BIM won’t kill the QS profession but firms that don’t embrace the changes will lose relevance

Jon White

Amid all the nostalgia and hype surrounding last month’s Back to the Future Day, it was fascinating to see which of the film’s predictions came true, and which didn’t.

The 1989 blockbuster Back to the Future 2, which sees two time travellers leap forward to October 2015, accurately anticipated wearable tech and hoverboards, but flying cars? That one still hasn’t got off the ground.

Back in our industry, the dire predictions made a decade ago about what BIM would do to quantity surveyors proved equally fanciful.

Reports of the death of QS are greatly exaggerated. Yes BIM has had, and will continue to have, a transformative effect on the way surveyors work.

But the idea that BIM would do to QSs what the printing press did to medieval scribes has never stacked up.

The ability of BIM models to automatically generate cost estimates doesn’t lessen the need for an expert to interpret the vast amounts of data produced, or to distil it into a form that clients can use to make informed decisions.

Equally, the quality of the data you get out of a BIM model depends on what data you put into it. Surveyors are thus ideally placed both to analyse the output from the process as well as decide the inputs required.

Just as the arrival of spreadsheet software in the 1980s took the drudgery out of making multiple calculations, so too with BIM. Both technologies allow the automation of more laborious parts of the process, and enable QSs to concentrate on adding value by interpreting the data, giving their professional judgment and advising the client.

With the BIM level 2 deadline almost upon us, another aspect of early phase BIM is changing – the debate over which profession should take ownership of the process. The answer has turned out to be all of them – a truth that will become increasingly apparent as the construction industry transitions to level 3 BIM. This higher level of BIM penetration will require all the professions to work off a single model, and force greater and earlier collaboration between them.

QSs cannot continue to deliver their old service and assume all will be well.  BIM can now provide an automated assessment of building quantities and is removing the need for manual measurement and calculations

It’s also the point at which we’ll see more of BIM’s potential unleashed – as it will enable more lifecycle data to be used at the design stage. The technology will allow the full impact of any design changes to be seen immediately.

With access to a live, instantly updating model, architects, surveyors and engineers will be able to work together to give the client more detailed, fully costed solutions to questions on everything from the choice of materials to build processes.

Teams that cooperate well at this early stage will improve not just the design process but also the project outcome. The key here is collaboration rather than competition.

Of course it still makes sense for a project to have a BIM Manager to oversee the model and lead the coordination between teams.

This is a role that straddles several of the established QS and design remits, and BIM Managers have a vital role to play in helping clients to understand BIM better, and derive maximum value from it.

But as the industry continues to mature, BIM will come to be seen less as a separate discipline to be learnt, and more as a methodology that’s integral to the way all of us work. As it becomes second nature, we will cease to retrofit BIM onto existing ways of working; instead the technology will shape and enable completely new ways of working.

The RICS has done much to show how BIM will enhance rather than damage the quantity surveying profession. I agree with its assertion that by automating many traditional QS functions, BIM is making the profession more, rather than less, relevant.

But QSs cannot continue to deliver their old service and assume all will be well.  BIM can now provide an automated assessment of building quantities and is removing the need for manual measurement and calculations. The traditional role of the “quantity surveyor” can now be undertaken by a machine. 

In truth the term quantity surveyor was redundant over a decade ago, with successful organisations focusing instead on the proactive management of issues that affect outturn costs and rebranding themselves as cost managers. 

The arrival of BIM is not just an opportunity to accelerate this change or to improve efficiency, but also a means for us to analyse the wealth of project data that is captured in the model for the benefit of our clients. Those traditionalists who don’t see the potential that this technology creates are likely to die out.

Our profession will continue to change radically, but for those firms with the vision and commitment to adapt, BIM is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Jon White is UK managing director of Turner & Townsend