COMMENT | Poor building data stifles investment

Edwin Groenendaal CEO HARNESS

It seems obvious that buildings exist but, on paper, the nature of buildings is complex, writes Edwin Groenendaal. There is no central database of buildings, and so they exist purely as a part of address strings. Sometimes what seems like a single physical entity is multiple “buildings” on paper.

Because building identity is tucked away inside records such as addresses, putting together a view of what constitutes a building becomes important – and difficult. What if a lack of good building data is holding back the investment market from reaching its full potential?

After all, building data is severely lacking around the world. In the UK, for example, most details of a commercial asset are available only after it has exchanged hands, through Land Registry. Some attributes are missing from these records and are typically only available in listings or survey data that isn’t publicly available. This presents missed opportunities for potential investors.

Larger complex structures can be especially challenging as they can span multiple streets, have multiple entrances, multiple postal delivery points and multiple post codes.

And the challenge remains the same in the US, which does not even have a standard address identifier like UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number) and where the industry needs to use various sources for addressing ranging from Google Maps to the Department of Agriculture.

A building with 10 postcodes

HARNESS Shard Data

Visualisation of data available on The Shard (click to expand)

London’s iconic Shard building, a 72-storey skyscraper, is a great example of how much data there is about buildings and how little of it is available to investors.

If you search for the Shard in the usual UK databases – Royal Mail’s PAF (postcode address file) or the Ordnance Survey’s ABP (AddressBase Premium) – you will find between 34 and 128 records depending on whether you use one or both sources.

This means there are up to 128 address records pinned to The Shard. They cover some of the floors and available units and refer to a fraction of the total number of businesses in the building.

Meanwhile, HARNESS’ Data Fabric tool, which collates data from all available UK data sources (such as ABP, Companies House and Land Registry titles, among other sources) has identified more than 9,500 records for the Shard. This includes units and types, ownership records, existing occupiers and all floor and basement levels along with the address of the building itself, which reveals 10 different postcodes.

Without the full view – the full set of data that relates to this asset – it’s an impossible task to derive full insights or run any analysis. One’s view on, say, lease incomes or ratings assessments, becomes so incomplete and misleading that it’s unusable.

This becomes more problematic when it comes to larger complex commercial assets like office blocks, shopping malls and business parks.

The more complex a building, the more variables investors might be overlooking when considering investment. In short, you need as much data as possible across all building components to accurately determine crucial factors like yield and rateable value.

The challenge of complete data

Existing datasets around building data are complex, and it would be near impossible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to resolving this issue.

To some, ownership is key – they are interested in what transacts. This may well be a portion of a physical building. Or it may well cover more than just the target asset. To others, curtilage is important, or perhaps the physical dimensions. It all depends on your interest in the asset.

Instead, data sources need to provide more clarity on what they offer. Is it addresses for postal deliveries or more complex granular details like units and floors? This cohesive approach would provide a connected 360-degree overview of all the components of a building, allowing stakeholders to gather the data of interest to them, from transactions and ownership data through to energy and carbon efficiency.

A unified data structure would enable far greater understanding of the potential investment opportunities that lie ahead in the commercial real estate sector. Of course, you likely won’t need all of the thousands of records associated with an asset. The point is that you pick your dimension, and your level of granularity, from the most complete set of data available to you.

Edwin Groenendaal is CEO of HARNESS Data Intelligence

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