Munster surveyors in the MediKids meet tomorrow night for their annual dinner, at a time of recovery in the construction profession. Here, former SCS Munster chair Rob Andrews surveys his own half-century in quantity surveying.
Q. Rob, what does a quantity surveyor do?
A. In one sentence a QS is best described as the construction cost manager. Our profession is the auditor, accountant and bean counter of everything that is built.
Why did you choose quantity surveying as a career?
From the Leaving Certificate class of 1965, in Rochestown College, four of the lads went to UCC and studied engineering and all had glittering careers subsequently in the ESB.
I had not studied science and so could not do engineering and my dad decided that quantity surveying sounded close enough to engineering and so that was what I would be.
The premier architect in Cork at the time was Boyd Barrett.
My dad had a chat with him and he phoned up quantity surveyor Shaun McD Murphy and told him young Andrews would start with him on Monday.
One did not say ‘No’ to Mr Boyd Barrett in 1965.
I hated it initially and was bored to distraction.
In 1965 there was no such thing as a calculator and so all the calculations had to be done by hand and the process was even more complex as all measurements in those days were in feet and inches.
So we first had to convert the measurements to decimals using a system known as duodecimals and then do the calculations.
The whole esoteric operation was quaintly known as ‘squaring’. Today, computers do everything.
How did you progress after those early years?
Mr Murphy was a very kindly man with a great sense of humour and I remember him most fondly.
In 1969 I moved across town to a similar sized firm, Henley & Kavanagh and it was there that I worked my way up to a more senior position.
They were most interesting men and I learned far more than mere quantity surveying from them.
Mr Henley was an intellectual and had a staggering range of interests. Mr Kavanagh was a classical music buff.
The firm had some great projects at that time.
I recall working on a multitude of schools which were popping up all over the country, following the introduction of free secondary education.
The early 1970s were exciting times in construction and Mr Henley and Mr Kavanagh were very generous with the responsibility they afforded me as a still relatively raw young surveyor.
When did you establish your own practice?
I stayed with Henley and Kavanagh for seven years until mid 1976 and then I went, overnight, from working on great projects with them to scrounging around in the trenches for any little crumb that might fall from an architect or contractor’s table.
I was 28, had three tiny children and was permanently worried that we would go under.
I recall walking into the office and praying that there would be a letter in the post box, even if it was only an invoice. Anything that would recognise that we existed.
How long did it take to become established and recognised?
The 1980s were terrible, so bad that by the mid 1980s I half closed the office in Cork and commuted to London for about three years on a weekly basis.
I was not alone as every architect, engineer and QS in Ireland was on the first Ryanair flight to Luton every Monday morning.
The whole of the 1990s up to about 2002 was the most successful and rewarding period of my QS life.
We were very lucky to be appointed to some wonderful projects such as EMC in Ovens, a myriad of significant buildings with O’Flynn Construction and we won a number of prestigious projects through the EU Procurement System such as the Glucksman Gallery for UCC.
During that period we did good quality work at a measured pace with some excellent surveyors on our staff and I was very proud of the reputation we had in the market place.
However, after 2002, during the height of the Celtic Tiger years, until Armageddon, the scale of the projects was enormous and they were being done at dizzying speed.
The pressure was enormous to get projects out the door and on to site.
Graduate surveyors were coming out of the colleges and being paid unconscionable salaries to do work way beyond their capabilities.
How has the education of a surveyor evolved over the decades?
Back in the day you attended evening classes and then sat the external exams of the London-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
The RICS in those days was a very elitist and precious organisation.
To sit the RICS exams you had to work in a professional office, you could not work for a building contractor and furthermore if you did qualify from RICS and subsequently went to work for a contractor you were obliged to drop your RICS qualification.
It sounds unbelievable today but that is the way it was.
Today’s broader university education is more desirable for the development of the more rounded surveyor.
The QS has emerged from the shadows where we bent the knee to the all-powerful architect.
Today the profession plays a respected and equal role with all members of the design team.
The profession is now regulated and the Building Control Act 2007 introduced the registration of architects, quantity surveyors and building surveyors.
It is now illegal to call yourself an architect, a quantity surveyor or building surveyor unless you are on the register and have the appropriate qualifications to be on the register.
Do you support regulation?
Yes I do. We have seen the recent disasters with respect to self certifying compliance with the Building Regulations.
The Building Control (Amendment) Regulation 2014 did of course do away with self certification.
However, I seem to recall, when I was a lad, Dublin and Cork Corporations had Building Control Sections who issued Building Bye Law Approvals and the surveyors and inspectors who issued these approvals were not to be trifled with.
I may be naïve but maybe a return to direct control by the State of all these functions would be a better approach.
You mentioned Armageddon earlier. What year are you referring to?
2008. The light was turned off in 2008.
Everything stopped, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, businesses folded and construction skill and knowledge, built up over decades, was lost to foreign lands.
The 1980s were a breeze compared to the slaughter that took place from 2008 onwards. Nothing has been built since 2009 and we see the crisis in housing now.
We really have to get away from the concept of the private sector doing everything. The state should get back to building social housing.
In my start up days I worked on numerous Cork Corporation Housing Schemes and around the country you will see fine examples of good quality Local Authority schemes built in earlier years.
Housing is too expensive, the Government takes a huge slice through taxes, levies and contributions.
A radical review should be taken and perhaps a levy on all building and all estate sales should be applied to fund a long-term planned social housing programme.
Is your career over now Rob?
As quantity surveyor William Frank Beckett’s son, Samuel said: “maybe my best years are behind me, but I would not want them back, not with the fire in me now”.
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