Room to Improve's Lisa O’Brien: Using a reliable and professional QS is good common cents

Lisa O’Brien tells Kya deLongchamps why quantity surveyors are vital to represent your interests when pursuing your dream building project.

Deftly managing expectations and putting the price on that shimmering dream home, the crucial contribution of a quantity surveyor (QS) on a build, renovation or extension is little understood.

I had a chat with Lisa O’Brien, formerly of RTÉ’s Room to Improve about her work, and why we need someone like her to represent our interests in a building project.

Room to Improve's Lisa O’Brien: Using a reliable and professional QS is good common cents

What prompted you to enter what is still a very male-dominated profession?

“I knew I was not destined for a 9-5 desk job so when I received my offer for construction technology in DIT Bolton Street, I was over the moon.

“I completed a three-year full-time diploma, then went on to finish my degree at night while emerging myself in the industry. I started with a PQS firm as a professional quantity surveyor but that was short lived as I really wanted to be on site. I moved on to a developer as a site clerk, then junior site foreperson before moving to GT Crampton as a project surveyor.

I took six months out to travel then started a role as a senior QS with the main contractor. The industry was at the height of the boom, when aged 26 I decided to go out on my own and start O’Brien Quirke Quantity Surveyors which later became O’Brien Quantity Surveyors (OBQS).

What informed your decision to leave Room for Improve?

“It was a very difficult decision. It had been a great opportunity and, on reflection, one that I really enjoyed, however, I had to get back to my day job and also I had the opportunity to start a new company, Brifin Homes Ltd, with two colleagues. It was another opportunity I didn’t want to miss out on. I’m really looking forward to the new series of Room to Improve as a spectator!”

What do you enjoy most about your work and what can be a challenge for you or any QS?

I am really passionate about building and our built environment, I feel very privileged that I go to work every day absolutely loving what I do.

"Not many people can say this so I know how fortunate I am.

"There are so many challenges that it’s hard to pinpoint one or even a few. Every day is so different. From construction prices to client request to site conditions to weather conditions — you name it —if it’s going to happen it will.”

What makes a good QS in your view?

“On an individual basis, a great QS will be pragmatic, fair and reasonable, solution orientated, diplomatic, flexible in nature but concise in direction.

"They can see the bigger picture but know the details. These attributes come with many years of experience and many failures and lessons learnt.”

What unique skill does a QS bring to the project?

“With a QS on board, it really keeps everyone in check with the finances – as that’s the QS’s sole agenda. In a nutshell, the QS at all times is managing their client’s risk.

The best compliment I get is when a client at the end of the project comments: ‘On reflection – I don’t think we needed a QS as the job went really smoothly’.

"That’s when I pat myself on the back as I know what would have happened if they had not hired us. We protect our clients from the contractual hum-drum so they can get on with enjoying the build.”

Do architects vouch for QSs in smaller/bigger projects?

“I have definitely noticed a difference post-recession in enquiries from architectural practices; people are more conscious of the finances and are looking for more accurate costs upfront before making a commitment to build or renovate.”

How are you paid?

‘The QS is paid a fee from the client, which can vary. Some QS practices may adopt a percentage of the build fee structure. I charge a fixed price based on each step as laid out above depending on the scale and duration of the project.”

Quantity surveyor Lisa O'Brien on site with Fintan Doran and Brian Keating.
Quantity surveyor Lisa O'Brien on site with Fintan Doran and Brian Keating.

How does your relationship with the contractor play out?

“The contractors know very early on what I am about and that comes from the documents that leave my office.

"They are very detailed with no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity.

I am assertive and direct but fair and reasonable, in my experience where things go wrong is when lines of communication are unclear.

“Builders are not designers, unless it’s a design and build contract. They need information in a timely fashion to keep the momentum on site. Most builders really want to leave a great job behind them and for the client to be happy.”

What do you do when costs run up by unforeseen expenses and/or client’s whimsies?

“The QS has to be diplomatic, but we are always managing the client’s risk. We constantly advise the client on the financial impact of their decision or an architect’s instruction or unforeseen issue on site.

"We will then try to mitigate the overrun by going back into the budget to suggest cost savings by changing specification or looking for alternative prices for a particular item.

Budget is bible — there is no point in having one if you are not going to stick with it. Clients have a contractual obligation to pay the builder – costs cannot be put off for a rainy day or credit terms renegotiated.

"Having a realistic contingency is also very important to help absorb any unforeseen costs.”

What is the added financial cost of new energy technology?

“It’s very hard to put a percentage cost on this as every site is unique if you are upgrading an existing house – it depends on scale and specification and the fabric of the existing house.

"However on a new build in a development scenario, a typical three-bed semi-d with an increase specification of air-to-water heat pump and associated electrics, triple glazed windows, airtightness membranes and window tape, heat recovery system and increased insulation specification – we have seen an additional cost of approximately 15-20%.”

What’s your key advice for anyone approaching a self-build/renovation/extension project?

“The feasibility study is very important. It allows you to set a realistic budget for your project early on in the process, manages all parties’ expectations, and it also very quickly prioritises the needs, must-haves, wants and luxuries in a logical order. It will also identify any existing site characteristics that may affect the cost or progress.

“It gives the architect or designer a feel for his/her limitations should their vision not be aligned with the budget and allows the architect to manage their scope of work and specification and material selection.

"It also helps phasing of the works, so the client can identify what is necessary for the first phase of the works and works that can be done later on when more funds are available.”

LISA’S TIPS

  • Budget is crucial – it’s very hard to stick to a budget, with the likes of Pinterest and social media where all the latest trends are at your fingertips. If you overspend on one item you have to go back and save on another.
  • If it sounds too good to be true – it usually is.
  • Get a professional on board. Basing costs on figures you hear in the local pub is not recommended.
  • Contingency, contingency, contingency.

Essential building blocks

    1. The feasibility study aligns your design aspirations with your budget. The architect or designer will issue sketch designs to the QS who will produce a fairly accurate cost plan. This process may need to be repeated a few times to get everyone on board with a budget. It really brings home to the clients what they can afford and also what is a priority on their wish list.

    2. Further design/planning permission.

    3. Tender process: From the tender set of architect’s and engineer’s drawings and specification, the QS will formulate a pricing document that is issued to contractors to price. The benefit of having a pricing document is that all builders are pricing the same document and can easily be compared

    4. Tender analysis: Once all tenders are received back the QS will issue a tender report and will compare each builder’s price. The analysis can also be used to value engineer the project should the tenders come back over-budget

    5. Contractor selection/negotiation: The QS can aid in the contractor selection. Price is only one way to narrow down this process. However, there are many other criteria that come into play — the builder’s experience, project programme and availability, specialist knowledge etc. The QS can help in negotiating the best price

    6. Contract signing: Sign a standard RIAI form of contract. The architect is typically the contract administrator. The QS can explain the terms and conditions and offer advice on the T&Cs that need to be struck out.

    7. Construction stage: The QS will visit site (usually every month) and value the work that has been completed on site and issues a recommendation for payment to the architect. This assures the client that the builder is not overpaid at any one time. The QS will also pick up on any variations to the build that may add to the price of the contract or be deducted from the price of the contract.

    8. Final account: At the end of the build the architect will issue the Practical Completion Cert (PC) and the QS will complete a final account which is the final contract sum agreed.

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