With building information modelling now carrying out many traditional QS functions, are quantity surveyors and their slide rules about to meet a sticky end? Or can man and machine live (and work) happily alongside each other?

The machines are taking over. In May, chief construction adviser Paul Morrell announced that within five years all government construction projects would have to use building information modelling, a way of working that involves the entire project team using a 4D model that can do many of the traditional number-crunching functions of a QS - automatically. And BIM is only the latest assault by machines on the QS profession: Autocad systems have been doing more and more calculations automatically over the past 20 years. The traditional quantity surveyor is being terminated.

But the humans are fighting back with the one weapon the computers don’t yet have: brains. Taking on the corporate lingo of McKinsey and Deloitte, quantity surveyors such as EC Harris and Turner & Townsend have tried to transform themselves into “cost consultants” or “built asset consultants” and are now trying to offer strategic advice on investment, energy use, carbon emissions and running costs to clients in a way that a computer never can. Yet, as BIM removes even more of the traditional work of a QS, will small firms that still rely on producing bills of quantity be able to survive?

Out with the old

BIM will mean that the entire design team is working on the same plans, so it should remove the need to digitise drawings. And as the whole supply chain is involved, materials manufacturers will be able to input their own costs, says Richard Brinley, group director of membership and professional groups at the RIBA. “You won’t need a human hand to add up the numbers,” he says.

This isn’t anything new. The actual number-crunching work of quantity surveyors has been declining over the past few decades, Brinley says, and BIM is only the latest part of the mechanisation of the profession. “Already loads of measuring is automated in the current generation of CAD systems,” he says. What BIM will do is remove entirely the remaining vestiges of traditional quantity surveying. “The old task of QSs measuring quantities has been going for the past 20 years and BIM will end it,” Brinley asserts.
As a result, QSs could end up with a lot more time on their hands. “Typically, it takes one of our team on a project two days to measure something,” says Erland Rendell, head of thought leadership at Davis Langdon. “Whereas with BIM it’s point and click, or drag and drop, and it takes half an hour.” He says that this kind of time-saving will be made on the cost planning stages: stages C-E.

Measuring up

Not everyone thinks it’s quite as clear cut as this. “All it does is take the grunt work out,” says Richard Steer, senior partner at Gleeds. This kind of work has already been outsourced to QSs in India and the Philippines, he says. “Our London office hasn’t produced a bill of quantities for some time.” Still, this isn’t necessarily true of smaller QS firms across the country. “There’s already a segmentation in the market where the bigger firms are offering the higher level consulting and the small firms doing bills of quantity production,” says Steer.

Franco Cheung, who teaches quantity surveying as an undergraduate degree and project management at masters level at Oxford Brookes University, still teaches essential measurement to his students. “Employers say they still need basic measuring skills,” he says.

Even so, the new way of working will cut traditional QS work. This could send fees diving, just as the profession limps out of recession. But it could free up QSs to use their grey matter to advise clients where and how to invest their money, and how to cut carbon emissions, energy and running costs.

The larger outfits have been doing this for years, if not decades. In 2008, EC Harris rebranded itself as a “built asset consultancy”. Phillip Youell, its chief executive, oversaw the change. “We struggled with trying to describe what we do,” he explains. The mission of the firm was this: “A better outcome for the investment in your built asset.” But Youell says the rebranding occurred after many staff had already changed how they worked, thinking more about what clients want - for example, if they even needed a new building at all.

“It took us a long time to get 3,000 people thinking in these terms,” Youell says. “We had a series of training programmes. We took people offline [not working on projects] and talked to them about client management and client empathy.”

EC Harris tried to mould employees into consultants that had a much wider knowledge of the markets their clients would be working in, and even of areas only vaguely connected with business. “Most books on the advised reading list aren’t about other sectors: some are about F1, football and rugby,” Youell says. “We encourage people to form a view of the world.” They are exhorted to read quality newspapers and magazines and become non-executive board members for charities.

Having to re-brand

EC Harris is not alone: almost all sizable firms that have their roots in quantity surveying have rebranded themselves as higher-end consultants and diversified into project management. Last August, shortly after being bought by US engineer Aecom, Davis Langdon announced a plan to emulate the American management consultant McKinsey, by becoming involved with a client right at the very moment they begin to think about investing in a building. “Whichever firm is awarded the next Olympic Games, why not go to Aecom and Davis Langdon rather than a Pricewaterhouse Coopers?” asked the now departed senior partner, Rob Smith.

Whether the big consultants are transforming themselves fast enough is an open question. In 2001, 46% of EC Harris’ fee-earning staff were quantity surveyors. By 2005, that figure was down to 42% and last year it was a third. The rest include facilities managers, project managers and strategy consultants. Davis Langdon is 49% “cost management”, which, it emphasises, is not just “traditional quantity surveying” but “cost modelling and planning and general pre-contract cost advice”. Meanwhile, 31% are consultants. The big firms are changing, then, but quantity surveying still makes up a large chunk of their businesses.

But for QSs who are not part of a large organisation, with their large training budgets, moving away from bills of quantities will be more difficult. David Blake, chairman of 42-strong, Darlington-based consultant Blake Newport, thinks remaining as a traditional, measuring QS is no longer viable. “They can’t demand enough of a fee,” he says.
Instead, more traditional QSs will follow Blake Newport’s example and specialise in dispute resolution, project management, risk management and other services. “A lot of it is legally based,” he says.

So is there a value in being trained as a QS any more, if graduates will need to carve out a niche? Rendell of Davis Langdon says his firm now often takes on graduates without a QS degree, assessing them on their “personal traits” in addition to qualifications. But Blake thinks a QS degree is still a good starting point. “The skill set that a QS learns at university is generally very good,” he says, and adds that the firm still has strong links with Leeds university. “But you have got to have continued professional development.”

Undergraduates at Oxford Brookes do have to take a module in “financial appraisal”, which is weighted as much as their dissertation, says Cheung. The module teaches them how to assess a development from a developers’ perspective. “It takes time to develop the level of sophistication to deal with clients,” he argues. “The industrial placement year of our undergraduate programme helps students to acquire the skills through actual practice.”

It’s hard to argue that the introduction of BIM will be anything other than a good thing for QSs, argues Neill Morrison, former Davis Langdon partner and now head of cost consultancy at Deloitte, simply because it will eliminate so many mistakes and clashes of plan on site. “No QS worth his salt can argue that it is bad for the industry,” he says.

But it will hit the small firms while making it easier for the large ones. “For the QS profession, it will accelerate from its roots as a measuring profession to a value-added service. It will be a nail in the coffin of these small practices who make money from producing bills of quantities,” he says. “But for Davis Langdon and EC Harris it will not reduce fee income and will reduce the number of jobs that go wrong.”

BIM moves quantity surveying as a profession even further away from number crunching, slide rules and measurement. Today’s QSs have to now shine their shoes, think about “strategy”, read the Financial Times more diligently, and maybe even study for an MBA. The bigger firms have already shown how, but whether the traditional firms can adapt quickly enough and escape the rise of the machines remains to be seen.

Kamran Moazami, head of design engineering, property and development at WSP has been working with BIM for 10 years and says that consultants, big and small, should embrace rather than fear it.

“This is the future. It’s what contractors and owners want consultants to be using now and so times have to change.

“QSs shouldn’t fear it. Nothing will ever take over from the experience and expertise of a professional working on a project. You will always need people, like structural engineers or QSs, who are trained and know buildings and all the glitches - real people who understand the systems.

“There can be a very happy coexistence between QSs and BIM. It is not a replacement but a tool - a tool that will cut the amount of time you have to spend on analysis right down and give you the opportunity to direct your talents towards being more creative. In the UK, we started using BIM on London Bridge House, next to the Shard, eight months ago. We discussed our plans with Mace, the contractor, and now everything has been converted into 3D. We want this project to become one of the first in this country to go all the way to the end under BIM, as an example of what can be done on future schemes.

“The benefits so far for us include having a fully coordinated project with a lot less conflict, a more sustainable building in the final instance and also throughout the process, as less time is spent on each stage. That’s the major advantage, it cuts unnecessary work out. Some QSs have responded well to BIM - EC Harris and Davis Langdon want to use it. My advice to firms who are still not sure would be to take advantage of the larger firms who are more experienced, because they will help. Any small firm we work with, we’d be more than happy to help them get used to the system and become familiar with it. There is no reason why the industry can’t be more collaborative when it comes to this; working together will mean creating better buildings.

“The other thing to remember is that BIM has actually been around for a while in the US and so we should feel reassured by that. We have been involved long enough to know that BIM will work and does work - it’s not a complete unknown.

“Change is always difficult for people in the beginning. Nobody likes having to adapt the way they do things. But in this case, once people get into it and see all the advantages of working with BIM, it will become second nature. It’s just a question of which consultants and QSs get into it sooner rather than later to see the benefits.”