It is 35 years since my first introduction to Quantity Surveying.
Following A-levels I was considering various careers & decided Quantity Surveying was the job for me. But it transpired that what a Quantity Surveyor actually did, was not what I had thought!
At my first interview with a Quantity Surveying Practice I was asked why I wanted to be a Quantity Surveyor, “Because I like drawing work” (technical drawing was one of my strongest subjects), to which the response was “Oh no, we don’t do that”! It might have made a good comedy sketch because misunderstanding what a Quantity Surveyor does has been the subject of much humour over the years.
Stephen Fry, (harbouring a secret desire for a change in profession?) has on several occasions chosen Quantity Surveyors as the butt of his jokes. In 1990, he depicted himself as a prominent Quantity Surveyor ‘jiving’ around a pedestal whilst ‘surveying’ a pile of soil, exclaiming “Well, that’s got that quantity surveyed”.
At the British Academy Awards in 2013 he suggested that Oscar nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal would perhaps one day achieve her dream of becoming a Quantity Surveyor.
The Monty Python team reference them too:
The “Bookshop Sketch” culminates with an infuriated bookshop owner finally being able to satisfy a troublesome customer’s ridiculous requests with “Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying”.
In “Bicycle Repairman”, where everyone is Superman but no one can repair a bicycle, the Python team parody the famous “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Superman!”, line with, “Oh look – is it a Stockbroker? Is it a Quantity Surveyor? Is it a Church Warden? No! It’s Bicycle Repairman!”
So, how has the Quantity Surveying profession managed, or rather mismanaged, its image to society when its role has been central to construction for millennia?
The first reference to surveying is biblical, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.”
(Luke 14:28-30 New International Version)
The ancient Egyptians used a system of Quantity Surveying when building pyramids and temples, but the role/skill set really took off in the 17th century with the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire of 1666.
Before 1666 labourers were paid by the day but due to the sheer scale of the reconstruction task, it was decided that instead they would be paid for the work carried out. Work was measured from the plans and an estimate for the total cost of the building was produced.
The professional role of Quantity Surveyor emerged in England in the early nineteenth century. One of the first was Sir Henry Arthur Hunt who was involved in the reconstruction of the Houses of Parliament after the fire in 1834, producing a cost estimate of £724,984.
Roll on 150 years and undeterred by my initial confusion, in the summer of 1986, I joined the profession as a Trainee Surveyor.
Some years later I was interviewed for an article and asked to explain what a Quantity Surveyor was. At the time, I felt the simplest explanation was that a Quantity Surveyor was the accountant of the building industry – a ‘brick counter’, if you must.
We have our high-profile champions, Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame, provides some strong advice to those setting out on any building project. Amongst his top tips on the Grand Designs Magazine Website:
- Get the build costed by a professional Quantity Surveyor
- NEVER rely on a costing produced by your builder or your architect; you will soon learn that the construction industry is occupied by idealists.
Looking back across my career and forward to the future. Although modes of construction have changed and technology advanced, the reason why the Egyptians, St Luke, those reconstructing 17th century London, et al, focus on measuring, quantifying and costing, has not. It is to eliminate the financial risk to a project, thereby ensuring its success.
As the world moves into a post-pandemic era, focus will be on recovery from the inevitable recession. With nations, councils, and individuals finding finance tight, the need for sound financial management is essential. In construction the role of the Quantity Surveyor will be more important than ever.
Moving forward, I believe the definition of a Quantity Surveyor will not simply be that of a brick-counter or accountant within the construction industry; perhaps Construction Financial Risk Manager would be more apt?
And, if you have a few minutes to spare, check out You Tube: Stephen Fry as a Quantity Surveyor is really rather funny.