Quantity Surveyors Will Be a Key Arbiter of Sustainability and Smart City Technology

In the realm of construction, many invisible pillars and scaffolds help bring projects alive and keep them so. Perhaps no other pillar is as invisible, and yet as critical, as Quantity Surveying (QS). Focused on cost management and quantity extraction, QS professionals often work at the outset of a project or towards its completion. But, according to Eugene Seah of Surbana Jurong, QSs have an indispensable role in the future of built environment and construction and one that is, in fact, forward-looking: providing objective approaches and solutions to smart urban construction and sustainability.

Eugene, a third-generation QS, wears many hats: he serves as Managing Director of Surbana Jurong Technologies, Senior Director of Special Projects in the Group CEO’s Office at Surbana Jurong, and coordinates sustainability solutions and synergy at the firm. A passionate proponent of tireless lifelong learning, Eugene has a panoply of educational and practical experience–from construction and quantity surveying to design, waste, finance, business management, and even information technology. This breadth (with depth) is, according to him, critical to the future of QS and its place in the construction industry. And this role centres on two lines: smart infrastructure and sustainability. 

As the Smart Nation initiative continues to gather momentum in Singapore, especially in light of accelerating progress in the light of the pandemic and advancements in smart housing and infrastructure plans, Eugene believes QSs need to punch above their weight. “QS, by practice, is still pretty traditional,” said Eugene, adding that there are several opportunities in smart cities for QS to tap into that haven’t yet been adequately explored. But this will not be easy, largely due to the uncertainty and missing data surrounding smart components and infrastructure. “Clients don’t want a black hole–they want to see what they’re going to get.” And assembling Bills of Materials and Technology (BoM/BoT) to allow for this to happen with rapidly emerging, sometimes risky smart technology is not easy to do. This is why Eugene works with Surbana Jurong to develop newer benchmarks to help quantify and control costs and values in BoM/BoT formulation. 

But work of this nature requires a level of criticality and intellectual flexibility that will challenge QSs to step outside of their pail and wear, as Eugene does effectively, many hats at the same time. Rather than simply offer QS services to the letter and do little beyond, effective QS work in the realm of smart infrastructure requires treating the discovery, specification, quantification, and implementation of smart infrastructure as a “journey from start to finish.” And this is where Surbana Jurong excels in its QS platform: it possesses construction or QS experts who double up as technologists or facilities managers who can contribute to data conversations; they are primed as a result to empathise with clients better and pre-empt anxieties by borrowing from the best of both worlds. “They are giving us the royal jelly of information so that when we build technology up it’s based on cost-effective and pragmatic solutions.”

This journey, and its interdisciplinary prerequisites, transcends smart infrastructure, however. As with Smart Nation, recent pushes for sustainable infrastructure under the SG Green Plan have similarly opened up burrows for QSs to dig deeper into. QSs can be surprisingly important players in accomplishing sustainable infrastructure goals in Singapore and beyond. “We are the only ones who break a building into a thousand lines,” Eugene noted, and this allows QS to methodically and comprehensively disassemble projects to pinpoint sustainability bottlenecks and ESG-critical points and materials with surgical precision. This is also achieved through the use of platforms such as Surbana Jurong’s “24K Integrated Data Platform” Common Data Environment (CDE), which horizontally allows for data from across the entire array of sensors to be digitally concatenated and wrangled for further sustainability analysis.

Crucially, such data must be deployed by QSs in the service of ensuring that no greenwashing occurs in the delivery of sustainability promises. According to Eugene, this can be achieved most promisingly in materials selection in the context of carbon reduction and emissions control. “As Quantity surveyors, we can play a crucial role to ensure that we know what is the embodied carbon of the building.” And this can then be determined by studying (and helping select even, per Eugene) materials that lower embodied carbon and also that ensure lower operational emissions. Embodied carbon analysis is especially relevant in Singapore with higher infrastructure renovation and tear-downs given limited land; the higher frequency of new construction requires that embodied carbon is smoothed out over time similar to or more efficiently than longer tenure infrastructure. 

QSs who can rise up to this challenge will require more than specialist knowledge within valuing and surveying. To match client needs of the future, Eugene believes that QSs will need to dip their toes in many ponds and be comfortable with cross-pollinating knowledge from across several disciplines. “Because of the ideas and knowledge I have, I’m able to speak to a client and ask, ‘Do we need this?’” and be not only a service provider but an active adviser and critical eye in the service of the client’s sustainability and smart technology interests and ambitions. As new and exciting developments in construction technology and sustainability continue to emerge, QSs may very quickly find themselves no longer be an invisible pillar in the built environment but indeed a central one. 

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