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
  • Surely the contemporary title for the old QS would now be a 'Construction Economist'? A bit like the old Clerk of Works who has been displaced by Quality Assurers and Independent Certifiers. Don't get me wrong, I am not holding these latter examples out as having moved the industry along much over the last 20 years. But, QS's have struggled with their identity crisis. It seems to me that QS's have a lust for power that only a few that I have met, ever had the attributes to hold such a mantle. In the quest for power and to ascend up the greasy totem pole of construction industry power, QS's have tried on project management, development management, some have even tried the role of construction manager, and more recently BIM manager or Lean consultant. I once challenged a QS as to why he felt that the client advocacy role for which he claimed the profession had the rightful mortgage; his answer – "because we have been surveying the empire for over 200 years for clients, who else can they trust?" He was so offended by my question that he even copied his lengthy written response to our client.
    We live in an age of massive transformation of all industries, not the least construction. The reality is that Australia's construction costs are out of control, while most, lets call them QS's sit limply by protesting that they are so devalued and under rewarded "how can they do more than they do"? Well a professional 'Construction Economist' would have an informed view of what could be done to lift construction's woeful productivity and waste. They would have a view as to how this would play out in a Modern construction world. They would have a plan to deliver more for less that went beyond just screwing contractors at tender time.

    • Construction costs are out of control? Yet while it is fashionable to limit the role of the QS, diminish his/her position in the development team and generally throw brickbats at them, they are by definition the only professional who can control the construction costs. Instead of actively devaluing their professional input it would serve the industry better to promote the use of the QS or 'Construction Economist' or whatever you want to call them. It serves no good purpose to complain about the QS screwing all and sundry and at the same time note out of control construction costs!

  • I would argue that the professional role and involvement of the QS is in decline as a specific function of what has transitioned into the need for a broader sense of project management. This is why most of the tertiary institutions have the undergraduate qualification of 'Bachelor of Construction Management' at the forefront of their building course offerings. Some offer it with an 'economics' attachment but the influence of the QS in building and construction project management roles inherited from the British construction sector model is in decline. Most of the QS firms these days are doing tax depreciation schedules on building investment portfolios or ratifying progress claims for payment on development projects on behalf of lending authorities. Their role at the leading edge of managing construction is diminishing in my observations by the many fleet footed estimators and cunning contract administrators. Poor old Ethel the Aardvark is being lost to antiquity. This was probably verified by the metrics revealed in your informal survey. PS: Some of my closest and smartest colleagues are QS's albeit retired ones but I reckon we could do with a few more new ones too!

    • Roll in 5D BIM and Ethel has been transformed the QS profession into a fleet footed cheetah. Unfortunately in my opinion the QS profession is in some respects the 'architect' of its own demise. The services require specialisation and expanding to accommodate the ever-changing world around them. Then I also think that the QS profession has allowed itself to be dare I say bullied out of itself rightful place – the 1st profession to be cut from the development team, to have its fees cut and suffer the ignominy of having to 'beg' for payment. Are other professions in the team protecting their own cash flows by advocating a much diminished QS role?

  • The QS as a profession is less popular even with corporate executives as it is with the most people all over. The name of the profession, in my opinion need to be changed from that old ancient name to a modern one which has a bearing with modern tasks in the construction industry. Another important thing is that as a profession, it is not enough to stick to the ancient roles and responsibilities assigned to it by the dictates of the old practices and desires of clients in olden days Europe and the UK.
    To succeed as a profession and attain global recognition, there is need for QSs to acquire a wide array of knowledge that would like endear it to all stakeholders in the construction industry. The name QS as it stands is misleading and does not actually give an insight to the layman, what the profession is about.
    Some years back, a registrar in one of the tartiary institutions in Nigeria was baffled when I told her I'm a QS on her enquiry as to what my job was. I was in her office to take physical measurement for a renovation work in the administrative building. She told me her thought was that I was an Estate Surveyor. I had to spend a little time out of my tight schedule to tutor her on who a QS is. A name change is imperative as Quantity Surveying as the name of the profession is misleading.

  • What would be the effect of the increasing adoption of BIM on the QS profession?

    • In my opinion 5D BIM is an indispensable tool for the modern QS. A tool that I believe will cement his/her position in a development team. No 'fleet footed estimator' or 'cunning administrator' is in a position to link labour and material costs to a well populated 3D model and consistently and precisely map the ever changing costs. As long as some believe the QS to be just the producer of BQ's or basic cost plans or tax depreciation schedules so long will this blinkered view of the advantage the profession brings to a development be a light under the bushel. An architect colleague of mine just the other day was pumping me with the comment that in 10 to 15 years a QS won't be required because quantities will be automatically retrieved fro 3D models. Somebody has to interpret those auto quantities and put them in the correct position and link to other quantities that 3D Revit type models cannot model, prepare a sound tender document, set up the cost control mechanisms, plan the life-cycle schedules, etc. BIM and 5D is a great tool for the QS – those who don't embrace don't deserve to survive.

  • Despite the daily and tremendous improvement in technology, the professional can never be over tron. the quantity surveying profession is not just limited to preparation of bill of quantities or preparation of labor and material schedules. now, let's look at the aspect of tender preparation, the opening ceremony, not just that, the examination.Also, during the construction, how did you get to pay your contractor if the interim valuation is not done by the QS. please, what is the name of the latest software that can measure the work done on site by the contractor?. smiling!. All profession should be legally allowed to carried out his/her task without hesitation.

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