Friday, 13 November 2015

Quantity surveying skills in great demand

Secretary for Transport & Housing Prof Anthony Cheung

Quantity surveyor is one of the oldest professions in the construction industry, originating from the United Kingdom more than 160 years ago. Some people may think that quantity surveying is only about measurement, which is very much an understatement. Quantity surveying in fact plays an important role in the success of building and construction projects through providing services in cost budgeting, cost control, contractual advice, project planning, tendering, value engineering, dispute resolution, and more.


These functions are indispensable in bringing a project from design to fruition. In the case of Hong Kong the ambitious building and infrastructure plans we are rolling out in the present decade will present immense opportunities for quantity surveyors and the surveying profession at large.


Just to highlight some plans from the transport and housing side, under the long term housing strategy, the Government has set itself a 10-year target to supply a total of 480,000 new units based on last year's demand assessment, to meet the housing needs of our community. Sixty per cent will be public housing.


At the same time, we aim to provide a stable supply of land for meeting the need for private housing. In parallel, to keep up the vibrancy of our city, various business and commercial infrastructures are also being planned - just to name a couple of examples, the North Commercial District at the Hong Kong International Airport, the Logistics & Technology Quarter in the Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area and a tourism node at the former Kai Tak runway.


The momentum in transport is equally, if not more, impressive. This year we have commissioned one of the five new railway lines being constructed, and are looking forward to two more next year and then the remaining two in the years to follow. But we are not stopping there. Under the Railway Development Strategy published last year, we are planning another seven railway schemes in the decade from 2021.


Meanwhile, we are building major road links and bridges like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link and the Central-Wan Chai Bypass. We are also planning for a three-runway system at the Hong Kong International Airport to strengthen Hong Kong's global connectivity, costing $141.5 billion dollars (about US$18 billion), in money-of-the-day terms.


Surveying expertise in demand

So there is no doubt of a very high and continuing demand for surveying experts here, as we embark on these ambitious infrastructure projects. While expectations are building up, we see also challenges to these projects in terms of rising construction costs, labour shortage and slipping timetables.


In this connection, it would be useful to share with you what I feel are the five forces in play in modern infrastructural projects which are relevant to all building and construction professions, including quantity surveying. I call these challenges or demands five forces because they are concurrently exerting pressure on the government and industry and feature prominently in public discussions and media concerns.


The first force is "quality expectations".  In the past, professions were there to ensure compliance with rules and agreed requirements and standards.  Today, quality assurance has gone beyond compliance.  Public expectations are high in many aspects.  Safety is always the paramount one, aesthetics, durability, environmental friendliness, health are some of the other examples.  We also entrust many professionals, including surveyors, to safeguard quality through contract management. 


Thorough as one might wish to be, the public expectation is now at a level that even if one excels in 99% of the aspects, a 1% omission could discredit the quality efforts of the whole project.  Our recent experience with excess lead found in water pipes in some public housing blocks is a case in point.


Cost monitoring crucial

The second force is "cost control". The public is greatly concerned about cost overruns of public works projects and whether we are getting value for the money spent on major projects. Hence the heated debate about the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link Hong Kong Section cost overrun, and the similar concern over the high cost of the coming three-runway system mega project.


Quantity surveying plays an important role in providing cost and contract advice to clients or project managers in the decision-making process from initial inception to final completion of projects. Quantity surveying can offer insight to facilitate the consideration of alternative procurement approaches such as early contractor involvement. There is also the need to anticipate how upcoming legislations would affect cost monitoring and control in contracts.


The third force is "timely delivery". Infrastructure projects are mostly to address pressing needs, whether in housing, transport, social services or community facilities; or to support town planning developments such as New Development Areas.


Equitable risk sharing

Time is of the essence, and most of the time, the public expects projects to be completed yesterday. Hence the project timeframe has to be set realistically, but once set, should be adhered to vigorously. Progress monitoring is therefore crucial.


Risk management will have a great impact on the timetable. Quantity surveying expertise in drafting contract provisions on equitable risk sharing would help improve project delivery, develop integration and partnering, and allow fairer allocation of risks among contractual parties.


Modern technology like Building Information Modelling could open up ways to re-engineer processes or give more accurate estimates. But these might not always prevent delay. Some risks are not as predictable or manageable as others. For instance, money is not always a cure for labour shortage.


So, in the increasingly complicated project environment, on top of laying down better contract terms and sharpening the tools, it is equally important to nurture a closer collaboration between different disciplines for getting through delivery problems, and to timely communicate such risks and complications to the public, so as to manage expectations and clarify doubts and uncertainties, a point I would return to later.


The fourth force is "sustainability". Greening and environmental sustainability are now global trends and concerns. Next week a major international meeting on Climate Change will take place in Paris hoping to achieve a multilateral agreement to keep global warming to below two degrees Celsius.


Responsible global citizens

As responsible global citizens we are doing our part. For example, the Hong Kong Housing Authority has adopted a policy to get its new projects BEAM Plus Gold Ready, so that all new public housing production from 2015-16 would target to achieve the performance equivalent to at least BEAM Plus Gold. The number of registered BEAM Plus projects is also on the rise.


Quantity surveying expertise in cost assessment, cost optimisation and life cycle costing analysis has great potential in supporting cost-effectiveness in green design, construction and maintenance throughout the life cycle of the project; and the consideration should go beyond the dollar sign, to include the broader social context.


The sustainability equation is also about how the project sits in the community and how it becomes part of the community, which leads me to the last of the five forces.


The fifth force is "communication" with the public at large. In the digital era, we are swarmed with all sorts of opinions and information, some relevant and some not fully accurate or complete. A more open society also means that both government and enterprises have to reach out to make their case. Take the example of our public housing construction projects. A significant portion of our architects' time is now spent on attending local residents' forums or meeting District Councillors to explain planning parameters and designs.


Local consultation role

Although this is outside their professional purview, they have risen up to the challenge and done a great job even though sometimes the job is unrewarding. On the one hand, their involvement in the local consultation process helps the locals understand what the project has taken into account; on the other hand, they are able to fend off unrealistic proposals from a professional perspective.


Similarly, quantity surveyors are widely regarded and respected as an authoritative and impartial voice on costing and project management. In day-to-day debates, professional opinions offered to the media or at community forums are useful in better informing the public.


The Government is appreciative of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors' annual submissions on the Chief Executive's Policy Address and the Government Budget. They cover a broad range of policy and professional issues of vital importance to this city. All of these are vivid reflections of the surveying profession's and its different sub-disciplines, deep conviction in serving the community.


So I am very glad to know that the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors has recently launched a new initiative - the first "guided walks with surveyors" for the general public.  It is a commendable initiative, not only for educating the public about surveying perspectives, but also for enabling the participating surveyors to have a feel of what people on the street would want to know.


The five forces I highlight may well create tension, hopefully constructive tension, but the balance between them is what I think can keep projects sustainable in the long run.


The reality of life and public service is always about problem-solving, which requires the determination to overcome obstacles and forge consensus, and in doing so, create better lives and new opportunities.


We must not under-estimate challenges, risks and constraints. On an ending note, let us all celebrate a shared value, that is, to build for people.


Secretary for Transport & Housing Prof Anthony Cheung gave these remarks at the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors and Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors Joint Conference, How Quantity Surveyors Will Succeed in Tomorrow's World.

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