A fulfilling career in building surveying

While it may take time to find the profession, it offers a fulfilling career once you do so – as one surveyor's experience proves


  • Gillian Murray

13 April 2020

The social media campaign #NoWrongPath celebrates the range and diversity of career paths in Scotland. Established in 2017 by Developing the Young Workforce Glasgow, it was designed to inspire and reassure young people receiving their exam results. It recognises that some may be disheartened by their grades and aims to show that many people in interesting job roles across Scotland may not have taken a straight, obvious or traditional path to get there. It was a campaign that struck a chord with me: I'm a latecomer to the world of building surveying but so glad I found my way into this profession and all that it entails.

A roundabout route

My working life actually started in the mid 1970s at my parents funfair, when my mam assures me I was confidently serving people and giving them change at the age of five. My work ethic and core values of respect and integrity were nurtured there: my parents and extended family worked tirelessly building up their rides and sideshows, sometimes opening them for ten hours a day before pulling everything down again and loading it on to lorries then driving a long way around Scotland to the next town to start the process again. It was a hard, rough life but made easier by the close-knit bonds of the funfair community.

For the kids, one of the toughest things was having to go to a new school in every different place we went. Attending two in a month was not uncommon, and we would make friends before having to leave again, not seeing folk until the following year when the funfair returned. On reflection this may have been the beginnings of my ability to network.

As I approached high-school age my parents decided they would stop travelling with their funfair and settle down so my sisters and I could attend school more consistently. They chose Fort William and there began six mostly miserable years at high school. I was pleased to leave age 18 with three mediocre grades for my highers in French, German and English.

I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do to earn a living, and fell into a full-time version of the part-time deli supervisory job I had had since I was 16. I scraped a living there for a couple of years but was bored, restless and unfulfilled. With the support of my parents, I went off to Chamonix, France, and for two adventurous years I made beds, washed dishes, went rock climbing, partied hard and had a go at improving my French language skills.

From France I applied to and was accepted by the University of Bradford to study French and Spanish. Once there I worked hard getting good grades and working 20-hour-a-week jobs to support my studies. I soon realised I was on the wrong career path, though, and while I was on my year-out placement in Spain I took a deep breath and dropped out. Telling my parents was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I had been one of the first in my mother's family to go to university and they had been so proud of my achievements; but I knew it was the right choice.

The eureka moment

For the next five years, I worked in an outdoor shop in the Peak District supervising the counter staff and then going rock climbing after work. Not a bad life, but not intellectually fulfilling either. Then came the eureka moment around 1999 when I discovered building surveying.

I had bought a house in Sheffield and we had rising damp that had led to a dry rot outbreak, or so the builder said. His solution? An injected chemical damp-proof course and spraying the dry rot to kill it off. At the same time I saw the BBC2 programme Raising the Roof, which questioned diagnoses of rising damp. The presenter Michael Parrett's job title was building surveyor and the defect diagnosis work he was doing really captured my imagination. I credit that programme as the start of my journey into surveying and finding appropriate solutions to my damp and rot problems thank you Michael.

Wanting to find out more, I asked the Peak District National Park Authority officers who were monitoring my employer's shop extension if they could put me in touch with their building surveyor for a chat. When I called him, he told me that a typical surveying task would involve, for example, an old cow barn that had fallen into disrepair alongside a popular footpath. He would not only be the person dealing with its maintenance and upkeep, but also coordinate feasibility studies for adaptive re-use, then procure and administer project works to turn it into, say, a WC, a visitor centre, or another use, before beginning again with maintenance and upkeep. This property life-cycle management inspired me and I went off to explore further.

"This property life-cycle management inspired me and I went off to explore further"

I got out the Yellow Pages, which was an actual print publication back then. Although there was nothing under 'building surveyors', there was a firm called Bucknall Austin listed under 'surveyors', and its advert mentioned building surveyors. I called the company and went in to meet the head of building surveying, Tim Castle.

He agreed that I could come back and do work experience, so I took holiday from my shop job and spent time with him and his team on site, as well as poring over old project files. Having enjoyed this, I did the same at Sheffield City Council's building control department, but found I preferred commercial building surveying.

Next was a visit to Sheffield Hallam University to chat with the building surveying lecturers, in particular Phil Parham.

I was assured that my Bradford grades were sufficient entry qualifications, so I applied, starting in September 1999 at the age of 28. There followed two years of full-time study alongside seven days a fortnight working at the outdoor shop to help pay the mortgage. I had a year-out placement at Bucknall Austin in 20012 during which I accepted the company's full-time job offer. I then went back to university on a day-release basis to finish my degree over the next two years and graduated in 2004 with a first-class honours degree and an RICS prize for outstanding contribution to our course.

A few life events got in the way of cracking on with my APC, including a move to London, a change of employer to Malcolm Hollis and marriage; so it was 2007 when, having kept an APC diary for more than five years, I at last sat and passed my final assessment and became a chartered building surveyor.

I moved back to Scotland at the end of 2010, when I took up a post with the Landmark Trust as building surveyor for its historic properties. After an internal restructure cut my role in half, I worked on a self-employed basis for the trust and other clients from Fort William before moving to Edinburgh in September 2015 to take up an associate director role with Savills. I spent a couple of years there immersed in dilapidations and technical due diligence, my favourite things outside of historic buildings. In early 2018, an opportunity to hone my historic buildings expertise took me to the National Trust for Scotland.

I then moved to AECOM in September last year to a role that is an indulgence in that it allows me to combine all my favourite aspects of building surveying. My day-to-day work is filled with dilapidations, technical due diligence and maintaining and advising on traditional and historic buildings. I also get to support and encourage others in my team to explore and develop their areas of expertise. For me the joy of building surveying is this variety may we always be the Jacks and Jills of all trades.

"For me the joy of building surveying is this variety may we always be the Jacks and Jills of all trades"

I have always made a point of contributing to the wider profession, first as a committee member on the RICS South Yorkshire Local Association and Matrics groups, then in London on variously the RICS South London Local Association group, Building Surveying Professional Group UK & European Board, and the Building Surveying Journal editorial and advisory group. North of the border I have sat on the RICS Scotland Building Surveying Group and its Scotland Dilapidations Forum since 2015.

I think we get out of the profession what we are willing to put into it, and for my part I'd rather be driving, or at least in the passenger seat offering directions, than be run over by RICS as it moves forward.

I have loved being a building surveyor ever since I found the profession accidentally back in 1999. It is something that I am proud to be part of and shout about. I had a very circuitous route to get here but sometimes it does take a while to own our story and find our square hole, so to speak.

Im not sure that there is a moral to this, but if I have advice to offer others it is to make sure you keep those blinkers off, stay open and receptive to ideas and flights of fancy, and explore them when they present themselves. Be true to yourself, your core values, and to others  the rest will take care of itself.

Gillian Murray is associate director head of building surveying Edinburgh at AECOM gillian.murray@aecom.com

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