Building surveyors used to be consultancy's zeroes. Now they're its ‘building busting' heroes, as workload sky-rockets and QS practices launch specialist divisions to trade on their skills.

Building surveyors have become construction's most wanted. For years, they were the poor relation of the consultancy world, bringing in small fees from unglamorous maintenance work while their QS cousins handled multimillion-pound contracts on glitzy new builds. Now, they are the industry's have-a-go heroes, swooping down to tackle pesky new regulations and hoovering up work.

The market for what Gareth Broadrick, a senior manager at recruitment consultancy Hays Construction & Property, calls a "much-maligned area of surveying" is growing, although because the work is so dispersed and fragmented, it's difficult to put a figure on it. Building surveyors, already rare, will find their legislation compliance and due diligence skills in even greater demand as QS-based practices compete for staff to run their expanding building surveying arms.

Multidisciplinary consultant Cyril Sweett set up a building surveying division last month and hopes it will ultimately number 45-50 staff and turn over £50m. It expects 30 surveyors to be in place by 2007-08. Faithful & Gould has grown its building surveying team from 38 to 100 since 2002 and plans to expand it further to 150-200 within five years. Gleeds has recruited 50 surveyors since 1999 and hopes to double that number within three years.

Despite their efforts, the market is led by the building surveying arms of large general practice firms such as King Sturge, which employs 140 building surveyors and CBRE, which employs more than 100. Next come the multidisiplinary construction consultancies and a smaller number of medium-sized firms that specialise in building surveying, such as Watts & Partners, which has 200 employees based in 10 offices in the UK, Ireland, France and Iberia, and a myriad outfits with one to 20 employees.

There's plenty of work around for all of them. In common with the rest of the construction industry, they're raking in commissions and cash thanks to government initiatives such as Building Schools for the Future (worth £40bn), Decent Homes (£19bn) and Children's Centres, formerly Sure Start (£1.9bn in 2007-08).

As well as the public spending bonanza, building surveyors can thank the government for the stream of new regulations on health and safety, disability discrimination and fire safety, which have forced large employers to hire surveyors to conduct assessments. In particular the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, which came into force on 21 May 2004, has led to a massive increase in work for surveyors who act as asbestos inspectors. The rules oblige every dutyholder of non-domestic premises to undertake an asbestos risk survey and to manage the associated risks. According to a Health and Safety Executive estimate, 800,000 non-domestic buildings require a survey at a total cost of £1.4bn.

Geoff Butters, head of building surveying at Faithful & Gould, confirms that the regulations have boosted workload: "Legal compliance work is a big growth sector in our business."

Who ya gonna call?

Illustration by Ben Hasler/NB Illustration

John Reyers, director of Sanderson Weatherall's building consultancy in London, says the private sector has been particularly buoyant. "There has been a lot of activity in the commercial sector recently, especially in London, with big portfolios such as shops and offices being re-let, which has led to more work for building surveyors. The changes that British industry has been going through have also meant more work as industrial buildings have had to be altered," he says.

Dean Webster, Cyril Sweett's chief executive, says its division will focus on three areas. First, commercial investment and development companies where they have a property portfolio or are looking at a particular property for acquisition. Second, it is targeting PFI consortiums, particularly on programmes where there is existing building stock that requires due diligence and condition survey work. In both these areas, says Webster, the firm will be offering an extra service to existing clients. The third area is new territory for Sweett: it will offer a standard building surveying service to government bodies, especially local authorities.

Building surveyors are starting to realise that they aren’t third-class citizens and can ask for a decent amount of money

Perhaps the real test of the business will be not whether it can attract clients, but whether it can recruit enough people to do the work. Building surveying, like other branches of consultancy, has found it difficult to attract young people in recent years, leading to a skills shortage, particularly at the intermediate level of seven to eight years' experience.

David Hitchcock, managing director of CBRE's building consultancy, believes recruitment may prove the biggest obstacle to the consultancies' ambitions."I suspect they will find it hard to recruit a substantial surveying team," he says. "Building surveyors might also ask why they would want to join a firm of QSs."

His concerns are echoed by Geoff Wright, construction director at developer Hammerson: "There is rivalry between the two: building surveyors and quantity surveyors are not the best of friends, I suppose because there are so many quantity surveyors compared with building surveyors, which are quite small in number."

Howard Robinson is managing director of Gleeds Building Surveying, which has gone from a standing start to employing 50 building surveyors within seven years. He believes a divisional structure can help to resolve any qualms that building surveyors may have about joining a firm dominated by QSs.

"There can be a cultural aspect to deal with but each of our entities has its own management and its own structure," he says. "We find it attracts the right quality of people into the business because they don't feel that they are working for a firm of quantity surveyors, they are working for a building surveying division of a construction consultancy."

Their in-demand status is great news for building surveyors' wallets. Traditionally, their salaries have been lower than those of QSs, but the past year has seen an 11.5% pay rise at partner and director level, while in London the average wage for building surveyor graduates and QS graduates is the same: £22,000.

"Salaries are still lower but they are now becoming more competitive because it is seen as a growth market," says Broadrick. "In the past, a lot of consultancies saw it as an add-on to offer to clients. Now it's being sold as a service in its own right and it's forcing salaries up because people are becoming more in demand.

"Building surveyors are starting to realise that they aren't third-class citizens and can ask for a decent amount of money."

Or as the Ghostbusters' Dr Peter Venkman put it: "No job is too big, no fee is too big."