. Many housing associations have had to adapt by offering open market sale, shared ownership and private rental products. While this may have provided new revenue streams, it has also created new estate management challenges as a result of the variety of tenure types that need to be managed. In short, estates teams need to do more with less.

Information use and storage

The absence of a reliable central point of information on building condition and maintenance records presents an additional and significant challenge.

Many estate teams across the property sector use manual records to log maintenance projects and lease details and this is no different in social housing. The current model is inefficient and can lead to mistakes due to simple human error.

Duplicate files often contain contradictory information and multiple team members may have different copies on file. This leads to confusion and common situations where contractors are appointed to deliver maintenance work, only to find the work was completed weeks ago, simply because of out-of-date information. Likewise, when people move on to new jobs, poor record-keeping can create a situation where the most up-to-date files are lost because there are no systems in place to coordinate and organise this information efficiently.

A digital future

The emergence of cloud technology and the capacity for real-time data input means new solutions can be created to tackle these old inefficiencies.

New technology can store information on an entire estate – for instance maintenance records, leases, and resident information. These systems combine all this information into a single database and present information and trends in a graphical and user-friendly interface.

Meanwhile, GPS receivers capture detailed spatial information, including the location of assets and street furniture, such as lamp posts, benches and bus shelters.

Combined, both systems can create data-rich maps of entire portfolios for estate teams, designers, consultants and contractors. Thanks to the visual nature of the systems, it’s easier to communicate details of projects to the wider organisation or key stakeholders, making new levels of collaboration possible. The technology also allows real-time updates to keep system information up to date.

AHR has developed an interactive mapping system that incorporates all of this technology. It’s the first of its kind and integrates OS maps and GIS data to create live, visual resources for understanding the current needs of estates teams.

Previous issues of duplicated manual records will be eliminated and due to the real time functionality, information will not become outdated or inaccurate. The map delivers significant benefits for tenants and estates teams alike.

Improved transparency

Innovating with technology creates new possibilities for teams to engage with tenants too. By giving residents access to mapping technology, they can flag maintenance issues as they arise. Customers themselves are then a valuable on-the-ground resource for estate teams to flag issues as they happen, perhaps reducing customer service costs for housing management organisations.

This fits with the ongoing need to improve transparency between housing providers and residents and could be a huge step in the right direction when it comes to enhancing services too. Issues can be identified and acted on more quickly and estates teams can handle more incidents at once by removing a lot of the legwork that comes with keeping manual logs.

By using technology to increase efficiency and simplify working practices, management teams can unlock a huge opportunity to improve estates management. With pressure on the sector showing no sign of abating, this could be key in keeping up with increasing demand and servicing growing estates without compromising on standards.

Housing Management & Maintenance (HMM). 2019. AHR.
Available at: https://www.housingmmonline.co.uk/companies/aedas-architects-london/