Guests: Oscar Brooks, Director at Moda Living and Jonathan Burridge, CEO of Utopi
Having a better grasp of data in residential offers a multitude of benefits to customers, operators and investors. Moda Living and Utopi sat down to discuss the benefits they have already reaped from their own partnership. They joined Blackstock’s founder Andrew Teacher for a RESIcast on this topic in the lead up to the Property Week RESI Conference 2020.
Making better use of data will play a pivotal role in building strong residential brands in the future, a panel of experts told Property Week on the latest RESIcast.
Oscar Brooks, director at Moda Living outlines how harnessing data has been a crucial part in their aim to become the UK brand leader for customer service.
With the help of Utopi, Moda is already using data to inform decision making across all levels, from design through to maintenance.
“We want Moda to be the first proptech build-to-rent. What I mean by that is that data guides everything we’re doing at the moment. From a design perspective, we can talk about the nuts and bolts, how the areas are used, what type of environments are going to be created in the common areas and which sort of areas people are spending more time dwelling in,” Brooks says.
However, at first we found it difficult to find a partner that could provide a one-stop solution.
“When we embarked on the build of Angel Gardens, we spent about two years researching the market and speaking to a lot of engineers. Whilst you’ve got all the different systems in place, we thought surely there’s got to be one place where we can look at exactly how our building is performing and how all the systems are performing. That product wasn’t simply there at the time,” says Brooks.
But since partnering up with Utopi, a smart building technology integrator and managerial service provider a year ago, things have been ‘progressing at a rate of knots’, especially with teams which may not be natural fits to use tech, says Brooks.
“One of the good things about the partnership so far is that for teams of people who might not necessarily be that tech-focused, there are so many solutions out there which previously had been bypassed or shelved because people don’t always understand it. The Utopi team have certainly helped us to see the wide ranging benefits of the technology available.”
Utopi’s Jonathan Burridge describes what the company does as pulling ‘all the data out of the systems to create one version of the truth, which allows users to make the building smart, effectively’.
Utopi then gives that information to their clients through a single dashboard, essentially offering management information which can help make the building operate more efficiently.
However, some may have concerns that taking data from residential buildings and using it to inform decisions may raise data privacy issues. Burridge says that this is not the case.
“We’ve deliberately designed our service architecture to be GDPR compliant. So all the data that we operate with is anonymised. It’s specific to a site and asset, but it’s not specific to an individual. So everything that we’re doing with Moda, and any other client, sit in that anonymised data pool. We are aggregating significant amounts of data.”
Ultimately, understanding data produced by residential assets is part of a greater drive towards operators like us to embrace technology in order to engage with the digital-savvy resident.
Visit Property Week for the full article.
Andrew Teacher: Hello, and welcome to today’s PropCast. I’m Andrew Teacher from Blackstock Consulting. This is episode four of our RESIcast series in support of this year’s Property Week RESI Convention. And we’re joined today by Oscar Brooks who is one of the directors at Moda Living, and by Jonathan Burridge, who is the founder of Utopi, which is a technology consultancy. And we’re going to be talking about how Moda has really embraced smart technology and proptech in delivering a better user experience, Angel Gardens and also really focusing on sustainability and using data at the heart of everything to drive some really fantastic outcomes, as we’ll discuss in a second. But first up, let’s go to Oscar Brooks from Moda. So Oscar, it’s been obviously a bit of a crazy year for everyone. But you’ve had some great success in Manchester with Angel Gardens, which is the first Moda scheme to have completed. What’s the vibe looking like at the minute? Obviously, not an ideal situation to be in in Manchester. But you know, you guys are getting through pretty well, aren’t you?
Oscar Brooks: Yeah, obviously, not good times for anyone. But I think what we’ve seen is that ultimately, the building, the brand proposition, and the concept has been quite a resilient one. Not necessarily just for us, but across the board. Collecting quite a lot of rents; I think we’re 96-97% rental collection, and lettings are progressing really well. There was a slight slowdown in the marketplace when the true lockdown was enforced, and you couldn’t go and have a look around buildings and things like that. But for us, we’re still in double digits in lettings every week, we secured a pretty major corporate pre-let just in the depths of lockdown, which helped bolster the figures. And at the moment, technology has played its part in allowing us to communicate and engage with our onsite community.
Andrew Teacher: And how much of the lettings activity is being conducted in that way? Because I mean, Moda has obviously always had a very strong social media presence. And they’ve invested very heavily in brand, and that’s now paying dividends.
Oscar Brooks: Yeah, for the first time ever during lockdown, over 50% of inquiries were generated from social media, whereas typically I would say most operators look to Right Move for the majority of their inquiries.
Andrew Teacher: But coughing away 10% every time they do! And are people getting the sense of premium? Are they understanding that there is a huge premium, not just in the hassle free offer, but in having the gym and all of the other amenity spaces and the ability to work and the ability to kind of do what you need to do within the walls of the building?
Oscar Brooks: I think it’s definitely starting to come through. It’s a message that probably as a whole sector, we all need to club together and go on a bit more of an educational process, which is one of the things we wanted to try and tackle next year. Because to Joe Bloggs who is not necessarily familiar with the industry or the sector, it takes a bit of explaining when you’re talking about the levels of Wi-Fi that are included, the gym, the space, the co-working space, the amenities. And it’s quite hard normally to get all that messaging across on a Right Move ad or on a social post. So we spent quite a lot of time strategizing about how to get all that messaging across without coming across as too corporate on our branding and advertising. So there’s definitely an art to it. And it’s an art that we’re continuing to work on to try and hone it. But I think I think as a whole industry, there still needs to be an educational process for the public and the customers and the consumers about what are the true benefits of build-to-rent?
Andrew Teacher: Let’s bring in Jonathan. So you’re the founder of Utopi – tell us a little bit about Utopi. Sounds like some sort of music festival that didn’t happen this summer.
Jonathan Burridge: Yeah, so Utopi we’re a smart building technology integrator and money service provider. And we’ve actually been working with Moda for just over a year now. And one of the areas that we’ve had a lot of success on is really helping developers create the optimum technology solution for their assets. We call it a digital infrastructure blueprint.
Andrew Teacher: What does that mean in plain English? So for people that aren’t specialists, what are you talking about? Are you talking about putting a few TVs on the wall or laying some Wi Fi, laying some internet cable? What does digital infrastructure mean in the context of a 36-storey build-to-rent facility?
Jonathan Burridge: So basically, anything that produces data. So any one of the mechanical electrical systems that produces data, so everything from Wi Fi, TV, audio, visual, right the way through to building management systems, CCTV, access control, fire systems. So really linking stuff together so there’s a single point of control. In essence, we just pull all the data at the systems to create one version of the truth, which allows us then to make the building smart effectively. And we give that information to our clients through a single pane of glass as it’s referred to, or our dashboard. But it’s management information, in essence, and then we use that to help make the building operate more efficiently. So we drive a lower cost maintenance service doing exactly that.
Oscar Brooks: Interestingly, when we embarked on the build of Angel Gardens, we spent about two years searching the market and speaking to a lot of our engineering friends, and saying, because whilst you’ve got your CCTV, your fire systems, your access systems, you’ve got all the different systems in place, we thought, surely there’s going to be, in this day and age, one place where we can be out and pull up on our phone in a meeting and look at exactly how our building is performing and how all the systems are performing. And that product, it just wasn’t simply there at the time. And we got chatting to the Utopi guys, and gave them a brief as to what we wanted. And then they relatively quickly came back with a way of doing it, and now it’s progressing at a rate of knots that, for us, it’s – excuse the use of the name – but it’s utopia being able to pull up an app and see a live dashboard of how your building is performing and how you can use that to then improve it going forward.
Andrew Teacher: And what does that mean on a practical basis? Because I suppose the Moda aesthetic is highly-amenitized best in class developments. And I guess, the upside of that is you will typically have the best development in the city. The downside is there’s a lot that can potentially go wrong with one of those buildings. How do you capture that on an app where there’s so many moving parts, literally moving parts to it that need oversight?
Oscar Brooks: Well, I guess this is the age old data problem, isn’t it? A lot of different devices and tools collect data, but then it’s how do you store it? And what do you do with it to make it beneficial?
Andrew Teacher: Well, I have trouble with my radiators. Since Google took over NES, my thermostat doesn’t speak to my radiator valve! So who knows how you do it in a 460 odd unit building, I can’t even do it in my downstairs room!
Jonathan Burridge: That’s actually a really important example of why change control management is as important as the right strategy and technology. So you can’t really disaggregate technology from service because as soon as you do that, what you end up with is a gap between systems. So things don’t function the way that they were designed to function. And actually, change control is one of the central parts of our service offering, it’s making sure that when a software version on a system is updated, that it doesn’t have a knock on effect, and that something else that was meant to work then stops working as a result of that upgrade – it becomes a downgrade in essence, in that regard.
Oscar Brooks: I think that on a very high level basis that the benefit for us has got three sections to it. One is the operational piece. As a building operator, it helps us maintain and manage the building better. It can see what systems are working or if not, do we need to call someone out? It can streamline the diaries of the maintenance guys. It can do a lot of great stuff on that side of things. Then you’ve got the design element, which is now that we’ve got the Utopi stuff deployed in Angel Gardens, it’s allowing us to generate real time data which is feeding into the design of the next generation of buildings that we’ve got on the drawing board. So what it essentially does is help us provide a business plan for every square foot in the building. So, we can tell for example if no one’s using that library, right, well, let’s turn it into a gym space, because we can tell the gyms are at peak capacity all the time. So data driven design is what we’re starting to call it. And five or six years ago, when we were first designing Angel Gardens, there was an element of the developer and the architect sat in a room saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cinema room?’ But ultimately, no one really knew at that point. You can do surveys with the public, but no one really knows how well that’s going to be used. But the beauty of Utopi is it can tell you in with live data, what’s a good thing? And what’s a bad thing to design into the building.
Andrew Teacher: Yeah so Oscar makes a good point. So obviously, from a pipeline perspective, the Moda pipeline is circa 2.5 billion pounds worth of development pipeline, and your next couple of completed buildings will be the Lexington in Liverpool, which has always been my favourite, aesthetically, it’s a fantastic beautiful building, and the Mercia, which is the first of two developments in Birmingham. So, Jonathan, based on the data that Oscar has just described, what are the sorts of practical design changes that can be made to those buildings, given that they’ve obviously already got planning consent and are already under construction? What are you able to do before the point of completion to make them better?
Jonathan Burridge: Yes, that’s a really good question. And obviously, we got involved post contract start in terms of this development. So you would imagine that there’d be limited impact that we can have, but actually, that hasn’t been the case. So we’ve been able to help redesign the Wi Fi infrastructure, to get to create a much better user experience, both from a resident experience perspective, but also from the operational team on site.
Andrew Teacher: You love this phrase, “pervasive Wi Fi” – explained that to my nan.
Jonathan Burridge: Okay, so basically, pervasive Wi Fi gives you full building coverage. Now, the expectation would always be that you would buy a pervasive network, and it would cover the whole building. But actually, if you go with a home hub option, which is kind of a traditional model in build-to-rent and also in the student accommodation space, where you have your own router, like you would at home, in your apartment, or your bedroom. And that creates lots of issues around coverage and signal strength; you end up with too many Wi Fi access points, which means that you get overlap, and you get frequency issues. So by designing a floor plate with coverage for a full floor plate in a building, you get a much better user experience, because you get the optimum performance, and you get coverage everywhere, which means that if you’ve got your mobile phone connected in your apartment, you’d have the same connection in the gym, in the carpark, in reception, and you wouldn’t need to keep logging in and out of different systems basically. So from a user experience point of view that has been really beneficial I think to Moda but also, there’s some cost benefit on the whole. It’s a much more corporate way of designing the infrastructure, and it suits the built-to-rent environment much better. So that’s one of the things. There’s also a much deeper focus on integration, and ensuring that the data that we pull from the systems can be used and mean something to Moda and us as an operator supporting them. And then I guess the last thing is around the use of IoT, so internet of things for those that don’t know what that is. So I’ve been able to implement sensors that gather and create more data; give the building eyes and ears that otherwise it wouldn’t have had. So we’re doing things like collecting environmental conditions in various different spaces in apartments, things like temperature, humidity, noise, and co2 so that we can create a wellness score in a way that makes sense to a build-to-rent operator, you can then present that back to the app to the dashboard. You get that those metrics then that you can use to inform future decisions. So yeah, there’s a few ideas.
Oscar Brooks: There’s also a few things from a practical, hard infrastructure perspective. One of the good things about the partnership so far is that for teams of people who might not necessarily be that tech savvy or that tech focused, there’s so many solutions out there which previously get bypassed or shelved because people don’t always understand it. And the guys have certainly helped us in understanding certain technical specifications for the buildings. And one of these has resulted in potentially a £300,000 saving in terms of cabling in one of the buildings, because there’s certain new technologies we can put in instead of having to lay a certain amount of cabling to 34 floors across the building. And there’s the small wins like that from having them on board from day one in the design process. That money can then be put back into the building elsewhere to enhance a consumer and customer experience on a different level. So there’s multiple benefits across the board and I think the other good thing, I mean, I was reading the other day – quickly jumping on sustainability – about how they think that about 80% of the buildings that are going to exist in 2050 are already built. And, you know, how do you then retrospectively go back and upgrade and enhance those buildings without having to knock the life out of them and spend endless amounts of money? And I think what we’re doing even now at Angel Gardens is we’re still developing products and processes with Utopi that they’re able to go back in and retrospectively fit into the building for pretty minimal hassle, really, so stuff like that as well, which is handy.
Andrew Teacher: And Jonathan, what have been some of the other sustainability outcomes that you’ve had, using Angel Gardens in Manchester as a testbed, what sort of savings are you expecting going forward?
Jonathan Burridge: Yeah, so basically taking control of the HVAC systems and lighting allows us to reduce energy consumption. It’s a fairly easy win, but it’s something that’s often missed in many commercial buildings. Building management systems have been specified – over specified one might argue – for decades. And underutilised because they are a black art for a lot of people to be able to use them in the way that they were actually designed and the way they were intended. But as part of our service, we’re able to take control, and then effectively manage it as an organic service delivery tool. And that allows us to reduce operational costs and energy consumption, which obviously has a knock on impact around efficiency.
Andrew Teacher: And your approach to technologies, your tech – you’re device agnostic, aren’t you? So you will essentially recommend whatever the best gadget is for the job. Is that correct?
Jonathan Burridge: Absolutely. There’s only two things that we have that we’ve built if you like. One is our software platform that aggregates the data. And the other is a multi-sensor, which allows us to capture environmental conditions, because we wanted to make that accessible and affordable for our partners. But other than that everything that we use is market ready and we’re fully agnostic in terms of vendors and technology. And actually, that allows us to play a really important role in helping advise the operators in going to start business case assessment, which is what Oscar was referring to earlier – being able to look at something in a whole life context. So not just what does it save us today? But actually, what are the implications of that over a period of time. And OP-X is obviously a key area of focus for the operators. So looking at beyond PC, if you like and into operations is really important.
Andrew Teacher: Yeah, and just on this point about data, Oscar can you talk us through your thinking on data? So what is the role that data plays within the Moda brand?
Oscar Brooks: Yeah, we sort of touched on it earlier. But for me, we want Moda to be the first proptech build-to-rent, if that makes sense. But what I mean by that is that data guides everything we’re doing at the moment. So from a design perspective, from the moment of pencil to paper on a scheme, we can talk about the nuts and bolts, how the areas are used, what type of environments are going to be created in the common areas, which sort of areas people are spending more time dwelling in, making sure that every square foot of the building has got a business case, because the thing is, when you are designing and delivering these large scale communities, there’s a lot of space and there’s only a certain amount of it that you’re getting income from. And that’s so crucial with your gross to net calculations, and it can make or break the appraisal a couple of percent. So sort of streamlining all that from day one, so that when the ops guys start to feed into the design process, you’ve already done the heavy lifting in terms of making their lives easier. And then when you are operating the building, it’s stuff like being able to cast back onto existing buildings and thinking, ‘Oh, well actually, those metres or those radiators or those appliances were actually adding to either residents’ utility bills or that they were adding to our OP-X’ or the wrong types of light bulbs that was enhancing the maintenance demand. So predictive maintenance is helped by it. So there’s all that from a development and OP-X perspective. And then, for us on the resident side, on the customer side, where we’re trying to position the brand as the UK leader for customer service. And I think all of that will be, again, driven by data in the sense that we’ll be able to give the buildings a wellness score, we can plug customers into the app, which will make their lives more convenient, and trying to take more away from them and keep things simple. So it’s easier to pay your rent, it’s easier to speak to the concierge, it’s easier to deal with deliveries, but then also a big brand message is the health and wellbeing and how the data can support that.
Andrew Teacher: And that works for investors as well. There’s a duality of audience here. And obviously, you want to rent buildings quickly, you want to get the best rent you can to make the buildings create as much value as they can. But from an investor perspective, being able to look at a set of assets and benchmark them by performance on multiple levels is very much in keeping with where the investment committees are at, particularly with this growing focus on ESG.
Oscar Brooks: Yeah, ESG is a big one, we’ve got some pretty major announcements we’re going to make next year in terms of launching our strategy into the public domain. But I think ultimately, the goal for us is to be able to sit down to any audience, not just investors, but also potential residents. And say, ‘Look, these are the happiest, healthiest, most sustainable buildings to live in, in the UK, and this is the data for it, that backs it up.’ And that’ll be a combination of working with the Utopi guys to try and achieve net zero carbon, working with carbon offset partners to help support that as part of our health and wellbeing strategy, people get mental health checks, if they want them, they get health checks when they move in, which includes dexa scans, your blood levels, cholesterol levels, all available to people. We’re also working on a partnership at the moment with a company that provides through the app a mental health therapy service, at a discounted rate to market so that if you are feeling a bit down in the dumps, you can log into the service via an API on our app. And there’s real trained health professionals there who work with the NHS, where you can book appointments. And for us, that’s the set stuff. That’s where we’re thinking, we think that that’s pretty pioneering at the moment. One of the problems in the UK, which is always quite a political subject, is how hard it is to get a doctor’s appointment, how many of those appointments get wasted, and all the money that’s leaked through that. Whereas if we can bring those services into your own home using technology with credible and certified partners, then that all adds to the sort of holistic wellness approach that we’re targeting at the moment.
Andrew Teacher: So that means that you’re collecting and storing a fair amount of data. How are you finding the legal avenues of that? Of having to really comply with GDPR and all the other regulatory red tape that sits around this stuff?
Jonathan Burridge: It’s actually a really important question, GDPR. We’ve deliberately designed our service architecture to be GDPR compliant out of the wrapper, because, frankly, you don’t want to get into that territory, because it’s so grey. So all the data that we operate with is anonymized. So it’s specific to a site and asset, use case but it’s not specific to an individual. And actually, if you stay on that side of the line, then actually you’re pretty clear in terms of GDPR. So everything that we’re doing with Moda, and any other client, actually, it all sits in that anonymized data pool. So yeah, we are aggregating significant amounts of data. And as you mentioned earlier, ESG is becoming probably the number one priority almost at investor level at this stage. But as Oscar said, the tide is changing, and environmental responsibility, if you like, is become a more central part of everyone’s thinking, and I’m not sure that’s a reflection of being at home a lot and COVID and the fact that the world is currently quite uncertain, and worrying for a lot of people, but net zero carbon as a government policy and a target that people need to reach by 2045 or 2050 depending on where you’re located. Now that brings with it some serious potential challenges for owner operators, so I think it’s important now to avoid that kind of future penalty around carbon tax planning. And operational performance is thought through properly at this stage. And there are loads of levers to pull, around microgeneration, battery storage, better consumption management, green energy supply – it’s just understanding how those operate with one another in a live environment, that is the challenge that some of the operators are still trying to wrestle with, I guess. But data plays the key role in that ultimately, because without the insight and the knowledge of how the various different leaders are operating, you’re really not able to optimise that. And then reach that net zero carbon utopia that everyone’s talking about.
Oscar Brooks: I think also – taking a step back – from a customer’s perspective, and in the build-to-rent sector, it’s all going to be about customer experience. And ultimately, when the sector is more mature, and there’s more buildings up and built, and more brands in the marketplace, people will start to vote with their feet. And I think in terms of customer consumer trends, people will align themselves with brands that are doing the heavy lifting for them. So they can say, ‘Oh, well, look, I live in a Moda building, therefore, that means I am focused on ESG, or focused on sustainability or focused on low carbon’, if that makes sense. So I see that as a growing consumer trend as well, people aligning with brands that are doing a lot of the environmental social thinking for them in a way and have policies that really appeal to them.
Andrew Teacher: Well, because part of it is also just influencing people. I think there is that duality of what people say and what they do being often quite different. And that can be a hard circle to square reputationally for any brand. And the same applies for investors, there’s a lot of investors that are talking about ESG, but they don’t really stand by that. And to some degree, you’ve got an opportunity to force people’s hand somewhat.
Jonathan Burridge: I think there’s more than just environmental aspects, that adds value. Really, I think an ESG policy or strategy that’s applied correctly will also drive efficiency. And that ultimately, plays into investors other agenda points to key criteria. So I think the secret is actually in trying not to tackle one thing, but to tackle it as a group of initiatives, I think, in my view.
Andrew Teacher: So just to finish off with we’ve talked a lot about sustainability, but clearly, one of the other big changes on the tech side is the emergence of 5G. So what does that mean for you guys? What does 5G look like? It’s obviously going to make a few things a bit faster. It’s not going to overhaul the residential world overnight, but it’s quite an exciting emergence.
Jonathan Burridge: Yeah, so 5G is indirectly going to affect everybody’s life in some way at some point. It’s going to be a bit like when the iPhone and the smartphone were launched a decade or so ago. And everyone was like ‘what’s thing for, what do I use it for?’ No one really knew what the apps might be, no one understood the future if you like, and 5G is a bit like that. And the App Store hasn’t been even created yet. So people don’t know what they’re going to use it for. But fast forward the clock 10 years from now, and I’m sure there’ll be loads of use cases out there for 5G. In the short term, I don’t think it has a major role to play in the built environment per se. Because you know, in the context of a building where you have pervasive Wi Fi or any kind of Wi Fi infrastructure, 5G wouldn’t add a huge amount of immediate value to that. It’s potentially more secure, but I don’t think that’s required in a pre-designed corporate base infrastructure, like, for example, what Moda are deploying. Security is already unquestionable, it’s at a high enough grade that you wouldn’t need to concern yourself with that. I think once you start leaving the building and going into the open world, then yes, that’s a really important factor. And in some commercial environments, the security isn’t there, inherently therefore 5G would add some value to that. But I think for a Moda development it’s not a question or an issue.
Oscar Brooks: You’ve just touched like there, I guess. But we went over to South Korea when we were finalising our deal with Samsung and we went to their future Technology Centre, where you have to hand over your watch and your phone and all that jazz. And interestingly, the stuff we saw in there, and you know, it’s everything from holographic TVs to see-through walls and appliances, and they are sort of a world leader on 5G but a lot of the 5G related things they were focusing on was stuff that was more when you’re out and about so you know, wearable fitness technology, mobile devices, stuff for when you’re actually out in the wider built environment in public. So it’ll be interesting to see, they’ve no doubt got product ranges lined up for when it does kick off across in a wider expanse. So it’ll be interesting to hear how it all pans out.
Andrew Teacher: Hmm, exciting stuff. Well, yeah, it’s going to be interesting year ahead on the consumer tech front and absolutely look forward to seeing how this plays out. Not just to Angel Gardens but the Lexington too. Thanks very much to Oscar Brooks from Moda Living and to Jonathan Burridge from Utopi. I’ve been Andrew Teacher from Blackstock Consulting, please do subscribe to our podcast on Apple, Spotify or any other platform, just search PropCast. And if you’d like to get in touch, drop us an email. But thanks a lot for listening and we’ll see you soon.