A unique method of construction cost control, developed in the United Kingdom, has been gaining favor in the United States in recent years as inflation and high interest rates played havoc with construction budgets.

Called "elemental cost planning," the management technique, practiced in the United States by about 100 largely British-trained "quantity surveyors," is aimed at controlling the development of the design and the cost of a project. Unlike traditional estimating, the ECP system is predictive, its practitioners say, seeking to identify the cost consequences of any future action or change before it is implemented. The accompanying budget procedure carefully lays out the costs of the different elements of the building project, so that a change in one can be compensated for by a change in another.

Some of the buildings utilizing elemental cost management as a technical tool include the new U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the Sears Tower in Chicago, the recently-completed Intercultural Center at Georgetown University and two Washington developments now in progress: the Smithsonian Institution South Quadrangle Development and the Intelsat telecommunications headquarters.

Practitioners in the United States include the Washington-based Marriott Corp., which has four quantity surveyors on the staff. "They recognized the need for cost control and quality control when they decided to go from building two hotels a year to some 20 a year," says Allan Young, a "QS" from Scotland who is director of estimating of Marriott's architecture and construction division. Young got his job after responding to a Marriott ad in a British newspaper after its U.K. auditors had recommended the quantity surveyor role to the company.

There is no exact American counterpart to the QS role. Quantity surveyors or "building economists" are trained in a four-year program in a myriad of fields related to construction: estimating, construction technology, civil and structural engineering, cost engineering, mechanical building and engineering services, petrochemicals, minerals extraction, environmental economics, electrical requirements, planning and urban development, architecture, landscaping, interior design, project management, even taxation, building law and accounting.

"Our specialization is in generalization," says QS Alastair G. Law, chairman of Georgetown-based MMP International Inc. Adds QS David M. Chalmers: "It's the missing link in American construction; there isn't anyone trained in the United States to produce a building that meets all the owner's criteria--financial, legal, functional and aesthetic."

Chalmers, vice president of planning and construction of McLean-based Lee Sammis Co., noted that most "purchasers" of buildings are laymen who have to rely on others for advice; he thinks they sometimes listen to the wrong people. "Form should follow function," he says, suggesting that an architect--interested in design--may not be the best person to guide the design team. Nor should the owner rely on the construction company, whose income is related to the dollar volume of the project, Chalmers contends.

The QS, however, is trained to represent the interests of a person seeking to erect a building, understanding both the owner's needs and the construction trades, Chalmers says. The QS doesn't design the building or replace the architect but merely helps the owner decide what is wanted before talking to the architect, he said.

He explained that, when a QS looks at a potential building, he begins with the functional and space requirements of the specific user and then looks at how much the owner wants to spend and the building's quality.

"To say someone wants to pay $65 a square foot for a building of 100,000 square feet doesn't tell you anything; it's a total amount instead of how is this building going to work," Chalmers says. The QS provides the owner with a budget, detailed to include what each element will cost--where the money should be spent.

The detailed budget will include more than 30 specific elements--items that make up the substructure, the superstructure, internal finishes, fittings and furnishings, services and external works. If the owner changes his or her mind on one thing, something can be taken from somewhere else in order to keep the building within the overall limits set at the beginning, Chalmers said. Also, costs can be reduced if that's desired. As an example, he noted that his company altered the design of a California building to be built here by changing the structure and some materials--such as black glass for reflective glass--and reduced costs 30 percent per square foot.

Elemental cost planning was developed in the aftermath of World War II when the United Kingdom found itself in need of reconstructing houses, hospitals and schools--but with limited resources to do it. That's when quantity surveyors, who originally counted resources, became involved in financial planning, developing budget and cost planning techniques that have become standard in Britain.

Until the last five years, the generally healthy U.S. economic climate and easy availability of money meant that no one here worried very much about accurate budgets, Chalmers thinks. Time was of the essence in U.S. construction, with the idea to get the building up fast so that rents could be collected, Young adds. But when escalating interest rates and inflation sent construction budgets soaring, it became more significant to control costs, and the QS began to provide manager/design/financial services.

Alastair Law of MMP International said he had no plans to come to the United States because there wasn't a perceived role for the QS; he arrived here 11 years ago--for six months--to set up a city planning firm for the British firm he worked for. When that dissolved, he stayed and set up his own firm. "I realized there was a crying need," he says. "My first impression when I came here was that I stepped back 20 years in my profession."

The younger Chalmers was looking for a position in America. "My view was that since there weren't QSs here, there might be a new market . . . it had to happen sometime."

It has started to happen, but slowly. "This isn't a revolution; it's an evolution," says Alastair C. McPhail, a QS on Marriott's staff.

None of the QSs is advocating the wholesale importation of the U.K. system here; rather they want to tailor the system where it can help, Allan Young adds. He noted that while there is less detailed cost planning going on here, the cycle time is much faster from inception to completion. "And there's superb construction technology in the United States, probably the best in the world," Chalmers adds.

One of the biggest hurdles the QS face in the United States, according to Chalmers, is convincing Immigration that someone from Britain can do a job an American can't do.

The group recently has formed the American Institute of Construction Economics to promote the professional position of the QS in this country. The group already counts as members 30 of the 100 quantity surveyors practicing in here. Chalmers added that the group is receptive to advising, at no charge, not-for-profit charitable organizations on their construction plans.