In any business, some of the most costly errors occur through a lack of information. Arguably, design and construction suffer more than most. So, you might think that obtaining correct, full and accurate knowledge is the obvious way forward. But so many managers still fail to invest in what can be a relatively cheap commodity. In particular, I refer to the humble measured survey.

A survey in some form is the foundation for any construction and every project will use one to a greater or lesser degree (you wouldn’t fit a shelf without first assessing dimensions). Yet it is not sufficiently widely accepted that the cost of a more detailed survey (in time or money) is an investment in a smooth running project. It can be likened to an insurance, whereby without it, when an accident (or site miscalculation in this case) occurs you’ll wish you’d had it. It is only after incidents like this that the Project Manager looks favourably on investing in a survey on future projects.

Construction culture has an ingrained acceptance of ‘contingency’ planning whereby those all-too-frequent niggles are perceived as inevitable. But take a step back for an instant and realise that this perceived inevitability is merely the result of mis-, or missing information. Next time a project is happily signed off as a job-well-done, consider how much of the expected (accounted) contingency expenditure could have been reduced through more detailed information at the outset. The imbalance between the cost of contingency expenditure and likely survey price may be significant.

Of course, many projects run adequately with minimal survey information. Tolerances may not, in such cases, be an issue. But even in cases where there is a requirement for tight tolerances the survey is still omitted. The justification for the omission is easy to understand: It would take time (if undertaken in-house) or money (if outsourced). But who benefits from the supposed cheaper option of no survey at all? If you’re lucky you’ll overcome the odds against necessary contingency costs and everyone’s happy. But all-too-often the errors associated with misinformation or lack of information will occur. You may be left with a bill for replacement works that far outweighs the survey cost.

Every project has its own intricacies. The Project Manager, in his own mind, must have clear boundaries by which to assess the level of survey information required for differing circumstances. It is, of course, for the individual to define these boundaries. To do so with a respect for the value of a survey may prove worthwhile. There are a few options for obtaining building information, each with their benefits and drawbacks:

  1. Documentation given with site procurement. The cheapest option, but information often outdated. Cannot be easily verified. Can you afford to rely on it?
  2. DIY survey. Collect the information that you want, but is time consuming. Can you achieve the required accuracies?
  3. Specialist Survey. High accuracy. Time efficient. More expensive.
  4. Architect-supplied working drawings. Was the Architect working from an accurate measured survey?

Whatever form you take, it seems a pity to allow preconceptions of the ‘cost’ of a survey deter you from obtaining the information you need. Indeed, it is well documented in surveying publications that professional survey fees are amongst the lowest of all professions. This certainly appears to push against economic principals of supply and demand. The survey industry even when running at full capacity, the highly competitive nature of survey tendering keeps the fees at a deflated level.

Surveying is as old as Architecture and the two are interdependent. Take a moment to consider the benefits to the design and construction sectors if all projects had an extra thought dedicated to the not-so-humble survey.