Upgrading properties at scale: learnings from Get Living’s East Village refresh programme

With no blueprint for a BTR refresh programme, Get Living needed to develop the approach from scratch for its East Village refresh. So, what was key to its success?

Living area, part of the refresh programme at East Village Build to Rent scheme - Get Living | BTR News
Living area refresh at East Village. Image credit Get Living |

By Rich Coles, Prodactive Project Solutions who led the East Village refresh programme on behalf of Get Living

With the significant growth in the UK’s Build to Rent sector since the first large-scale development in 2013 with Get Living’s launch of East Village, the focus has been on delivering high quality homes and revolutionising the resident experience across the UK. As the sector matures, a key challenge for all operators is to ensure their original portfolios continue to deliver the same appeal, quality and brand promise to residents as their new homes, in turn ensuring the appropriate returns for investors.

The importance of good design and furniture to appeal to residents of Build to Rent homes is widely acknowledged, but with this comes the challenge that these need updating to remain attractive and when it comes to furniture the scale of the problem is significant. It’s estimated the Build to Rent sector will consume 6.2m items of furniture by 2030. With around 800,000 tonnes of furniture ending up in UK landfill annually, it is critical the Build to Rent sector takes its environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities seriously. 

Apartment bedroom refresh at East Village Build to Rent scheme - Get Living | BTR News

As the pioneer in the UK’s Build to Rent sector, Get Living has been the first large-scale operator to face into this challenge and in 2020 embarked on an ambitious programme to update its original portfolio of homes in East Village, the former London 2012 Olympics Athletes’ Village.

After six years, some of the original furniture was starting to look dated and while every home was inspected and assessed for necessary remedial works post tenancy and any damaged furniture or other items replaced, this only enabled the proposition to stand still.

A key challenge facing Build to Rent operators is their buildings are live 24/7 so do not have the luxury of closing off whole floors and ‘blitzing’ them, nor the advantage of planning detailed works in advance without unpopular pre-move-out inspections. In the case of Get Living’s East Village, with 48 buildings spread across a 67-acre neighbourhood created yet further efficiency challenges. 

This is all before overlaying the challenge of carrying out the works during the Covid pandemic, with significant changes in resident daily routines and ensuring works are carried out safely with appropriate measures to protect residents and contractors alike. 

Lounge refresh at East Village Build to Rent scheme - Get Living | BTR News

Despite these challenges, Get Living managed to upgrade 450 homes in 2020, starting in late February. With the benefit delivered by the refresh, Get Living increased occupancy in 2020 despite the challenges faced within the rental sector and have recently signed off the investment to deliver a similar number of refreshed homes in 2021, representing over 60% of its original Olympic Village portfolio.  

With so many properties being upgraded, Get Living ensured environmental considerations were built into the programme from the outset and ensured their suppliers were able to support these. Of the furniture, as at the end of April 2021 around 14% has been re-deployed, 53% donated to charity, 7% recycled, 4% sent for biomass reuse and none sent to landfill (with the balance pending designation). This focus to deliver on its ESG commitments is reflected in Get Living being awarded a top 5-star GRESB rating in the 2020 GRESB Real Estate Assessment.

Bedroom refresh at East Village Build to Rent scheme - Get Living | BTR News

With no blueprint or playbook for works on this scale, Get Living needed to develop the approach from scratch. So, what was key to its success?

  • Management and investor buy-in: Build to Rent is a long-term investment and the Get Living leadership team and investors recognised early on that in order to leverage their assets, they needed to invest, and the works were treated as capital expenditure. An appropriate budget was allocated, and ensured the focus was delivering a quality upgrade each and every time.
  • Standalone programme team: the operations and maintenance team are busy at the best of times servicing the needs of the residents, so it was clear from the outset a separate team needed to be established to ensure a total focus on the upgrade works. 
  • The right partners: delivering a programme of this scale with so many moving parts meant being able to rely on delivery partners to work flexibly and as one team. Get Living appointed Arkle Property Services for the building works and David Phillips as the furniture supplier, who established dedicated delivery teams that formed part of the ‘Olympic baton relay’ as properties were vacated, turned around and then handed back to lettings, ensuring every step of the way the team was consistently the high quality standards expected of them.
  • Customer and team feedback: test properties were completed initially, then a first  batch of homes were released in control to gather customer feedback on the different levels of works to understand the commercial impact and refine the specifications. This process was also invaluable for discounting various pre-existing subjective opinions on works needed as well as getting full business and investor buy-in to the programme.
  • Leveraging scale and stability: while the team lost some efficiencies given distances between properties, having an agreed pipeline and run-rate enabled purchasing economies of scale and operational efficiencies for the delivery partners guaranteed, with their own offices and welfare areas established on site.
  • Process and systems: from the outset, the team established a consistent assessment format and coding system, where each vacated property was assessed and works determined depending on specific needs rather than a risk-based blanket budget being allocated per property.
  • Progress tracking: having one single source of the truth on the status of each home was critical, ensuring each team knew their timings by property, with automated alerts and notifications to the various teams significantly reducing admin and risk of error. This also fed a management dashboard with the latest numbers available on demand to demonstrate progress and monitor availability of homes for prospective residents.
  • Regular communication: as with any project of any scale, regular communication is critical to success and this programme was no different. From the outset, it meant providing regular updates to the management team and investors on the progress and results, weekly management team and partner check-ins to look ahead and address any brewing challenges, ensure visibility of any changing requirements and to recognise achievements, and ongoing reactive communication to quickly address any issues that arose. 
Refresh of apartment balcony at East Village Build to Rent scheme - Get Living | BTR News

Clearly like any relay team a few batons got dropped along the way and Covid created further challenges – such as extended lead-times for furniture and limiting stock of carpets and underlay, but these helped provide invaluable learnings to strengthen the team and the proposition. 

“The Refresh programme has been instrumental in driving the quality of home that residents deserve to complement their lifestyle choices. In a live environment, navigating the obstacles of a major property turnaround requires thorough planning, exemplary execution and high attention to detail, which everyone involved has worked hard to deliver, one home at a time”

Ian Gibbs, Director of Neighbourhoods, Get Living

With the summer approaching, the Get Living team now have a highly efficient system in place to ensure there is a sufficient volume of upgraded homes to meet demand, as well as confidence in how to execute the programmes in their other neighbourhoods when their time for a refresh comes, all while delivering on their ESG commitments and investor expectations.