Walker Sime’s QSI team want to change construction. Lengthy delays and budget overruns don’t have to plague the sector’s major projects. ‘All’ it takes is for honest conversations to happen that reduce risk and cost, lock-in project success, and result in contracts everyone can sign up to. It’s a model Walker Sime has been developing for years, and its impact is now being felt on major projects across the UK.
From the construction of new nuclear decommissioning facilities to local authority regeneration, Walker Sime’s Mark Bond, Tim Gardner, Emma Garner and Dom Gill are redefining project delivery by redefining the role of QSI.
Here, they explore the secret to the team’s growing success.
“In terms of scale, it’s probably the biggest project we’ve ever been involved with.”
Mark Bond, Director of Quantity Surveying Infrastructure (QSI) at Walker Sime, is talking about a new 20-year, £7 billion project for Sellafield that includes state-of-the-art (and rather James Bond-ian) facilities developed for the storage of nuclear waste.
Walker Sime will soon start to support KBR as part of Programme and Project Partners comprising KBR as integrator, Jacobs for Design and Engineering, and Management Contractors Morgan Sindall and Doosan. Initially, Walker Sime will be working with KBR on four component projects, each valued at between £500M and £1B.
A QSI team like no other
Ensuring the successful, often complex, delivery of infrastructure projects for Walker Sime is the job of the QSI team, led by Mark and Associate Directors Tim Gardner, Emma Garner and Dom Gill.
Mark spent the first half of his career as a quantity surveyor and commercial manager before heading to the Middle East for a decade as a claims and disputes specialist. By the time he returned to the UK to join Walker Sime in 2019, he had been instrumental in the construction of iconic projects including The Formula 1 track in Abu Dhabi, the Burj Kalifa in Dubai and Hong Kong International Airport.
With 20 years’ planning experience (including a wealth of public sector experience across healthcare, infrastructure, residential, energy and pharma), Emma knows the challenges of the current construction environment and client expectations. An insightful programme manager, Emma sees beyond the construction site, anticipating the logistics of moving materials through a busy city, or the impact of the current shortage of labour and materials. It all feeds into her work which helps to create realistic project programmes.
Dom has vast experience of complex projects in the highways, power, gas & oil, and utilities sectors. He’s worked with many of the UK’s largest clients, specialising in NEC form of contract, project controls and PMO (project management office) environments. It’s his experience across functions, from a “boots on the ground” QS, to project control (with Highways England), to PMO (for, among many others, Manchester City and Wirral Councils) that enables him to design realistic, practical governance systems that keep projects on track.
Tim has spent virtually his entire QS/QSI career on secondment. From clean water plants to HS2, he embeds himself and his team in client businesses. For the past four years, he’s worked on secondment with Peel Ports on a variety of projects from the caisson gate refurbishment at Liverpool’s QEII Dock to dock wall repair in Runcorn. He’s currently working on a new swing bridge project over the Manchester Ship Canal.
The quartet’s complementary skill sets and experience create a QSI function that’s not quite like anyone else’s, and it’s one that helps address the typical challenges of largescale infrastructure projects, most notably the contract.
“In the past, contracts have placed the contractor at a disadvantage, with an imbalance of risk in the client’s favour – it’s been too onerous on the contractor,” Mark explains. “What tends to happen then is that the contractor feels backed into a corner and continually has to fight to make the project profitable and that’s not good for anyone.”
“The construction market is hugely competitive, so there’s a natural tendency for budgets and programme durations to be driven down in an effort to deliver projects faster and more economically. The problem with this is that, if projects get off on the wrong foot with unrealistic budgets and unachievable programmes, then they are destined to fail from the start. We make a point of negotiating a balance contract risk between the parties, setting realistic budgets and putting together realistic delivery programmes. It sounds simple but it makes all the difference.”
“I was at a contract sign off meeting with a client recently where you do a ‘page turn’, going through every element of the contract, looking for anything that may have left the client exposed to risk, and which may have come back to bite us. You always find a few things.” explains Dom. “Historically, that might have been left with the on-site quantity surveyor (QS), who’s probably a contractor themself, but it’s important – for us, the QS and the client – that they are able to represent Walker Sime in the right way. Our subcontractors and freelancers need more support and scrutiny, not less. So we’re involved throughout, and it means we spot things that might once have slipped through. We call it ‘director-led delivery’.
“It also means we’re involved at every stage, from pre- to post-contract,” says Tim. “We’ll be involved at the earliest stages pulling together contract packages, but we’re there post-contract too, ensuring delivery of the QS function and assessing payment applications.”
“It’s not ground-breaking,” Dom adds, “but there’s value in being closer to the client than we might once have been.”
Creating the achievable
Before contracts are scrutinised, QSI plays a vital gatekeeper role at the project outset, helping lock-in a realistic price and programme of work.
“Our approach is to set out with a balance of risk between contractor and client,” says Mark. “We agree a reasonable cost and timescale and then put together a realistic programme. If £160 million is a realistic price for the project, let’s not try and squeeze it into a £120 million budget. If it should be a 36-month contract, let’s not restrict it to 30. Let’s agree something that’s reasonable and achievable and then ensure we really manage that project properly.
“If you don’t do that what tends to happen is you agree to something that’s unrealistic which ends up costing £200 million and takes four years – that’s the value we add.”
“One way we might achieve that is with a pre-tender estimate, which is our benchmark against which we’ll measure competitive quotes,” says Dom. “A good pre-tender estimate will be realistic but competitive. If someone comes in way below that you’re alerted to where corners may have been cut and you can challenge the figures. It sounds counter-intuitive to say ‘that sounds too cheap’. But it’s much better to do it before the project starts than to have a big bunfight at the end when, in addition to the project running over budget, you probably end up with lots of legal fees too.”
It’s a similar story with programme delivery. Emma’s role is to scrutinise the programme of work and assess whether the timescales and tenders received for each element of the build are realistic, something she feels is best achieved by refocusing on client needs.
“I feel the industry has reached a point where there’s often a disconnect between what the client requires and the corporate standards of the construction consultant,” she says. “There’s a danger we stop listening to our clients’ needs. We have to put those needs back where they belong – front and centre of the relationship. That’s why I joined Walker Sime.”
“I know what ‘wrong’ looks like”
It is one thing for Mark, Tim, Emma and Dom to make their recommendations, but when those recommendations may often be to choose more realistic tenders, timescales and programmes, what is it that enables Walker Sime to hold the honest conversations required – and what is it that makes clients listen?
“What enables me to do it is having the experience,” says Mark. “I’ve spent a decade dealing with claims and disputes, understanding what goes wrong, what sends projects over-budget and deadline and why. I know what ‘wrong’ looks like and I don’t want to be involved with those projects anymore. I want to set the job up properly because I can see the risk of not doing that – and the rewards (for all parties) of doing it the right way.
“Clients are under intense pressure to build cheaper and faster. But there is a better way of doing things. I know that sounds a bit like ‘Mark Bond wants to change the construction world’ but we need to tackle this, avoid disputes and take pride in the fact that we were part of a successful team that delivered. We need to understand how people are really feeling under pressure and they need to tell us rather than pretending everything is fine and then watching the whole thing crash six months later. If we talk about the issues sooner we avoid the problems later. Of course, you need the sort of relationship that allows those conversations to happen, and they take time to develop, but they are vitally important. That’s what we’re doing now – getting involved in the whole project lifecycle and building the strong relationships and trust.
“We’re focused on adding value. We’re passionate about delivery. The money we make as a business is a by-product of what we do – quality service delivery is our aim; not just making a profit.”
Passing the baton
That QSI focus on adding value is just as evident post-contract. Dom Gill explains.
“There are lots of different disciplines within a construction company – QS, QSI, bills of quants, project management (PM). They all have their own targets, so there’s perhaps been a tendency in the past for them to all become a little bit siloed. We’re now seeing much more cross-pollination.”
That cross pollination is driven in significant part by Dom’s PMO expertise, something he’s currently applying to a major regeneration of Birkenhead.
“Wirral Council’s regeneration programme involves a huge portfolio of projects – 140+ of them. They needed a PMO (project management office), a standardised way of delivering the projects in a consistent way, so the council can maintain governance. We’ve created dashboards that ‘suck in’ information from all these projects and can be presented to the client in a way that makes it easy for them to stay in control.
“We’ve created the PMO, the inputs, tools and templates that each project uses to feed into the PMO. Then each project picks up that ‘baton’ and applies it to their own area. Then there are the individual projects. We’re finding that some projects that may be led by one division will benefit from the expertise of another. An obvious example of that would be the demolition of a flyover near the Birkenhead tunnel, one of our projects for the town. It’s ostensibly a QS or PM project, but it very much plays to our strengths so they called us in. It’s a good example of functions not being possessive about their domains. They understand what works best for the project, and who’s best placed to lead it.”
For Tim Gardner, working closely with the client is a vital part of his QSI role. “I’d be struggling to do the full extent of the role if I wasn’t working with Peel Ports day-to-day. Being seconded here means that there’s a continuation of contact. You’re better able to keep your ear to the ground and understand a little more about what’s going on. If we were working remotely every conversation would require a meeting or an appointment. Here, I can just pop next door and have a chat and sort things out so much more quickly. It’s important that information flows more freely and that we can communicate more easily, because that leads to faster, more informed decisions.
“It also supports our business development, because I’m able to see new opportunities where we would be able to add value.”
QSI at Walker Sime
How else does Walker Sime’s QSI function differ from others? “We emphasise the connectedness of the way we work,” says Tim. “When a member of Walker Sime QSI is embedded in your business, you’re not just working with that person or team. They are very much connected to the entire organisation behind them. The information and expertise we hold, the services we offer, the directors behind us – they are very much part of the package we bring.”
“Not everyone has the ability to set up a major regeneration project up for a local authority,” says Mark. “That’s a skillset Dom brought with him. Emma brings similar qualities on the programme management side. Her ability to look at the constraints of construction, the delays that could cause and how we can best avoid them is an important element for us. And Tim is developing the role of the onsite QSI from one where we work under the direction of the client to one where we take the lead a little more – our clients are always looking for more from us, and we’re always looking for ways to deliver it.
“The personalities and relationships we build are an important differentiator too. Our big competitors tend to bring the big guns in on the proposal but if they win the tender you’ll find it’s a very different team actually delivering the job. We’re a smaller business. It’s just us. So if we win your project it’ll be the people you’re talking to now who’ll be responsible for it.”
How would Mark sum up QSI at Walker Sime?
“It’s understanding what the client wants – even when they’re not quite sure themselves. It’s listening. It’s guiding, scrutinising and enabling people and projects, and protecting against risk. It comes back to holding honest conversations that actively support the project and help deliver it. And adding value. It’s always about delivering value.”