Jerry Thomas explains what a quantity surveyor does, and when you might need to use one on your project.
Interview with Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas is company director of Smith Thomas Consult, a cost consultancy practice established in 1987. He qualified with a degree in quantity surveying but explains that other people might come into the discipline from more general backgrounds and then specialise as they go through their career. A quantity surveyor (QS), either as an individual or as a practice, will be a Member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, and carry out 20 hours per year of Continuing Professional Development to ensure that they are maintaining their professional standards.
A QS can assist with many stages throughout a self build, including: initial budget cost estimates, working up tender packages, help with costings, assistance with funding options and bank appraisals, tender evaluation, value engineering, monthly evaluations to ensure the contractor is paid regularly, and making sure that necessary paperwork is in place and the final account is agreed.
Don't leave it too late to appoint a QS!
Jerry explains that often people won't think to appoint a QS until they've already had their grand plans drawn up by their architect, by which time his role becomes more about providing a sanity check on costs. Appointing a QS at an earlier stage to provide an indication of budget per square metre based on the type and specification of property they are looking to build, can keep the project attainable. Otherwise they'll have to go through the painful process of diminishing the designs, reducing the specification and aspirations, and stomach additional costs associated with reworking those designs.
Ideally Jerry would be appointed when there is a simple, sketch design that shows: floor plan, typical elevation, roof type and pitch, fenestration levels, construction type and cladding material. From this Jerry would work out a base cost figure of £X per square metre, and use this as a starting point with subsequent variations to e.g. window types, heating system, roof covering choices etc, adding or subtracting from that base cost, to give a reasonably good idea of what the eventual cost is likely to be.
The level of involvement that you need a QS for will vary according to the scale of your project
Jerry would always recommend appointing a QS for a building project, but the level of involvement required wouldn't always be the same. For a £20,000-£50,000 extension for example, 2-3 hours work (costing around £250) would provide a quick sanity check giving a very high level order of magnitude that what has been proposed is feasible. For building a multi-million pound house you'd be more likely to need a full suite of services ranging from initial budget advice right the way through to the final accounts stage.
A QS will use experience and a wide variety of resources to work out costs
Quantity surveyors pay for access to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) nationwide database of costs, the Building Cost Information Service (BCIS). It provides average costs by building type, inflation indices, build cost indices and tender price indices. They would use this as a high level check towards the initial cost estimate.
They will then use in-house projects as a benchmark to show how similar projects have compared, and with the differences that the architect and client are proposing, what impact they would make to the costs.
Annual cost books list the costs of every major component that's needed in a building, eg cost per square metre for brickwork, stonework, timber etc.
And then you will be relying on their general experience. A good QS will be keeping an eye on market trends and the building press to keep up to date and even ahead of the cost books.
Online calculating tools may not capture everything needed to provide a full project cost
Jerry wouldn't recommend that a self-builder rely on online cost calculating tools to work out accurate costings. While he can see they have a value on very small projects, he emphasises that there is a huge danger that you could miss out on many of the peripherals that go to build up a full project cost. Rather than just looking purely at the building costs, you need to consider the many factors associated with drainage connections and connections of services for example.
A QS can help the client get the best value from the tender stage
For a self build, Jerry would always recommend going down a traditional route of procuring work which has a bill of quantities and specification clearly set out. An alternative would be to issue a contractor with a set of drawings and performance requirement for the specification, and allow them to come back with a proposal. This runs the risk of a contractor submitting a low tender price in order to get the foot in the door, who then might be trying to recoup those costs throughout the build, either by cutting corners or saying that some items hadn't been included so will cost extra.
The skill of a QS lies in ensuring there is sufficient documentation to rigourously check the tenders, comparing like for like, and understanding what might be causing variations in pricing, to establish what is actually going to be best value for the client.
“So whether with a schedule of works or a bill of quantities we can actually do that analysis at tender stage which prevents problems maybe post-contract when the works are on site with a contractor who is trying to recover a bad position.”
Always have a contract in place with your contractor
You should always have something in place before the commencement of the work, even if it's a letter forming the rudimentary basis of a contract which just confirms the start and finish dates. Ideally it would also include what the sum is that you're paying, and that the sum is based on which named architectural drawings and specification. The Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) have a range of contracts available for this purpose.
Planning, planning, planning!
Jerry's final tips are to ensure that all the designs are finalised, costs sorted, and tenders agreed with the contractor and incoming services have been arranged before work commences.
Ensuring that you have a full, considered, joined-up package of information, cost, programme and contract before you start, even if that means deferring the project for 6 months while you get everything together, will mean that you are less likely to have unexpected variations, problems and costs later on.
Find out more
Visit the website of Smith Thomas Consult
The Hub update
Our latest update sees Ben return to Long Barrow Passivhaus, having a chat to Alex Baines and a look around the building. Some things have changed – one window has increased height size which they were able to almost take out a layer of the ICF to make the space for.
Our latest module in The Hub is on “Building your team”. Who do you need to hire? Everyone always says they want to be involved from the beginning of the project, so how is that even possible? We look at the different individual roles and how you might bring a team together.
For more details of how to become a member, check out Houseplanninghelp.com/join.
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