Building services: reports and specifications

Doing your duty

27 October 2009

A common frustration among building surveyors is that building services reports and specifications can be overly technical and do not meet clients' needs. Building services consultants feel that building surveyors should ask more questions. Les Pickford sat a surveyor and a building services consultant in a room and asked some questions 

"BSs must strike a balance between the amount of information available to a client and the amount required," says Mat Lown, Partner at Tuffin Ferraby Taylor. "For example, with an M&E specification it is imperative the final document is user-friendly and contains clauses specific to the client's project and not lots of general performance clauses. BSs need to be confident and challenge the author to ensure key client issues are covered."

Lown thinks that, at times, this reluctance to challenge is partly driven by the long-held reputation of building services being a 'black art'. He suggests this can frustrate attempts at constructive communication between a BS and building services consultant (BSC), resulting in the right questions going unasked and a potential over-reliance on the information in the M&E report.

"If a BS is playing a lead role on a project," he says, "we are the client's trusted advisor - asking questions should not endanger that status. All parties need to have the confidence to perform their roles and acknowledge where their expertise begins and ends, and where specialist advice is necessary. By engaging more with technical experts, we understand more, communicate better and the end result is an improved report for our client."

Ian Durbin, Partner at M&E specialist Hoare Lea, agrees. "I've come across BSs in the past that have tried to give the impression they don't need M&E support, whereas it's obvious they do. Being a 'generalist' when it comes to building services is OK as BSs have a much wider role than a BSC, but they do need to trust their specialist advisors where the complexity dictates."

"So if a BSC says he needs a 600mm ceiling space, a BS should always ask why," he adds. "It isn't a weakness for a BS to say 'I don't know how that works'."

By engaging more with technical experts, we understand more, communicated better and the end result is an improved report for our client

However, Durbin admits there is probably also some insecurity on the part of a BSC. "We can sometimes give a really detailed answer whereas it may only need a one-liner, but the answer gets wrapped up in 'fudge'. But we aren't giving away the Crown Jewels and we shouldn't be afraid of sharing information."

The potential impact of this disconnect is that client requirements may not be fully met and a dysfunctional project team is created. This danger probably comes to a head in the grey areas of 'repair or replace' decisions, and their inevitable compromises, where teasing out the correct technical information is crucial to advising the client on a commercial decision.

So what's the solution?

"This is about working closer with BSCs," says Lown. "We recently had a dilapidations case on a 20-year-old building. We modelled various options for the repair or replacement of M&E kit so the client could run a valuation appraisal to come up with projected values and the right business case. We worked closely with the BSC on lifts, air handling equipment, lighting, etc, but also discussed the impact of letting options, capex limitations, potential tenant requirements and the fabric works associated with replacement options.

"The commercial impact of M&E decisions had a large bearing on our client's dilapidations claim against the former tenant so the BSC was an important member of the team," says Lown.

Durbin says it is essential that client requirements are communicated to the full team. "If a BS says his client is going to buy a building and retain it for 30 years, he'll get a certain level of advice from a BSC," says Durbin. "But he is likely to get a much more appropriate answer if the BS expands on areas of client strategy, such as who the potential tenants are, how the building will be split, number and type of lease, its investment strategy, planned length of ownership, targeted EPC ratings, etc. Nine times out of 10 we don't know these things. We should have a relationship built on trust, honesty and openness."

But while the answer to this problem might be wrapped up in the phrase 'better teamwork', and that this is important to ensure client requirements are met, Lown says there is a more important reason to get this right: "We have a duty to ask the right questions."

Future editions of the Building Surveying Journal will contain technical articles on building services elements and how the interaction between BSs and BSCs can be improved.

Les Pickford, Editor, Building Surveying Journal

Further information

Related competencies include: M009, T006, T013, T021, T053