Nzangi Muimi

The 1666 Great London Fire and the Birth of Quantity Surveying

History points to the Great London fire as what led to the start, and growth of the practice of quantity surveying in the United Kingdom before it spread to the rest of the world.

In this article, we discuss how the London fire happened, the reconstruction of London and how the master builder profession was involved. Then we will see how quantity surveying measurements evolved to the point of having an independent quantity surveyor involved in all construction projects.

Great Fire of London

According to the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was September 2 – 5, 1666, when an accidental fire began in the house of the king’s baker in Pudding Lane near London Bridge.

It destroyed a large part of the city of London: 87 parish churches, 13000 houses, the Royal Exchange and the St. Paul’s Cathedral.

This situation was worsened by a violent east wind that encouraged the flames for 3 days.

The construction materials used then were timber and thatched roofing. Firefighting was very basic, with little skills and knowledge (use of leather buckets and water squirts). This made the fire spread more and caused more damage to the town.

The Reconstruction of London

Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Robert Hooke were tasked to coordinating the reconstruction of the City of London after the great fire.

Before the fire; masons, carpenters and concretors were paid daily wages for the work they did.

This time, large amounts of work were needed to rebuild the City of London and it was decided that each craftsman should be paid for the quantity of work done.

This meant that somebody had to study the drawings and measure the amount of each trade contained in the building at the same time preparing an estimate for the total cost of the construction works. This became the work of a measurer who later came to be known as a quantity surveyor.

History of Quantity Surveying and the Great London Fire

The Egyptians (while building the great Pyramids), Greeks and Romans (while building cities and other developments), were not interested in the final cost of the building. They were only interested in the cost of raw materials; labour was free from their slaves.

In the 17th and 18th centuries; architects were working as master builders. They used to employ craftsmen to work for them and paid them an hourly rate or a daily wage.

During the reconstruction of the City of London, work became more, and working hours extended. It was agreed that the craftsmen would be paid on the measure and value basis of the quantity of work done. This was seen as a fairer compensation method.

Therefore, measurers were employed by the architect to measure and prepare a final account for each craftsman or group of craftsmen.

With time, the craftsmen became dissatisfied with the architect’s measurers thinking that they were not being fair in their valuations. They started hiring their measurers. This led to many disputes.

Subsequently, the architects started advising the clients to have one measurer prepare the bill of quantities. This standard document would be sent to all contractors/craftsmen to have the bids based on one document. This made bid comparisons easier.

With time, independent measurers established their offices to offer these services. They started using the name “quantity surveyor”.

The bill of quantities rates would be used to value any variations that occurred for inclusion in the final account. The client could go to an independent quantity surveyor to prepare the bills of quantities for use in the selection of contractors.

Therefore, the quantity surveying profession and bill of quantities were born out of these developments.

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