There’s a pretty obvious way to avoid escalating M&E costs, points out consultant Chris Haley – and it’s not by ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll go away, you idiots

It’s a funny old world. The construction sector, which takes pride in its ability to cost accurately, keenly and in advance of the project proceeding, seems to be missing a trick: getting the mechanical and electrical costs right from the start simply is not the priority that it should be.

Not only is it an accepted facet of all too many construction and refurbishment jobs that M&E cost calculations are secondary. It also seems to have gone unnoticed that this section of costs as a proportion of the whole is getting higher all the time.

There is an obvious solution. Using specialist M&E quantity surveyors to effectively calculate cost saves companies considerable money, time and effort, and can help to avoid expensive law suits. You only have to look at the increasing number of claims that are the result of disputed M&E costs to see how damaging it is when the construction industry fails to get it right first time.

The current economic climate has shifted emphasis from how the project will look to the issue of cost and how to reduce it. Maintenance and asset-management issues have become more important – especially for PFI projects – and correctly selecting the building plant has become paramount. Through increasing the earlier understanding of technology, its cost implications and advantages, the construction industry can avoid many of these potential pitfalls.

Of course, cost consultancy has always played a major part in any project. But merely by employing a professional quantity surveyor, how much of the cost is the project team accurately being advised on? The core skills of most traditional QS practices at all levels are building and civil engineering quantity surveying. This is the norm and, with few exceptions, continues to be the trend. M&E costing skills are rarer than most and will continue to be scarce.

It appears that the system needs to shake off some of its old traditions and start to look at what should be a natural progression. The engineering services element, along with cost advice, of a project needs to be made a priority. Enhanced planning, designing and costing of what many feel is a “black art” must surely carry the same weight as the building and structural elements, especially considering the “dynamic”, as opposed to static, nature of many building-services installations and the obvious implications this has for the continued maintenance and whole-life cost of a building. Whether to use a four-pipe fan-coil system or VAV system for air-conditioning can significantly alter the costs of a job, and the overall benefits of each need to be weighed and assessed. The more complex and technical the issue, the more attention it requires.

Costing what many feel is a 'black art' must surely carry the same weight as the building and structural elements

Most people assume that the M&E designers do the costing, and though the Association of Consulting Engineers stipulates that costing may fall within the design consultant’s traditional duties, the fact remains that the core competency of design engineers is design, and in many cases the consulting design engineer is uncomfortable, and sometimes not indemnified,

to undertake these specialist commercial and contractual duties. Even when the design engineer specifically excludes this part of the service from their bid, they may find themselves leaned upon to provide it. While I am not suggesting that, in all cases, the design engineer is not competent to control costs on some projects, I am proposing that raising the profile of the M&E QS will benefit everyone – the main QS, the design engineers and the client.

The point is that M&E cannot be pigeonholed into a “one size fits all” category. As building project desires and requirements become more advanced and competition grows, innovative ideas are surely going to succeed. But to truly win the day, these ideas must be fully costed in addition to providing cutting-edge solutions. It requires not so much a leap of faith as a commitment to well-grounded logic and planning.

Chris Haley is business development manager with Haley Somerset Consulting