Construction Journal: You studied Geography, were you always planning to be a surveyor or what did you want to do when you started university?
Peter Dunn: I was influenced by my dad's civil engineering background, and I was very interested in geography, biodiversity and human geography and how that interfaced with physical environment. I enjoyed being outdoors researching along with some of the excursions we undertook as part of the course which allowed me to gain a better understanding of the wider world around me.
When it came to choosing a career I was really interested in surveying but I didn't know which type of surveying I wanted to pursue at that early stage.
I ended up doing a construction management and QS masters at Reading University, which gave me a solid grounding across the industry and I built a series of connections with people who I've come across in the subsequent 15 years.
I felt at the time that sustainability was a very big topic, but it wasn't turning into as much as we are seeing now.
I wanted to get to grips with how the construction industry worked, to understand the contractual mechanisms, construction technology, cost and finance. My mindset was to get myself to a place where I gained great experience of the industry combined with a network that allowed me to drive things like sustainability harder into the projects I worked on.
CJ: Would you say that mixing sustainability interests into a QS role is more normal now, whereas at the time they were very separate fields?
Peter: Certainly yes, I think so. What I've seen is there are certain environmental initiatives that are now mainstream in our sector, like BREEAM and Passivhaus, and the new net-zero targets that are coming in. Often the first question for a client is, can I afford these extra environmental initiatives and practices?
Looking at it from a capital cost perspective, quite often there's an uplift, and clients want to understand what that capital uplift could be. What do I have to do to the building? What are the cost implications to achieve these goals?
It is really interesting to bring together sustainability initiatives, material selection, plant specification, and providing optional analysis around the cost implications, both in terms of capital but thankfully nowadays much more on the operational side – life cycle costing is becoming more and more prevalent. There are a lot of good things that are now driving QS and sustainability initiatives together.
I still don't think it is close enough although there is a lot of appetite. There are many people in our company who want to work on more and more sustainability projects.
Even in the past two years, sustainability has become much more part of a day-to-day project specifications. I find all that fascinating and it's been good linking the two.
Carbon calculation is also a very interesting point, whether it's automating it or linking it to cost plans and projects. 'What are the costs, what is the carbon?' a QS is well placed to help with those questions because it's a similar skill set once you've got your head around it.
It has worked to my advantage to have these different perspectives. As of two years ago, Faithful+Gould started releasing the net-zero cost guide, which looks at intervention and retrofit and relating that back to the different projects and building types.
CJ: Why did you decide to become an RICS member as well as a CIOB member?
Peter: I joined Currie & Brown before Faithful+Gould, and I joined them for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was that they had a very good APC programme and I knew that I needed to get the RICS chartership.
I knew that becoming an RICS member would give me a lot more confidence, but it also gave me a recognised skill set in the industry and a bit of a safety net, to be honest. You don't realise quite how much you get from the APC programme until you go through it – I'm still using it now. I kept it going because I felt the RICS membership has been brilliant, I've got a huge amount out of it.
I also looked at CIOB and I felt there was some good insights that CIOB did, that were different to RICS. It was more around material selections, detailed technology and building scenarios, which I found interesting and exciting.
A lot of people I did my masters with went into the building side of things, so it linked me back into that space and it gave me great confidence and support.
Faithful+Gould are comfortable with me having both because they're not the same thing and they have different networks and I've never wanted to give that up.
'I knew that becoming an RICS member would give me a lot more confidence, but it also gave me a recognised skill set in the industry'
CJ: Could you tell me about your move upwards from QS to regional director?
Peter: I'm a regional director in sustainability and asset management consulting team, which incorporates all sorts of consultancy aspects like sustainability, business cases, life cycle cost, data management, BREEAM, environmental assessment, asset management which are all very valuable to our clients.
For the first 12 years of my career, I was working a lot with the Foreign Office and other organisations and I've done several secondment roles. In those roles, because of my nature and the way I operate, I was also asked to get involved in project management work as well. Doing both QS work and project management gave me a valuable skill set that enabled me to break down complicated conversations into tangible actions, which is important for project managers.
What I developed through various secondments with both public and private clients, evolving from a QS to project management and then into more sustainability and consultancy-led services, is simply asking what is value, what is represented by value, what are you being paid to generate or why are you being paid?
As a director, I try and look at what the client wants and how do we get there quickly, and how do we also look at spending less time on things that aren't generating value, the same way as you look at a cost plan. What is not generating value that we are paying a lot of money for and does it need to be there?
The thing that creates value is people, and their consultancy and understanding – taking information and interpreting it to support a client's objectives. I think I have learned a lot about how to do that and speak confidently with clients to try and extract the value creation, be clear, and then align teams to it. This aligns to our business case services within our consult team.
I also think the construction industry is quite transactional and one of the things we're trying to encourage is thinking differently about soft landings and putting business cases at the start and informing the benefits from the investment at the end. We need to create the evidence to support our clients' ESG plans.
CJ: For people who are in training or graduates thinking about becoming a QS, what do you see as attractive in the field right now?
Peter: I think the QS industry has become much more accessible in terms of entrants, there are a lot more opportunities to come in, whether it's through apprenticeships or university.
I'm also seeing a significant increase in diversity. We look at our business and a lot of the diversity is in the early careers and early stages, which is fantastic and that will mature in due course.
There is also a lot more mobility, I don't mean necessarily between companies, more about between projects, professionals and sectors.
If you want to be part of something sustainable, those opportunities are very much there. Clients are desperate to understand what the impact of all these changes are. As more and more of these initiatives are emerging, QSs need to be at the forefront to be able to articulate what extra costs are involved because of certain technologies and I think that's really exciting.
There is a shortage of QSs, which means there are good job opportunities generally. And then the final thing is, I'd say it's becoming quite data heavy which creates opportunities for people who like working with data. Things like BCIS are early examples of big data in the construction industry from a QS perspective.
That's becoming more and more mainstream now within organisations, beyond just cost benchmarking and I think you're going to see more and more innovation in that space, which is also exciting.
Related competencies include: Sustainability