MICHAEL WEBB looks at changes to the industry over 50 years of quantity surveying.

50 years of quantity surveying.

How very little, since things were made
Things have altered in the building trade.

Kipling wrote these words in the 1930s and doubtless they were generally accurate then. The evolution of the building and quantity surveying professions from their foundation after the Great Fire of London was gradual. However, in the past 50 years the pace of change has accelerated in line with the great changes in the economy and society generally.

The introduction of computers, and the possibilities they offer in the storage and manipulation of information, has been one of the key changes. In my early days, Working Up, Abstracting and Billing were the processes we followed. Then came Cut and Shuffle – a manual sorting process that did in a slow and laborious way what computers can now do in seconds.
In the late 1960s I went to London for two years to broaden my experience in the much larger UK market. While there I attended weekly computer classes in Goldsmiths College. This necessitated leaving the office early. The senior partner, spotting my early departure, asked me why. I explained the computer course and the role that computers might have in the future. “Nonsense”, he retorted, “Computers will never have any role in our profession.”
How wrong he was proven to be.

Role of the architect
The roles of those involved in construction have developed and changed over the centuries. Christopher Wren was not only the architect but also the project manager, surveyor, engineer and managing contractor for his projects. The quantity surveyor evolved from the humble measurer to a fully professional role. Fifty years ago the architect was King. I recollect giving a paper to the Architectural Association of Ireland on ‘The Architect as God’. In most projects, the architect selected his consultants and they were paid through him.
Over the years, many architects have preferred to concentrate on design and have paid scant attention to management. This has led to the advent of project managers with a separate role.
Quantity surveyors, by their training and aptitude, and their skills not only with measurement but also with cost and time, have proven to be competent and skilled in managing the design and construction process.

Cost planning
It is difficult to believe today, but the advent of cost analysis and cost planning was resented and obstructed by members of the profession, who preferred the sure and trusted role of preparing Bills of Quantities and Final Accounts. Gordon Aston, Seamus Monaghan and, later, Noel McDonagh persevered and helped to establish cost planning as an integral and vital part of the quantity surveyor’s contribution.

Many of the changes in the profession were driven by the significant growth in the volume of construction as the Irish economy developed:

  • in 1960 the output of the construction industry was €131 million;
  • by 1980 it had grown to €3.3 billion;
  • by 1990 it was €7 billion.
  • output, of course, peaked in 2007 at €38 billion.

Today it is back to the level of the 1990s.
Such dramatic changes in volume meant a change in construction methods, contract organisation and conditions of contract. Builders who had employed their own tradesmen and trained their own apprentices became managers, buying in trades and components. The Conditions of Contract became more complex and more wordy as lawyers became involved. The early contracts were drafted by a committee of contractors, architects and quantity surveyors, who only consulted lawyers from time to time or when the draft was completed. These contracts were practical, accessible and understandable, and served the industry well over many decades.

Fifty years ago the education of the quantity surveyor was through correspondence courses leading to the RICS exams, which took place in Trinity College. Bolton Street then developed part-time and evening courses to help prepare for the RICS exams. These were later recognised by the RICS.
The development of degree programmes in the Dublin Institute of Technology and later in the Limerick Institute of Technology greatly helped the profession to develop and grow. The establishment of the regional technical colleges – now the institutes of technology – helped to improve the education and training of many of those involved in the construction process. The more recent development of master’s degrees is to be welcomed.
The perceived academic bias of the educational system led to the development of the APC to support the graduate’s practical and professional training.
Today’s graduates are much better educated than their predecessors. The breadth and depth of their training has helped the profession to assert itself in the wider construction arena.

MichaelWebbMichael J T Webb FSCSI
Michael retired in 2007 having served as Chairman and Managing Director of Davis Langdon PKS (now Aecom). He was Chairman of the Society of Chartered Surveyors and President of the European Committee for Construction Economics.