When virtual becomes the reality: Insights into the ever-evolving ‘virtual quantity surveyor’

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  • When virtual becomes the reality: Insights into the ever-evolving ‘virtual quantity surveyor’
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Seb Davies


Seb Davies


Perspective 2022 vol 1
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The fear of being replaced by the robot is a modern-day perturbation for any cynical professional. No more so than the quantity surveyor of the future, who faces an able army of robo-surveyors looming impatiently in building information models (BIM), ready to take the industry forward, or perhaps even leave it behind.

The history of the quantity surveyor dates to the time of the ancient Egyptians, when the profession was known somewhat affectionately as “measurer of royal works’[1].

But what happens when the ‘measure in all things’ becomes ‘the model of all things’? What happens when harvesting mass quantities from a BIM model can occur with a click of a button?

Some suggest the virtual quantity surveyor (VQS) is years away from reality, thanks to multiple obstacles, from interoperability issues to missing geometric properties. To address these issues, buildingSMART, the worldwide body driving digital transformation in the built environment, offers Industry Foundation Classes to bring much-needed standardisation to the current ‘free for all’ that takes place when the appropriate pre-design stage planning is missing.

Once standardisation occurs, a key role of the VQS will be the pre-design stage of project involvement. The VQS will input and outline BIM requirements for compliance with future digital take-off. Too often this involvement is too late in the project design stages, where retrospective model modifications prove difficult and can lead to tension between project parties. As BIM evolves through enhanced digital capabilities such as ‘digital twins’, we must develop a competent understanding of basic principles before advancing any further. Let us ‘learn to walk before we try to run’, by understanding the complexity of BIM.

Online data storage also provides a future prospect and relief from the previously heavy load of pricing books, which are now becoming as light as the Cloud. Security and confidentiality concerns, however, still provide downward pressure on the handling and sharing of online cost data, along with the misapplication of data caused by little to no diligence or context checks. The role and responsibility of the VQS, then, will involve more data-driven analysis rather than data (quantity) production. This will require due care and competency. Consider just one example: We can’t apply a cost per car park space to a new project when the historic benchmark increased the total spaces via a double stacking system. This is by no means a recent phenomenon, but the ease of online accessibility and potential for reduced human interaction is likely to exacerbate this.

Similarly, quantity duplication from discipline replication within a model can lead to disastrous quantification results. The necessary design benchmarking and ratio checks are vital to ensure any computer-generated issues are identified and rectified proactively through human-innate common sense. This shift forward, then, should look away from artificial intelligence and instead target augmented intelligence to enhance human intellect.

While the engineering might of the Pharaohs remains at a stretch, RLB has a vast history which can be traced back to Henry Cooper in 1785. Today, this longevity is backed by a dynamic and forward-thinking investment strategy in both people and in-house software. The Global Digital Advancement Committee (GDAC… OK one more acronym) is a diverse collection of RLB professionals across the globe that meet regularly to discuss all things digital and provide a driving force to move the business forward in this digital space. This knowledge exchange across the globe was rapidly expedited by the 2020 shift to working from home. This added a flexibility to both physical locations and digital advancements. This is a wave that the VQS must continue to ride to ensure relevance in an ever-evolving mobile workspace.

While many argue face-to-face interaction can never be substituted, the benefits of remote working and a hybrid workforce add flexibility to a profession simultaneously managing multiple clients in diverse local and cross-border projects. This mobility and hybrid working can also enhance diversity and inclusivity within the profession by providing employment opportunities to those that struggle with the social complexities of the traditional workplace yet thrive in a digital one. Perhaps at the fourth attempt, in this so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’, we can align machine and profit-driven efficiencies with a wider progression societally.

We must, however, not exhaust and overwhelm ourselves in this new age of constant connectivity. A project manager recently proclaimed during the weekly design videoconference that these meetings would now be recorded for “good practice”. Good practice for what I must wonder? Never again complain when jotting down the key points in the minutes of a meeting. The balance between accountability and independence must be struck to enhance, not kill creativity, in what could be an even wider world web of digital bureaucracy.

Moving now to the spine-shivering winter site visits of London, or the skin scorching summer site trips of Dubai, the conventional desk bound surveyor has often (and rightly) endured the critique of their project management peers for their lack of onsite time. The need for physical site inspection may never be replaced, but augmented reality provides another means to capture real-time project information which can be rewatched from the comfort of one’s desk. Drones and timelapse cameras offer further remote insight into current construction progress, the latter providing much-needed automated assistance to the contractor’s typically unsuccessful attempts to maintain contemporaneous records. This may even contribute towards more amicable disputes resolutions, as the parties sit and watch the real record of events play back in front of them.

As global markets rely heavily on construction to kickstart their economies, the VQS must be on hand to drive efficiency, value and long-term whole-of-lifecycle costing recommendations. Sustainability benefits will arise from carbon calculations if undertaken during the design stages, as both operational and embodied carbon emissions can be calculated and mitigated. The age old ‘steel versus concrete’ cost comparison is about to take a new turn as carbon footprints are interrogated along with the source, specification and engineering requirements of construction methods and materials.

Blockchain can also improve efficiency, transparency and accountability with an immutable single source of truth comprising smart contracts, payments, procurement and supply chain management. There is further potential for an Avengers-esque amalgamation with BIM, as application programming interface (APIs) ensure industry programs seamlessly interface. A recent study by GDAC concluded that well over 100 specialist industry programs relevant to RLB service provision are currently on the market. Even with the assistance of APIs, a VQS must meticulously navigate this labyrinth of marketing hype, last season’s winners and futile gimmicks to identify exactly where their hard-earned time and money should be invested.

The future is very much the fate of the VQS, so invest in yourself and adapt with these fast-moving times to remain relevant and ensure technology serves you, and not the contrariwise. Lethargy within the construction industry may have slowed the uptake of BIM and other technologies, and the perfect digital take-off may not be ready to take off just yet. But continue to disregard this digital transformation at your own peril…

[1] Bowles, J.E. & Le Roux, G.K. 1992. Quantity Surveying: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. Centrahill: QS Publications.