Which Camera?

A client recently asked me, “what type of camera best suits your needs for surveys?”

I enjoy photography as it is, and always wishing to learn and practice so I use a DSLR. For site I use a Nikon D3300 and an 18-55mm lens.

A lot of my inspections include shopping centers and warehouses. There are pros and cons to carrying a DSLR around, but I do prefer it overall.

DSLR is a “digital single lens reflex” camera. The single lens reflex refers to the mirror which reflects the view from the lens for you to see in the viewfinder. When the shutter fires, the mirror moves out of the way for light from the lens to expose the sensor, creating the image (before digital, the same thing happened but the light would expose the film instead of a sensor). Non SLR digital cameras, are sometimes called a ‘mirrorless’ camera or a ‘point and shoot’.

The D3300 is an entry level camera, meaning it’s market is for those wanting an introduction to learning how to use an SLR. So it has a cropped sensor, a smaller battery, and no auto focus motor (newer DX lenses have their own focus motor anyway). This makes for a smaller form factor SLR. It comfortably hangs around my neck as I walk around site, and sometimes I just use one hand whilst the other is holding a tablet.

Next important thing is workflow. Outside of work, I shoot in RAW. When reviewing and finishing the images on my machine, I used Adobe DNG Convertor to batch convert the raw images into digital negatives, then I use Bridge to batch edit any under exposed images, or just play around and get creative.

The changes I make when using an SLR for work, are that I switch from shooting in RAW to JPG, and from manual to auto. This saves a lot of time. When I find myself in either low light, or where warehouse windows cause all of the internal walls and roof soffit to be very underexposed, I’ll switch from auto to manual and control the shutter speed myself, to give a longer exposure time to ensure the walls come out. This does flush out the windows however. So what I can do is shoot manual and raw for that particular situation, then use adobe RAW editor to lighten all shadows and darken all highlights to provide a high dynamic range in the image (our eyes can see HDR but cameras tend to require some post shoot trickery to do it). I’d only go out of my way to do this if the underexposed thing I’m trying to shoot is a critical building issue.

The 18-55mm lens is a general use optical zoom lens. A good all rounder that lets me shoot general pics, but zoom into rainwater goods and parts of roofs. The high resolution of the image means if the zoom isn’t good enough, you can still crop zoom in the office and get a good result. A favorite trick of mine is to spot vantage points from other windows to get good roof photos. Best time this happened was for a warehouse with a large floorplate. I wasn’t allowed on the roof without fall arrest equipment and I couldn’t see anything from the ground. Across the road was a control tower used by a shipping container company. When I asked my client, they had a good relationship with their neighbour and I was allowed to go up the control tower and zoom into the entire roof. The client saved $2k on a cherry picker and I got what I needed, and some great shots of the Port of Brisbane 🙂

Some vantage points are better than others

If you are choosing one between Nikon, Canon and Sony, there’s really not much in it. Know that when you commit, its likely you’ll stay because your lenses will be compatible. At the end of the day it’ll be what you feel is most comfortable using. I chose Nikon purely based on the fact I felt whilst Canon and Sony manufacture lots of things, Nikon focus on cameras. A lot of other metrics between them are on a par.


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 (

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 (

● 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 (, 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 (; 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 (

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:

This article was informed by the video Humans Need Not Apply by CGP Grey, an educational YouTuber and podcaster;

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.

Newsletter — April 2016

What’s new with Beyond Condition

BC Basic now 1GB

The Basic subscription used to only provide 200MB of space to upload images. Now its total space is 1GB per basic account, at no extra cost.

Start your free trial today!

New Features

We’re always saying it, and we’re still doing it – Beyond Condition keeps improving.

We’re constantly working on new features to help users reduce data entry time and get the absolute most out of their reports, big and small. Since our last newsletter we’ve added:

  • Import existing reports — Do you have a spreadsheet that wasn’t made using BC? Now you can import it and edit it in BC. Or share your exported schedules with a colleague that uses BC for them to edit.
  • Hierarchical fields — Need columns which break down elements into sub-element and sub-sub element? You can customise a BC template to do that for you now.
  • Sub Folders — Using your images as the starting point for your data entry? If you’ve already organized your images into sub folders before uploading (ie roof, elevations, externals, internals), then BC will add that as an extra data column in your spreadsheet. One less thing to do.

Coming Soon

We’re working on an “offline” mode — we know that some users do work in locations that don’t have the best network connection. We’re currently adding a feature that will allow data entry done in the field in such circumstances to automatically re-sync when you get back within network range. This will allow you to collect data from remote locations, and still generate a report when you get back.

The added bonus is that this will also make our data entry more robust — if you are mid-way through entering data when your connection goes down, BC will automatically re-sync your changes when you come back online.

We love your feedback! Let us know what you are looking for from BC and how we can help you.

BC Community

We’ve created a LinkedIn group for our users to provide feedback, to help us improve Beyond Condition on the fly, and for you to share your experiences. Someone may be using BC to quickly do something that could help you too. Take a look and join in.

Last month we also got mentions in the RICS Building Surveying Journal and RICS Modus.

Tutorial Videos

You asked and we listened. Here’s our first tutorial to walk you through creating your first report. Stay tuned for more where this came from.


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 ( 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.

Graduates fuel demand for online tools

With the average age of a building surveyor on the decrease graduates along with their technology savvy seniors are expecting more from their digital tooling.

Intuitive technology based solutions such as Beyond Condition put efficiency in the hands of the end user allowing them to produce far more in less time.

In a burgeoning industry where output can not meet demand, Australian based company Beyond Condition has developed a cloud-based tool designed to convey the surveyor’s judgement in report form in less time.

According to Mr. Ben Ihle, Senior Manager at Beyond Condition whether you are completing an audit, inspection, or maintenance report, the company’s online tool can dramatically reduce the overall time spent on site and at the office uploading and formatting reports.

“Graduates using Beyond Condition can outpace their senior counterparts completing jobs that would normally take three days in less than one day using Beyond Condition,” he concluded.
The Basic subscription comes with standardised report templates and the Professional subscription enables users to set up custom report templates and define custom fields.

Follow Beyond Condition on LinkedIn and twitter for company updates.


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.

Cloud based tools reduce asbestos reporting time

Licensed assessors are under pressure to keep up with legislation and develop methods to track and maintain data accurately and are using cloud based solutions to collate information and reduce cost. 

According to Beyond Condition’s senior manager Ben Ihle, the cost of creating and updating asbestos registers can often be dramatically reduced by using online tools.

“An average asbestos report can cost up to half a full day of additional time if the building consultant does not use an effective capture tool,” he said.

“Online tools can enable reports to be created easily in a pre-tabulated format reflecting the minimum data capture requirements required by legislation.”

“The asbestos report template included in the Basic subscription is streamlined to allow quick recording of inspection and sample dates. In addition, it automatically calculates risk based on likelihood and consequence. With the Professional subscription users can create their own fields to meet their client’s bespoke needs.” he concluded.

Follow Beyond Condition on LinkedIn and twitter for company updates.


Online tools helping surveyors keep up with demand

Across the world workload for building consultants, surveyors and auditors continues to increase as client demands are fuelling the race for more efficient methods of delivering professional services in the property and construction industry.

According to experts, professional surveyors and auditors will keep pace effectively by combining best practice with intuitive technology based solutions.

With the industry already under pressure to produce accurate reports in a shorter length of time, Brisbane based company Beyond Condition has developed a cloud-based tool designed to convey the surveyor’s judgement in report form in less time.

According to Mr. Ben Ihle, Senior Manager at Beyond Condition whether you are completing an audit, inspection, or maintenance report, the company’s online tool can dramatically reduce the overall time spent on site and at the office uploading and formatting reports.

“Beyond Condition keeps you on top of workflow by creating rapid reports. All surveyors have to do is take site photos and enter data – Beyond Condition will generate a formatted photographic presentation report and take the tedium out of the task,” he said.

“Judging by feedback and system statistics – a building surveyor that would normally take three days to complete and return a report to the client could take less than one day using Beyond Condition. We’ve worked hard to strike a balance between a tool that helps you, but which doesn’t get in your way,” he concluded.

The Basic subscription comes with standardised report templates and the Professional subscription enables users to set up custom report templates and define custom fields.

Follow Beyond Condition on LinkedIn for company updates.