Employing a professional to challenge your builder and/or architect on key issues like costings, value for money and quality control is a worthwhile consideration for any self-builder
AMONG the mind-boggling to-do list when you take on a self-build project, securing the services of a quantity surveyor – or a QS as the trade calls it – tends not to be the most urgent.
A shame, says Peter Judd, a QS with VB Johnson LLP, who works with many self-builders. Judd is adamant that a QS is a boon to projects at all levels, and should ideally be consulted at an early stage. ‘Self-builders tend to come to us too late,’ he says. ‘They should come earlier as a QS helps them know what they’re letting themselves in for – even if it’s just for a £20,000 extension.’
Mostly associated with commercial development, a QS’s task is to cost a construction job, making sure of gaining the best value. Often, self-builders will leave this to an architect or project manager, but some bring in a dedicated QS, who might also get involved with other aspects, like quality control, procurement and building regulations.
‘Although they’re not routinely used for domestic projects, a QS can save money,’ says Ken Rorrison of architect Henley Halebrown Rorrison. ‘They reduce the risk. Without a QS, the design goes to planning and tender without an extra layer of cost checking, and more chance of going over budget. With a QS, client aspiration is matched to budget early on.’
Architect Jon Darke of TP Bennett says that a QS is all about safeguarding. ‘If the builder doesn’t do the right thing, then there’s a fallback.’ He agrees with Rorrison that a QS adds a vital reality check. ‘If you’re after architecture with a capital A, a QS will stop you being blinded. Can that gorgeous sliding door for £40,000 be found for £20,000? The QS challenges both architect and the builder, making sure you’re never paying for more than what is done.’ Indeed, Darke thinks that a QS should be independent of both architect and builder. ‘I would go to the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and get a recommendation,’ he says.
Judd thinks smaller firms provide the right scale. ‘Self-builders need a lot of handholding and a personal service,’ he says. ‘When appointing the architect, I’d appoint the QS. After all, there’s no point going for planning if you find you can’t afford it – and clients often have unrealistic impressions of costs.’ Plus, a good QS can cost labour as well as materials, and quantify the hours it’ll take to do the work. ‘This is difficult for a non-builder to comprehend,’ he says. Hang a door yourself – and then think about the work needed to build a house.’ There’s another use for a QS: client- builder conflict resolution. ‘A lot of our work looks into claims when self-building goes wrong,’ adds Judd. ‘A QS can advise as to whether the client is getting ripped off, frankly.’
So, a QS can help a self-builder through the fiscal swamp, hopefully saving money en route. The QS will cost, of course: perhaps up to two to four per cent of the whole contract if used for the entire time, or at an hourly rate Judd says could be as low as £50. He adds that some QS will project manage, but this might cost more.
Still, not all agree that a QS is essential. Architect Julian Owen, of Julian Owen Associates, thinks a QS is for larger jobs. ‘We do a lot of one-off houses and self-builds are difficult for a QS to cost,’ says Owen. ‘It’s more art than science.’ Indeed, his practice used to use a QS, but now relies on its own judgement. ‘Consistently, predictions were not coming true,’ adds Owen. ‘A QS is of most use when the product is standard. A self-build is often too bespoke and complex.’ Owen concedes that a QS can be helpful at a higher contract level – £500,000 and upwards – and for estimating, he uses a RICS chart giving a thumbnail of what costs to expect per square metre.
Whether you choose a QS or not, the point is to nail down the costs early on, says Owen: ‘Otherwise it’s like going into a supermarket with a huge trolley and not knowing the price until you get to the checkout.’
Words Oliver Bennett
Illustration Nick Edwards