Rise of the robot

According to the Q4 2016 Global PropTech Confidence Index prepared by MetaProp NYC, there are signs that both investors and the chief executives of start-ups are increasingly optimistic about technology adoption in the property and construction industry (http://bit.ly/2kauGOK).

These professions are obliged to familiarise themselves with new practices and technology. However, if that technology is something that could make you obsolete, you may think differently.

Automating surveying

This is not science fiction. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is happening now, and adoption will accelerate in a way that has already been witnessed with earlier technologies: the replacement of horses with cars, home computers with mobile devices and 20 human cashiers with one who oversees 20 self-service tills. Indeed, earlier this year, Amazon introduced a high-street grocery store in Seattle, USA, that has no cashiers.

So think for a moment what it might take to automate the building surveyor’s role.

● A database: this would comprise building defects, building archetypes, corresponding diagnoses and costs.

● Image collection: laser scanners can model whole elevations of a building and the rooms inside, while drones can methodically photograph the entire exterior of a property, including the roof you cannot reach in person. (Image: A ‘point cloud’ – a 3D model that has been created by an aerial drone taking hundreds of images, and software which is able to relate the imagery to datum points to provide a measurable model. Image credit: Kennedy Surveying Pty Ltd)

● Image recognition: not only can Google’s search engine recognise images that you provide, the tech giant has developed a neural network that learns to recognise your doodles. If you sketch a fish, it will tell you before you have finished that you are drawing such a creature (http://bit.ly/2klSHo5).

● Document review: web robots (bots) – a software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet – can already review millions of documents and emails instantly on behalf of lawyers, extracting key terms or identifying missing information.

Even though these applications all exist in some form already, they have not yet been put together to automate a building surveyor’s role, however.

There are companies whose mission is enabling such automation. One company has created a smart hospital using existing data sets and a machine-learning algorithm to predict failure of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) services (http://bit.ly/2kIOetq), which could spell the end of HVAC consultants.

You may have already spotted the glaring hole, though: building surveying – or more specifically building pathology – is not limited to routine tasks involving explicit rule-based activities.

Malcolm Hollis muses in his book Building Surveying that “surveying buildings is an art; verifying the cause of the failure is a science. The surveyor’s work involves a combination of both the art and the science.” Arguably the science element can be automated; the art part, however. is not just about looking, but about seeing what is there and what is missing. As surveyors, we apply our experience and form a holistic view of the problems. This is where AI comes in.

Artificial intelligence

Talented programmers can code bots to teach themselves how to do the things they can never be coded to do. Put simply, a bot is provided with correct examples of a given scenario and is then able to figure the rest out itself, a process also known as machine learning.

This is how bots have been able to trade stock on the stock market and vehicles have been able to drive themselves. Data is showing that self-driving cars are starting to require less human help (http://bit.ly/2ksw4Ph); at the current rate cars are learning, Google believes that using them in the public domain as soon as 2018 is a realistic possibility.

Meanwhile, after doctors were unable to diagnosed a Japanese leukaemia patient correctly, IBM’s AI, Watson, managed to do so. Watson is programmed to understand natural language and return an accurate diagnosis. Like other medical bots, Watson can access terabytes of data representing the experience of many doctors, is able to parse it and add its own experience to the data set.

If AI can beat doctors as diagnosticians, it is probable that AI can be just as good as a building pathologist. What about when it goes wrong? AI has a dark side; algorithms can make bad decisions with serious consequences such as military drones killing innocent people. In 2018, EU member states and the UK will adopt new legislation that governs how AI can be used.

Early drafts of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which was adopted by European Parliament to protect “all individuals in the EU” in April 2016, enshrined what is called a “right to explanation” in law, “whereby a user can ask for an explanation of an algorithmic decision that was made about them.”

How different is this to a human being assumed innocent until proven guilty? Inevitably, AIs and their respective human creators will be held just as accountable as humans are when something goes wrong. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has been developing regulations for a number of years now that will govern self-driving cars when they are eventually made available to the public.

Building surveyors often find themselves providing recommendations on which a client will rely to make financial decisions; at times, these involve considerable investment. We also identify risks and advise on safety matters that mitigate loss of life caused by building failure. Can we rely on AI when there are such high stakes?

But all AI has to do is have a lower failure rate than a human. Self-driving cars have driven millions of miles in the USA without a fatality. Although a driver died inside an autopiloted Tesla Model S in 2016, Tesla maintained that this was not primarily a self-driving car; in contrast 35,000 people lost their lives in the USA as a direct result of humans driving cars in 2015. Put clinically, in certain scenarios where all risks are considered, AI could be considered to be still more economical and safe than relying on a human or even 10 humans.

Economics always wins

Carl Frey and Michael Osborne’s 2013 paper “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” ranks occupations from least to most computerisable. Recreational therapy ranks first, with a probability of 0.0028 of being computerised. The closest surveying discipline in the list ranks 635th out of 702 occupations tested, with a probability of 0.96 of being computerised (http://bit.ly/2klhWXL).

The question of impending automation is ultimately an economic one. It is not always a case of whether it is merely possible to create a robot to do a job, but whether the value minus cost of the robot exceeds the value minus the cost of the human labourer.

With testing and adoption on the increase, automation seems more and more inevitable, as its economic sense is proven by the industries leading the charge. AI does not require sleep and has a cheaper lifecycle cost than a lifetime salary. Not only can it work faster than you, it can make correlations that would be impossible to find otherwise.

Prepare for change

People used to think chess was a game that humans alone could play until IBM’s Deep Blue first won a match in 1997. In early 2016, online viewers from around the world watched as Google’s AI defeated the top-ranked player at the Chinese game of Go, a 2,500-year-old game that is considered substantially more complex than chess and also requires a degree of intuition. Google’s AI beat Lee Sedol, in four of five games.

AI is starting to touch many different facets of our lives, from ordering coffee to major industry, and it has already demonstrated its capability in knowledge jobs. So it is time to give serious consideration the role AI will play in our careers; after all, the profession is faced with an ageing membership and its current strategy is encouraging future generations into a career in building surveying. What if AI catches us off guard with the solution, and new members are suddenly faced with obsolescence? The question might not be whether a computer will take your building surveying job, but when.

Some firms are seizing a competitive advantage by adapting their business activities now rather than later. Last year KPMG Australia launched a new practice to help clients harness the power of AI. However, it is unclear if firms have given this consideration in the context of building surveying. We can choose to be integral to this process, although competition may be fierce. The development of a building surveying AI will likely require human surveyors themselves, albeit far fewer than the profession now comprises, and only the most talented.

Otherwise, we should consider changing careers to recreational therapists.

Craig MacDonald MRICS

This article first appeared in RICS Building Surveying Journal July-August 2017: http://bit.ly/BSJJulAug17

This article was informed by the video Humans Need Not Apply by CGP Grey, an educational YouTuber and podcaster; http://bit.ly/2jv4VLh.

Stock Condition Assessments: A data capture story

The year is 2008. How do you collect and report on condition data from 1,500 domestic properties?


A private firm tasked with reporting lifecycle assessment of 1,500+ public housing required a 20 year look ahead and summary of every property. The assessment of each property set out to capture a lot of data, the condition of every room of each house from structure and fabric to finishes. From plumbing to electrics. Both internal and external condition.

Therefore the client brief included to report in excess of 500 lines of unique data for just one property.

A couple of proposals were made, the first included the old way of creating a paper proforma in excel for each room of the house, for the externals and for the external areas, ending up with a standard report ‘pack’ (around 12 sheets of A4 back and front stapled together) for each house. The problem though, was the data entry exercise that would follow. How long was that going to take, and who were the surveyors that had the psychological constitution to pull it off.

Focusing on the client deliverable being a spreadsheet, I knew that to tackle the volume of data in a meaningful way would be best achieved using a relational database. Where rules and relationships can be defined about various data sets, and ultimately, output a spreadsheet of the required information. The next benefit was harnessing the ability for a database to use forms to make data entry more fluid and consistent for and between surveyors.

Data was collected in the field using paper proforma which reflected the database input forms. These completed hard copy forms were then returned to the office for the data entry exercise, which was now less staring at lines of data in a spreadsheet, and more of a common sense approach using data input forms which could select data from predefined dropdowns. This was of course a stepping stone before tablets were widely available. This was 2008. Apple wouldn’t unveil it’s expensive and closed system iPad until 2010.

The database was not perfect straight off the bat. The process was still an iterative one. 500 properties in, our client would request if we could capture specific commentary relating to penetrations made for tumble drier vents where ever we found them. The database had new columns added, the input forms updated, and the paper proforma amended.

Eventually, due to the repetitive and prescriptive nature of the exercise, the data entry portion was eventually delegated to a member of admin staff that had become available. Although this tactic would not always be appropriate for a surveyor, the information being recorded was basic enough that it did not require a professional to interpret it to ensure it’s effective description in the final report. This freed the surveyor’s up significantly, feeling less demoralised by double handling their own work, and able to provide their time to additional engagements.

Eventually, Windows tablets were made available at work, and it became feasible to deploy these kinds of databases to each tablet. The paper proformas and double handling were gone, the electronic input forms for the database were now with the surveyors on site. Progress.

However, the focus had now shifted from the data capture methodology, to user behavior. A completely different set of challenges were being presented. These ranged from increasing the standard size of the fields and dropdowns to be big enough for fingers and sufficient dexterity, all the way to addressing surveyor’s behavior; short cutting the forms somehow, or only snapping images in order to spend less time on site messing around with dropdowns. Then choosing to complete the data entry on their tablet back in their hotel room later, using their images as their primary reference. Admit it, you’ve been there.

All of this experience, trial and error has fed into what Beyond Condition offers today; a way to take the pain out of the surveyor’s data entry exercise and to output survey reports quickly. by harnessing the power of data you didn’t know was inside your digital images, and streamlining the whole data entry process before exporting your final report file. You don’t even need a specific device.

Data entry for the surveyor is unavoidable. It’s up to you how to approach it.

A picture paints 1,000 words

We’re always reaching out to our users for feedback. It’s how we improve, and ensure our users are finding value in our product.

This great article relating to data capture methodology by Craig MacDonald was brought to our attention, it highlights exactly some of the challenges we’re tackling at BC. We contacted Craig and he’s kindly allowed us to re-blog it here.


Craig MacDonald MRICS is a Senior Building Consultant at KPMG SGA. This article first appeared in RICS Building Surveying Journal March – April 2016;


The profession is becoming increasingly comfortable with technology as it gains traction, and grows in relevance and importance, as table 1 indicates. Indeed, the time will come when the majority will not remember when technology was not part of their lives. Changes aside, the act of collecting data will remain at the heart of what any surveyor does.

I recently researched technology use in the industry through questionnaires. The question in Table 2 deliberately omitted tablet as an option. A tablet can do all of these things but I knew it would not be clear in isolating what may be the most important tool at our disposal. The majority selected the stills camera option, and when asked to qualify their selection a common response was the adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

The notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with a single still image, or that an image of a subject conveys its essence more effectively than a description, aptly characterises one of the main goals of visualisation, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly.

Capturing images today is incredibly accessible, fast and straightforward. Photography is a must for any site inspection, even if only for the surveyor’s own reference at a later date. Often though, unless featuring as part of a report or schedule, images will remain unorganised and become archived with their rich context being lost with each passing day.

Table 1

Table 2

Taking a record

RICS’ Building surveys and technical due diligence of commercial property 4th edition guidance note recommends that the surveyor always takes and keeps a permanent record of site notes (http://bit.ly/1N7pULW.). There are solutions that use technology to aid note taking. However, our respondents were clear when asked to consider the disadvantages:

  • electronic forms are often not reflective of the specific skills and expertise of the user, diminishing the surveyor’s role
  • forced data validation and restricted fields often conflict with the real life scenario, demonstrating a lack of flexibility and decision making
  • added risk from repetitive strain injury, be it raised arms carrying load or a crooked neck and back from prolonged periods of looking down at a cradled tablet.

These disadvantages are a clear invitation to approach data capture differently. We apply a recommended methodology to inspections, perhaps we should be doing the same for the images we capture.


If an image says a thousand words, it becomes the surveyor’s responsibility to record those words. After all, without recording the detail in good time, those ‘one thousand words’ are likely to diminish.

Further context can be mined from images saved as specific file formats. Most have accompanying metadata; a record of key data such as date and time. Images captured by GPS-enabled devices (i.e. any smartphone) will also record geodata such as latitude and longitude to an accuracy dependent on your GPS signal strength. When harnessed correctly, the context of images mapped by location for a client can become very valuable information.

A host of apps are now available for this task, save us time, and thus, clients’ money. Other factors such as consistency, flexibility and scalability become secondary selling points.  GoReport and Kykloud have gained traction in this area. However lighter-weight approaches are emerging such as Beyond Condition, that avoid being prescriptive about what data is entered and when.


The success of Apple’s iPad cannot be ignored. In the design and marketing, a perception has developed that the ‘future’ is likely to feature the product.  As versatile as the device has proved to be, is a tablet really our data capture endgame in the search for increased productivity?

Many app solutions estimate how much time a building surveyor could save, but in truth this is difficult to quantify. Many exercise some kind of rule of thumb, whereby an hour spent on site is worth five at the desk, reports that would otherwise take three days become much shorter, and covering 1,000m² will not necessarily take a day.

However, some respondents appear to be more realistic; “every brief is different, every site is different”, “it takes as long as it takes”. In addition, surveyor’s performance and experience will naturally differ from one another. Taking these factors into account, the gambit of tablets and their apps saving surveyors’ time does not hold.

This temptation to ‘appify’ solutions may be distracting us from examining what works well and exploring how to make that work better. The findings of the questionnaire suggest that cameras work well for everyone, regardless of the device or app into which it has been integrated.

In the context of a building survey, we observe instances where human behaviour will still seek to shortcut the use of the tablet and any restrictions it presents. It is important to examine these behaviours to ensure we are achieving true productivity. In the majority of cases the camera becomes our fail safe, our comfort blanket.


In using a tablet as a primary and sometimes sole means to undertake work, the danger is that we may be swept up with this decade’s fashionable trend. The image of someone working with a tablet instead of a paper pad presents to clients a ‘progressive’ and ‘innovative’ firm.

However, we should think about the lack of transparency for clients, especially when it is not often we have unambiguous data supporting the benefits we are selling, be it saving time, or otherwise. We need to examine what we are good at, and how we can take advantage of the strengths presented by new tools without overlooking those have always aided us.

Our [RICS] membership holds us accountable for undertaking continual professional development (CPD). This should not just mean catching the occasional seminar; we should be seizing opportunities to try new ways of doing things.

Newer members of the profession, raised with mobile screens and internet access, should also consider the implication of this and not become complacent simply because they are used to tablets. It is our ability to reflect on the data we have captured that cannot be substituted with automation.

Even though the humble camera has undergone major advances over the decades, it is still doing what it does best; recording a moment in time. Surveyors ought to contemplate the respect that deserves, and acknowledge that only we can decide how many words that picture says. ‘Est modus in rebus’ (RICS’ motto; there is measure in all things) – even with photographs.

Asbestos Registers

I’ve been in situations where myself and my colleagues have had to take on existing registers and update them. It was a long drawn out process because the existing registers were a fixed format which couldn’t be deviated from.

I built an access database that could import these Excel files, and a front end form that used drop downs fixed to the terminology that had to be used. Once updated, the Excel was exported and issued back to the client.

BC was built from this experience. A solution that needed to be accessible to everyone, which meant not needing a specific device, only a web browser and an internet connection.

It needed to be flexible as every client is different and each report brief bespoke. BC has standard templates that meet the requirements of asbestos legislation, and can be customised to meet bespoke briefs. Many local authorities asbestos registers for example not only collect the minimum required data, but set out to future-proof themselves by recording a lot of what might be considered excess data about site conditions. This is in the anticipation that it may become a requirement in the future. This means there is not one standard “fits all” asbestos register template. BC is built with this flexibility in mind.

One man licensed assessors up to bigger consulting firms can take advantage of BC’s streamlined data entry interface, using images captured on site to capture and analyse details afterwards rather than relying heavily on notes taken in-situ. It is actually amazing how much your memory can recall from a single image, especially if you captured it less than 24 hours ago.