Quantity surveying is likely the least understood and most misunderstood profession in the construction industry.

Apart from the age old Monty Python Bookshop skit where Ethel the Aardvark goes Quantity Surveying is mentioned and the BBC2 series Not the Nine O’Clock News “Ask the Family” skit in which both families consist entirely of quantity surveyors, the general populace would never know the career existed or what a quantity surveyor actually does.

Recently in Melbourne, I was asked to be on the panel at a careers evening for The Society of Construction Law Australia Young Constructors Committee. The first question I asked the keen-to-learn audience of 50-plus budding construction lawyers and other construction professionals was “who in the room knows what a quantity surveyor is and what a quantity surveyor does?”

To my dismay, less than 40 per cent of this construction-focused audience put their hands up.

The audience was made up of young professionals that had either just graduated or were close to graduating with over half having no real knowledge of how the quantity surveying profession fit into the construction industry.

So what is a quantity surveyor and what does a quantity surveyor actually do?

A student on the UKEssays website described a quantity surveyor as “the person/firm who manage the cost relating to the construction projects, such as new constructions, maintenance work and renovations. Quantity surveyor monitors the cost of every aspects of a construction project as a cost expert, as well as seeks to minimize the costs of the project and to make more cost savings while ensuring the total cost of project does not exceed the estimated cost.”

I congratulate this unnamed student on a very good definition on what a quantity surveyor does, but what ‘value add’ does the profession provide to the construction industry as a whole?

Put in simple terms, a qualified quantity surveyor provides certainty on cost to a project. This certainty provides assurance which eliminates risk. Elimination of cost risk on a project enables clients to proceed with confidence that profit levels/budgets will be maintained.

This in turn delivers growth in the industry, especially in down times, as developers/institutions/governments are more likely to proceed with projects if they have certainty of the cost outcome.

How does a QS manage cost relating to the construction project?

A QS can only accurately cost a project if he/she has a full comprehension of the project from the outset. For example, even at the early concept stage, the QS should have a full understanding of the client’s functional/spatial requirements and a full understanding of the design teams design aspirations.

Note: the client’s functional/spatial requirements and the design team’s design aspirations may not be aligned!

For the QS to gain full project comprehension, the client should be seeking cost advice as soon as the project becomes a concept.

At this concept stage, the QS should be working side by side with the client, advising how the following may affect the final project cost outcome, including but not limited to:

  • footprint of the building (square buildings are more cost effective than long rectangular buildings)
  • floor to floor heights
  • quality of materials to be used
  • façade treatments
  • environmental concerns (5 star, 6 star, etc.)
  • efficiency of circulation space
  • quality and level of fitout (this is of particular relevance to luxury residences)
  • green field or brown field site
  • site restrictions (access, proximity of adjacent buildings)
  • procurement route/type of contract to be used
  • functional/spatial requirements of the building(s)

An experienced QS will be able to provide accurate cost advice of plus/minus 10 per cent of the final cost even at this early stage of the design, based on preliminary information provided by the design team, by applying square metre rates to the functional areas after taking all of the above project specific factors into consideration.

This is a highly specialized skill and only highly experienced qualified QS in cost planning should be engaged to provide such a service.

Once the concept stage cost plan has been agreed upon, this should become the budget for the project, which the client can rely on moving forward.

The QS will than manage the cost of the project as the design team develops the design by being involved in all design meetings and delivering a series of costs plans, at the following milestone stages:

  • Concept stage (cost plan A)
  • Schematic design stage (cost plan B)
  • Design development stage (cost plan C)
  • Midway through contract documentation (cost plan D)
  • Pre-tender estimate (cost plan E)

Management of the costs can only be maintained if the QS is integrated within the design team, as ‘scope creep’ is inevitable. This scope creep must be managed.

Often, the QS is only commissioned to prepare a schematic cost plan (for instance), and then brought back into the project to prepare a pre-tender estimate with no cost control between these milestones. The client then wonders why there is a cost blow out in the pre-tender estimate compared to the schematic cost plan.

For effective cost management of a project to be successful, it is a continual review process and cannot be treated as a ‘drop in, drop out’ service requirement.

If the QS is commissioned to provide full cost planning services (including attendance at design meetings) then cost risk and uncertainty should be eliminated so the client can make strategic decisions with confidence and assurance.

The above deals with the management of costs up until tender. There is a completely different cost management process employed during construction which this article does not have the space to detail, however this can be looked at at a later date.

To sum up, a QS:

  • provides independent cost advice
  • provides ‘holistic’ project cost advice (not influenced by promoting design preferences)
  • will set realistic project budgets at the concept stage
  • provides ongoing cost management
  • provides cost certainty
  • eliminates cost risk
  • provides assurance to the client to proceed with the projects
  • provides confidence for developers to plan future developments with cost certainty