The construction industry has been around for a long time. Ever since Wessex man successfully hauled 36 monoliths from a Welsh hillside and assembled them into a Stone Age alarm clock on a patch north-east of Salisbury, construction has been a major employer, and has had a significant impact on the way we live.
And yet, in terms of the way we approach the task of building, curiously little has changed. The first architect contributed to the Greek Empire, and the term “civil” engineer dates from medieval times to distinguish the role from a military engineer. Institutions for architects, engineers (in all their guises) and quantity surveyors have collectively been around for more than 1000 years. These construction professionals have proved a hardy strain, well adapted to the environment in which they work.
Contractors, too, have been around for a very long time, albeit surviving a number of mutations in the process: from the serfs who shifted stone for their Saxon lords to the masons who crafted the great cathedrals, the railwaymen who tamed the wildernesses, right up to the specialist contractors, construction managers and management contractors of today. Builders have successfully evolved and proliferated to fill a changing need. But what of another species – the quantity surveyor?
A well known figure at Slough Estates – one of our more enlightened clients – is fond of saying that he would welcome a virus that wiped out quantity surveyors. The root of this vehement dislike appears to be the argument that they add nothing to the construction process – given a client to commission a building and a design team to deliver that building, why should a breed that has little to do with either be the one to say how much it will cost? Now, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are QSs, but I can see his point. The days of “surveying quantities” are fast disappearing. And it seems that the traditional QS is disappearing, too.
Does this mean that we will be drying a tear over the grave marked “RIP Quantity Surveying, 1792-2000”? I think the rumours of the profession’s demise have been exaggerated; 126-page bills of quantity may be a thing of the past and specialist measurement skills are becoming increasingly redundant, but there is still a place for a cost expert on the team.
Will we soon be drying a tear over a grave marked “RIP Quantity Surveying, 1792-2000”?
The difficulty is perhaps the transitional period, as QSs move away from the passive role of receiving a complete design to measure and bill towards a more active position within the design team. There is no doubt that experienced QSs bring a valuable talent to the design process – they can advise instantly on the relative costs of options under consideration and point out possible constructional difficulties.
Yet this requires confidence, dynamic involvement and a willingness to be put on the spot – qualities not often associated with the pin-striped QS stereotype. The complacent “give me a drawing to measure” attitude is the cause of endless frustration among designers. In these days of fast-track projects and ever more demanding clients, there is simply not time to draw every option to a level of detail where an estimator can count the bolts to build up a price.
Many QS practices have already evolved, reinventing themselves as cost consultants or construction cost advisers, or diversifying to become project managers, construction managers or total service providers offering “professional management services to the industry” – not a word about cost in there at all.
Is the profession in danger of evolving too far? If all surveyors metamorphose into general managers, who will give informed advice on cost issues? One answer may be to rely on contractors for prices – after all, they are the ones who are really in touch with costs, so their advice must be more current and more reliable. This is laudable up to a point, but contractors may not be equipped to give cost advice at the very early stages of a project, nor may it be appropriate for them to be establishing cost plans on behalf of clients.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold and was its project manager on the Millennium Dome.