For almost my entire career, we quantity surveyors have been told that we must evolve or die. This has never really bothered me, although I’d hate to think of the chain ending with me and Richard Steer.
Quentin Shears, 48, is a partner in Newt UK, the recently rebranded Hertfordshire-based quantity surveying subsidiary of US construction giant Gator Corp. The company has watched its rivals’ diversification strategies - into fields such as management consultancy - with interest. However, it has decided to explore a different route entirely and has launched a pest control consultancy arm called Killer Newt.
But I just can’t help feeling that our own plans have skipped a few fundamental steps in the evolutionary process. To move with such alacrity from quantity surveying to pest control is a bit like waking up one morning to find you’ve got three eyes and a USB port in the back of your head.
The logic behind our diversification strategy was that, as nobody is building anything at the moment, and as existing buildings are only going to get older and filthier, extermination might prove to be a growth market. What’s more, this would serve as a natural counterbalance to the workflow in our education division, which is currently as quiet as a liberal club in Washington.
I’d avoided getting involved in the running of killer newt, but like a cornered rat, I could run no longer
Until now, I have avoided getting too involved with the day-to-day running of Killer Newt, but like a cornered rat I could only run for so long. Which is how Alan Quimby and I found ourselves spending the week at the Infestationarium, Hertfordshire’s first hands-on training facility for pest control students and new professionals.
I can’t deny that Infestationarium is an impressive facility - arguably one of the nicest spots in Hertfordshire, if you ignore the rats, cockroaches and the “Anthrax Quarter” (a kind of post-recession take on the urban renaissance). All the buildings have been designed and constructed as exact replicas of modern homes, shops and offices.
But the training regime is severe: it’s the point at which Watership Down meets Full Metal Jacket. “This is a straight fight between good and evil,” explained chief exterminator Brian Grubb on our first morning, as he handed us a piece of cheese and a cricket bat. “These, gentlemen, are the tools of your trade. Now, are you ready to get your hands dirty?”
I looked at Alan. When it comes to physical combat, most quantity surveyors - to paraphrase Muhammad Ali - float like Ann Widdecombe and sting like a Bruce Forsyth one-liner. Alan Quimby was no exception. He looked ready neither to wrestle some of the Home Counties’ finest vermin to the ground nor to diversify from his core skills.
Brian continued: “Men, your target is the modern office block on the north-west corner of the site. Inside, we have released 10 rodents. Your objective is to take them out - with extreme prejudice.”
We approached the building cautiously, and peered in. We both noted the extensive use of metallic glazed panelling inside.
“It’s a little over-specified, don’t you think?” sniffed Alan. “They might have taken into consideration that the occupants, being rats, would have little appreciation of high-quality materials. Such a waste …”
We entered the building and looked around, immediately observing how the complex layout of angular single and double-height spaces was, frankly, an inefficient use of space. Alan put his bat down in despair. “Good grief, this place is like a Jean Nouvel shopping centre! If you sent Prince Charles in here with a cricket bat, he wouldn’t waste his effort on the rats …”
He had a point. In front of me, narrowing into a peak, was a 20ft-tall piece of cast-iron office-foyer sculpture, with the word “Aspire” engraved on one side. At the summit, a ball of fur was looking down at me. And smiling.
“Alan, we’re wasting our time here,” I said, tucking my bat under my arm. “The world has never needed quantity surveyors more …”
As told to Nick Jones