The road to recovery will rely heavily on the skills of quantity surveyors as governments lean on infrastructure development to kick-start the economy. But in the US, there are few who have the unique skills and background the role requires.
RICS Americas Board Member Mike Davis has global experience as a quantity surveyor. He started his career in the UK, but after working on Euro Disney in Paris in the early 90s, he has been a global citizen and demonstrated the benefits of the quantity surveying profession in new geographies across the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and now the Americas.
Since 2002, he’s been primarily based in Houston, working in claims consulting and dispute resolution for the global infrastructure, and oil and gas industries—most recently for IHI E&C Inc., a Japanese-based engineering and construction firm. After nearly two decades in the Energy Corridor, Davis sees the need for proactive quantity surveying as more pressing than ever in North America—and especially in the U.S.
“I’d hardly be the first to say that there’s a dearth of awareness about quantity surveying in the U.S.,” says Davis. “Lots of employers think of a QS as a cost estimator or cost planner and that’s the end of it.”
The challenge, he believes, is in explaining the broad base of expertise required of the job and the far-reaching benefits for employers. In addition to accounting and math, successful QS work involves a great deal of commercial, contractual and legal knowledge.
“When it comes to construction projects, quantity surveyors understand the construction processes, and they know the universe of documents that frame the obligations of the parties,” says Davis, “so we’re uniquely positioned to understand the deliverables of a contract. A good QS is a bridge between the engineering and legal functions, to the benefit of the project.”
When it comes to construction projects, quantity surveyors understand the construction processes, and they know the universe of documents that frame the obligations of the parties... so we’re uniquely positioned to understand the deliverables of a contract. A good QS is a bridge between the engineering and legal functions, to the benefit of the project.
Too often, Davis believes, energy and infrastructure clients will wait until there’s a dispute to bring in a quantity surveyor to help resolve it. Rather than hire a qualified quantity surveyor early on, many U.S. firms will overly rely on lawyers to structure contracts and project deliverables and resolve day-to-day changes and disputes.
“It’s important to have QS professionals involved throughout the lifecycle of a project, from planning to closeout, and not just when there’s a dispute. Dispute resolution is a big part of the job, yes, but we can also help prevent costly disputes in the first place. We’ll make sure the contract is realistic, we’ll be on top of what the project actually requires and we’ll know where the potential problems are going to be ahead of time.”
Quantity surveyors could be especially useful in the U.S., where international standards for measurement and obligations are not broadly used and contracts tend to be bespoke.
“There’s a great deal of art to U.S. contracts,” he says, “especially in the oil and gas world.”
Davis’ own career is emblematic of how a variety of experience comes together to make a successful quantity surveyor; his expertise has been acquired through a mixture of formal education, office-based business and first-hand experience on sites. Davis has a masters and he has the muddy boots, too.
“You know how to lock in at the desk and go through a contract, but you also put your boots on and head out to a site to measure concrete and study productivity.”
This knowledge is going to be crucial in the age of COVID-19, where disruptions to work, the global supply chain and the economy are projected to cause an increase in contract disputes. The goal right now for quantity surveyors is to measure the effects of the pandemic, which may take years to determine.
For example, we could see the construction craft labor pool reduced by industry wide layoffs and business closures, or the largely migrant construction labor force going ‘home’ to quarantine and being unwilling to return to remote projects. These events can actually create increased labor costs as projects compete for a reduced labor pool. What follows may be a rise in pay rates to attract the remaining craft labor, but also attracting an influx of less skilled workers to meet the demand. The result could be long-lasting cost increases and productivity reductions that aren’t immediately apparent when assessing the impact of COVID-19 today.
Quantity surveyors know how to identify, forecast and calculate these wide-ranging effects to help companies make more informed decisions.
“Ultimately, I don’t evangelize quantity surveying because I’m a quantity surveyor,” says Davis. “I want an industry that works better for everyone. It’s why I’m so involved with RICS. We have the means to create more awareness, provide training and create more effective standards.”
RICS is offering distance learning to teach the core concepts of quantity surveying for people who work in the Americas and the professional body is working closely with other professional bodies in efforts to expedite economic recovery.
For the long term, RICS is also investing in younger professionals by working closely with higher education institutions. The goal here, Davis says, is to focus not just on construction management but more holistically on commercial management of the building industry to create more well-rounded professionals that understand more angles of how the business of building works. We also want these young people to know that construction and infrastructure is a modern, tech-empowered field with modern business practices.
“However, it’s also important to understand and accept that things do work differently in the U.S.,” says Davis. “Basically, quantity surveyors can help companies protect their income streams, reduce their losses and recover more quickly from surprises, and that’s what I’m looking to do in the U.S. with RICS.”