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News & opinion

24 OCT 2018

The Americas need more qualified quantity surveyors

Words by Mike Davis MRICS, Houston, Texas.

The quantity surveyor (QS) today is expected to have a broad range of abilities and expertise, mostly focused on the commercial, cost, and financial aspects of a construction project. But this is a role that is rarely included on the roster of construction projects – only being engaged when problems occur. This has negatively impacted the industry in the US.

QSs provide expert advice on cost and contractual arrangements, managing and controlling project costs and preparing and administering contract documents. Due to a thorough knowledge of construction costs, the QS also provides owners and developers with front end design cost planning, which helps frame the subsequently commissioned design within a total budget. The QS also plays a key role in claims management and dispute resolution procedures – the primary focus of my career for the last 20 years.

Since the QS is concerned with the management of costs and budgets from the cradle to grave of a construction project, the QS should be involved in a contractual, technical and financial capacity – acting as a bridge between engineering, legal and corporate functions. The training and experience of the QS provides a solid ability to accurately allocate or identify costs with specific work items and remain current with the market prices of construction activities.

The QS should be involved in a contractual, technical and financial capacity – acting as a bridge between engineering, legal and corporate functions.

This is not common practice in the US. Here, the role of the QS is fulfilled by a combination of construction economists, cost engineers, business risk managers, claims managers, project managers, contract/subcontract managers and administrators, project accountants and commercial managers. 

From my experience, many of the people who find themselves playing the role of a QS, or in what I would call a traditional commercial manager role on a project as the project manager’s right hand, are there as a means to an end. They have an engineering background and are aspiring project managers and project directors. They have no training or desire (and sometimes no aptitude) for the commercial role they’ve been given. They seldom last the duration of the project, which means there’s no continuity in that critical commercial role, either. 

In addition, the lack of options in the US for people to choose this career path and obtain formal training, means that the commercial team – estimating, project controls, subcontracts and procurement – will be highly dependent on well-defined company policy, procedures and in-house training if they are to succeed. Circle back to the problem of the commercial manager role as a stepping stone, and you see the likelihood of finding such a company policy greatly diminishing.

The chances of a project succeeding financially are increased exponentially when QS teams are employed and given adequate levels of authority. Alternatively, those fulfilling any of the roles of the QS should have access to some formal training and mentoring and be given opportunities to pursue a defined commercial career path within the organization.

A good QS pays for himself, cites industry lore in the UK. In the US, project managers become reluctant to expend contingency funds on QS services as they don’t have any allowance in the budget and no tangible or immediately obvious problems to address! From experience, this can result in less than adequate contemporary records, bid analyses that focus mainly on technical compliance, reduced cash flow, increased risk or lost opportunities, under-recovered change impacts and correspondence that does not properly protect contractual positions. 

I’ll admit to some bias, but I feel that the failure to employ enough QS personnel from the start of a project has contributed significantly to an increase in dedicated claims personnel in the industry over the last 20 years. Many QSs now find themselves brought on to a project when it is already in financial difficulty and are tasked with bringing the job back on budget – a fire-fighting role, as opposed to income protection. 

As I believe Ben Franklin once said: an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure.” That’s a 1:16 ratio! I’m not saying a good QS engaged at the beginning of a project can save the appointment of 16 lawyers and experts at the end… but then again. 

Related training and events

Quantity Surveying in the Americas

Application of International Construction Management Standards (ICMS)

Construction Project Management: Delays and Disruptions

Supply Chain Management for Infrastructure 

Take a look at the future of surveying