Cost efficiency has always been important for owners and managers of estates. Yet for the public sector - from social housing to local authorities - budgets have been heavily eroded and funding is now virtually non-existent, with half of all councils having no grant funding at all by 2019.
This means leveraging assets like never before, both in terms of investments and in terms of squeezing further life out of existing buildings. Registered Providers must also now cross-fund social housing with commercially oriented ventures. Right across the board, the public sector must increasingly think like property developers – and on far tighter budgets. What tools can we use to maximise estates within these constraints?
By far the best way to achieve this is to perceive the estate or property portfolio strategically and holistically, rather than project-by-project. This means making ‘cross-referenced’ decisions about the optimal mix, and timing, of programme aspects. In any one estate or portfolio, planned works can incorporate various mixes of: refurbishing or ‘re-lifing’ existing assets, either temporarily or permanently; repurposing heritage assets (which might be valuable in attracting tourism, say); and the judicious use of smaller new-build elements such as infill to extend the life of existing assets, all alongside flagship new-builds, carefully considered to offer value in terms of brand recognition – for example as a matter of civic identity or to showcase regeneration projects.
Getting the mix, timing and interrelation of these right is both critical and complex, and decisions about individual buildings or projects made in isolation without consideration of the bigger picture can skew conclusions. No doubt this is the view that good Estates Managers already take but it can be undermined by external factors.
One of these factors is that, even with the best intentions, a revolving door of consultants and project teams can create isolated thinking. When new teams are drafted in to work on separate projects, each will approach their ‘allotted’ building largely as an individual entity, which goes against the grain of an interlinked perspective, whereas the optimum solution might actually lie in interventions to two buildings within the estate, or the creation of a link between them. This may be missed if the team does not have a long-term relationship with the estate or portfolio as a whole.
As a hypothetical example, you might be considering two new buildings to accommodate expansion, both on tight budgets. Two different practices may both do a great job – in isolation. However, if a consultant is already familiar with your estate, they might offer alternate suggestions, for example expanding an existing building with clever infill, or decanting certain facilities into a listed building with potential for remodelling, leaving more financial scope for a single new-build to become a showcase asset. In the absence of overarching knowledge, ideas and projects are not ‘transferable’ and so do not optimise the mix of strategies.
Rather than continually appointing unfamiliar partners, cultivating few but long-term relationships creates cumulative familiarity with – and indeed ‘investment’ in - your strategic vision and goals, avoiding isolated, short-term thinking. In many ways this is similar to what we now understand about both sustainability and efficiency savings: short-term thinking can produce inaccurate results, where whole-life costings and life-cycle sustainability show the bigger and so more accurate picture.
A second major factor in supporting a holistic approach – one which leads to optimum outcomes – is taking both a long-term and a ‘bird’s eye’ view on the estate as a whole. This ensures that decisions are not made about individual assets that have to be revisited a few years down the line because the bigger picture had not been considered. Again most Estate Managers are aware of this but ‘contradictions’ can easily be missed simply due to the complexity of keeping all information in mind at once. Here BIM can be a real boon.
BIM – now increasingly embraced by the public sector – inherently supports a holistic perspective because models can be created for both new-build and, in conjunction with highly accurate laser scanning methods, existing elements. These can be ‘slotted’ into each other over time, building up an overarching and interrelated working picture of an entire estate which is accessible in its totality – and at one’s fingertips. This is particular helpful when dealing with a large estate that, while situated on one ‘campus’, has very many assets and especially where these have been built at different times. Since BIM is now compatible with FM software, it also offers longer-term benefits and possibilities for maintenance and improvement works, further facilitating optimum planning.
Cultivating relationships, and embracing new technologies, are both valuable aspects of a far-ranging and over-arching approach to an entire estate or asset portfolio. Both help ensure that short-term, mid-term and long-term goals are considered in tandem. Ultimately, in the drive to maximise estates sustainably and cost-efficiently, ‘whole life planning’ may be the most efficient tool.
STEPHEN WILLIAMS SCHOLARSHIP
24 MARCH 2015
Shortlisted for Architectural Practice of the year
21 AUGUST 2018