Zara Lamont kicked off one of the biggest rows in Building's recent history by writing a column attacking QSs. Now she tells Building why she did it.
Ask Zara Lamont about quantity surveyors, and a mischievous glint appears in her eye. Two months after using her column in Building to accuse the profession of undermining the Egan agenda, she is ready to admit that it was intentionally provocative. On the verge of stepping down as director of the Construction Best Practice Programme, she wanted to go out with a bang – and to raise her profile in her new position.

From this perspective, the article was a triumph. It attracted more angry letters than any published in Building in the past five years – and it's easy to see why. "QSs like and need to perpetuate adversarial relationships in order to justify their existence," she wrote ("Dogs in the manger", 8 June, page 33). "This approach is a recipe for disaster. But not for the QSs. They will earn more fees sorting out the claims and administering the adversarial contracts."

Needless to say, the QSs begged to differ. She was, they said, "personally and professionally offensive"; some were anxious that "the very act of replying" would confer weight on a worthless argument; others confessed to being "confused and worried" by what she said.

So, how does the 40-year-old feel about becoming a cause célèbre? Lamont is placatory, but unrepentant. Her gripe was not with QSs per se, she says, but anyone resisting change. "It isn't just QSs; it's not just architects – there's a cross-section of people in the industry with their heads in the sand. I attacked QSs because I had a real example of a client getting bad advice. The article was against professionals giving bad advice to clients."

But Lamont says she feels vindicated. First, by the QSs who wrote in to argue that competitive tendering does promote best value, thereby pleading guilty to all charges. Second, by the QSs who "have called me up saying they agree with the comments I've made – they said it was about time somebody stood up and said something about the QSs who don't want to change".

Regardless of the merits of Lamont's case, surely she must be worried about how the episode will affect her relationship with QSs in the future? "They may not think it now, but QSs have always been welcome to join the Construction Best Practice Programme," she answers, laughing a little awkwardly.

When she wrote her column, Lamont was still director of the programme, an evangelical body set up to disseminate the Egan gospel of love-thy-supply-chain. She confesses she had a "sneaking suspicion" that she was about to leave it for the job of chief executive of the Confederation of Construction Clients – a position she takes up on 20 August – and wanted to go out with a bang.

In her new job, Lamont will be representing 18 of the industry's biggest customers, including the DTI, Defence Estates and BAA. This powerful position is the culmination of almost 20 years in construction. Brought up in Northern Ireland in a Protestant family of eight, she wanted a hands-on, outdoor career. After studying civil engineering, she got her wish and joined a firm designing sewage systems and manhole covers.

Then, 13 years ago, she joined Tarmac in Swindon, rising rapidly from site engineer to contracts director. She traces her interest in the sociological aspects of construction to 1992, when her employer bought the government's Property Services Agency. She was fascinated by the culture clash between civil servants and Tarmac staff, and was part of the management team working to assimilate the two divisions.

QS have called me and said it’s time somebody said something about the ones who don’t want to change

Two-and-a-half years ago she set up the government-sponsored best practice programme while on secondment from Carillion. She says it is a "knowledge broker", with a remit to help information sharing between firms. This fitted into what she has always believed – that knowledge and examples of good practice should be shared between companies for the benefit of all.

Lamont admits that her strengths lie in networking and building relationships rather than radical thinking. "Off-the-wall thinking has never been my forte. What I'm good at is bringing people together." Her success at this was officially recognised in June, when she was awarded an OBE. "I was chuffed but I definitely wasn't expecting it," she laughs.

It is easy to see why Lamont has done well in the job. QSs may be incredulous, but her tone is careful and diplomatic, even though she has a Celtic gift of the gab. It is the elasticity of her face that lends force to her words: it can shift from a scowl to huge grin in an instant.

Lamont intends to use the principles of knowledge-brokerage to boost the confederation's clout. "I want to get clients together and actually get them talking to each other," she says. "Repeat clients will be able to learn from each other, while occasional clients will be able to quickly establish the meaning of things like whole-life cost and sustainability."

What's more, they will acquire a little extra protection. "Occasional clients can easily get ripped off; they are not familiar with construction so how can they tell what is bad advice? I want these clients to feel they are able to get impartial advice from the CCC."

She says the confederation will exploit construction's new home in the DTI through its links with other key industry bodies."The very businesses we will be targeting to join us all have links with the DTI – of course they do!"

Her outburst against QSs may have ruffled feathers, but colleagues are in no doubt that she can improve relations between clients and construction. "In an industry that lacks figureheads, she has proved a great ambassador. She's not a civil servant; she knows the nitty-gritty of construction and this is why she is allowed to make criticisms," says Simon Pole, director of structural engineer Pole Associates, who runs a best practice club.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family?
My husband, David Mason, is an engineer – we met on a Tarmac building site. My son, Finlay, is five.
Do you have any mentors?
No. I am very boring like that. We were brought up to be ourselves.
What do you do in your free time?
I used to be an avid reader but now when I go to bed I just want to collapse. I spend my free time with my son.
What about music?
I love music – especially live music. I like Robbie Williams and Dido. I’ve been to see S Club 7 and, sad to say, it was very good. I recently saw Texas play – they were great.
Do you have a final message for QSs?
More of you need to move with the times.