Change or die. That's the message to QSs from the biggest survey ever carried out among the profession. The survivors will be those that adapt their skills and services to the new world.
A survey of 12 000 quantity surveyors, the largest ever undertaken among the profession, has revealed that QSs are racked with anxiety about their future. Carried out by Market Tracking International for Building, the survey shows that QSs are concerned about the rapid erosion of their traditional role, their inability to persuade clients that they can significantly contribute to projects, and the threat posed by acquisitive rivals, and by other professionals such as management consultants and accountants.

Last month, Rethinking Construction author Sir John Egan bluntly told a group of undergraduate QSs that the construction industry would no longer be needing them to count the cost of a project – computer technology would be doing it instead.

This was not exactly news to QSs. The survey found that 58% of respondents think their traditional cost-modelling role is under threat and likely to be replaced with software packages in the near future. They believe strongly – 75% of them – that unless they start to offer a new range of services, their business will be taken away by other professionals. Accountants and management consultants are cited by 70% as the most dangerous predators. Another concern for more than 70% of the sample is that "QS business in the UK is due to become concentrated in the hands of fewer and larger companies".

Almost 60% of QSs are critical of the way practices are structured, saying that the traditional partnership is outdated. Backing up this figure, 56% also think the profession is dominated by an old boys' network. However, few seem to have made the connection between this and the graduate recruitment problems of recent years. A massive 82% think quantity surveying should be an attractive career choice for new graduates, but a disturbing number reality-check this by adding "but it isn't".

The vast majority of QSs were well aware of the need to change their ways long before Egan's scathing speech or last summer's Rethinking Construction report, which many thought sidelined the profession. But they appear to be doing little about it. Traditional QS work still dominates. Irrespective of size, tender and contract work are still the most common services on offer in 90% of firms. Many talk big about project and facilities management, yet only 9% and 2% respectively offer these disciplines.

Firms should be concentrating on high-fee generating services such as cost-planning, site-planning, and management and procurement advice. Life-cycle costing, arbitration and technical auditing are also growing markets. "What QSs used to do is fading. In the meantime, what they now do is growing," says Davis Langdon & Everest senior partner Paul Morrell, an advocate of skills such as life-cycle costing and procurement advice. Morrell thinks that traditional quantity surveying, especially calculating bills of quantity, is on its way out.

Bucknall Austin managing director Tony Bevan agrees. He explains why there is no longer any point in persisting with low-fee tendering work: "Throughout the 1980s and especially during the recession, the traditional QS work of tender preparation and cost control became seen as a commodity and less as a professional skill," he says. Because of this, "some major client bodies are now prepared to pay more per hour for a car mechanic than for a QS.

At times it's a struggle to charge more than £30-35 an hour compared with an accountant's £100 an hour. No business can survive on those kinds of levels." In a bid to reposition themselves to attract higher fees from clients, many practices have simply stopped calling themselves QSs. Bucknall Austin's staff are construction economists; EC Harris employs capital project and facilities consultants.

Marketing strategies have changed, too. Both the above firms have undergone corporate rebranding – Bucknall Austin's was announced last week (11 June, page 20) – to emphasise their ability to offer the multidisciplinary consultancy. Property and facilities management, project management and even management consultancy are on offer alongside quantity surveying. Gardiner & Theobald has changed its logo as part of a rebranding exercise and Gleeds, too, is reviewing its corporate look.

Such firms see their closest competitors as being management consultants and accountants, although they still expect their own construction expertise and lower fees to give them the edge.

Michael Coates, senior partner at G&T, adds a new dimension: "Our competitors to a greater degree are some of the more sophisticated construction management companies," he says, mentioning Mace, Schal and Bovis in the same breath. "In a way they are a greater threat than accountants and management consultants who apply a higher rate of charge than we can." But in a can't beat 'em, join 'em move, Coates is expanding G&T's own management consultancy division, now 100-strong and growing.

It is true there will be fewer big players in the market – eight of the top 10 firms are bigger than they were 10 years ago, according to DL&E's Morrell. But there will be a place for crafty niche players with specialist skills or good reputations in a particular sector. As long as they can maintain their client base and are self-governing partnerships, rather than limited companies with shareholders who may be open to offers, they cannot be forcibly taken over.

That said, even smart small to medium-sized firms are susceptible to being bought out – witness DL&E's most recent acquisitions, housing sector specialist QS Poole Stokes Wood and engineering services specialist Mott Green Wall. And DL&E is determined to get bigger still. Says Morrell: "We still have a couple of voids we want to fill." He also predicts that two of the major UK QSs will merge in the next two years.

Morrell cites another reason for the company's purchases: "The bigger your turnover, the more you can keep control of IT costs." He believes these costs will be a huge problem for smaller firms: "The IT burden is going to become enormous for practices who want to play at the highest level." DL&E currently spends 3% of its turnover on IT, including its investment in extra bandwidth.

The odds may be stacked against small and medium-sized practices like Cyril Sweett, but the managing director of the 220-strong firm, Francis Ives, is unruffled. His firm does not offer building surveying or facilities management but is strong in other sectors, such as M&E surveying, legal work and project planning. Ives is quite prepared to move with the times. "Inevitably our business is going to be a series of specialisms. It will probably bear little resemblance to a traditional QS," he says.

Since it bought itself out of property developer Chesterton a year ago, Cyril Sweett has been a limited company, not a partnership. Says Ives: "The advantages of partnership are fast disappearing. An old fashioned one would stifle talent. We have an open management structure. Every three months I relay our financial performance to staff. I have 60 shareholders. It's easily the best way of keeping staff." Ives may have grasped what it takes to survive as a QS in the 21st century, but many have not. The slow-movers are an endangered species which must evolve or die. Darwin would surely agree.

75% of QSs think they need to offer more services to stop other professions poaching work 73% think fewer and bigger firms will dominate quantity surveying 70% cite accountants and management consultants as the most dangerous predators 59% say partnership is an outdated business structure 58% say traditional work such as cost modelling is under threat from IT software packages 56% think the profession is run by an old boys’ network

Recent trends and mergers

George Corderoy & Co buys Edinburgh QS Kean Kennedy (Building, 4 December 1998) Ernst & Young and Currie & Brown announce a “strategic alliance” (Building, 12 March 1999) Davis Langdon & Everest buys Poole Stokes Wood and Mott Green Wall (Building, 23 April 1999) Capita buys MPM Adams (Building, 17 May 1999) A question mark hangs over MDA after property firm STG Holdings takes a major stake in the firm (Building, 21 May 1999) McBains Cooper buys a civil and structural engineering firm and is in the process of buying an M&E services engineer (Building, 28 May 1999) Citex Group reshuffles to phase out Bucknall Austin name (Building, 11 June 1999)

The QS of the 21st century

A sole practitioner, she calls herself a construction management consultant. After graduating in business studies, she was sponsored by top five limited company JB Jones on a one-year conversion course for “non-cognates” before starting work as a trainee construction economist. She spent six months in each of the company’s departments – life-cycle costing, facilities management, project management, PFI procurement advice and project monitoring – before deciding to specialise in life-cycle costing. Now she works from her home office equipped with ISDN lines and project database software, or in her clients’ offices where she simply plugs her laptop into the nearest hot desk. Her most recent project is calculating the life-cycle costs for the Scottish government’s new solar-heated senate chamber in Glasgow.

What’s the future for quantity surveying?

I think our profession is heading towards management consultancy – and we’ll end up being properly rewarded Francis Ives, managing director, Cyril Sweett I’m trying to encourage as many staff as possible to want to be partners. That way they have a share in the business and a vested interest in working hard. I hope someone younger will one day push me out Richard Clare, chairman, EC Harris Someone has to advise on the economics of construction and advise clients on what kind of deal they’re getting. The vast majority of them don’t have that information in-house Tony Bevan, managing director, Bucknall Austin I think we’ve got the edge over management consultants. They don’t know about construction like we do David Ainsley, partner in charge of Currie & Brown’s City office Will QSs one day be calling themselves management consultants specialising in construction? That might be right Michael Coates, senior partner, Gardiner & Theobald People have been predicting the demise of the QS for 20 years but they have been extraordinarily resilient. As long as people buy construction and care what it costs, QSs will be busy Paul Morrell, senior partner, Davis Langdon & Everest