Keith and Stuart first met in 1976 while studying for their first-stage RICS accreditations at Erith College of Technology. They continued on career paths that closely matched each other, passing the same exams year by year until they became Chartered Surveyors on the same day in 1981. Before long they found themselves working at the same partnership, and steadily progressed together through to becoming Partners. Until in 1992 they left together, to form Murray Birrell.
Earlier in 2022, Keith opted to step back from day-to-day responsibilities, though remains a Consultant. Sam Field stepped up to a Directorship, and Amanda Taber re-joined us as an Associate Director. Alongside David Betteridge and Stuart, they form our current Senior Management team.
At this landmark 30 year milestone, we took the opportunity to ask Stuart to look back on how both Murray Birrell and the surveying profession in general have evolved during that time.
Stuart, what were the earliest days like?
Murray Birrell’s first office space was a sublet corner in the offices of West and Partners, about the size of a wardrobe. Our wives helped with typing and book-keeping, until after about nine months the first employees were two secretaries and another surveyor. During this early stage we were helped enormously by a large number of friends and former clients who helped us to carry out work or fed us contacts. We will always be very grateful to those who helped us get off the ground.
When West and Partners needed their space back after a couple of years we moved to an office in Orpington, gradually expanded, and for the last eight years we have been in Petts Wood. We also have an office in Mayfair, which is very practical as most of our work is now in Central London. It still gives me a bit of a buzz to see our brass plaque in one of the most expensive streets in London.
Who were the first Murray Birrell clients?
Our first client was David Miles & Partners, although most of our work was for Housing Associations and Local Authorities. We worked for NatWest for a while, and did a very large survey for Thames Water. Most of our work then was construction based. This has evolved in to mainly professional work, and the construction work we are involved with today is for a completely different client base, and largely in the West End and City.
How different was it to work as a building surveyor three decades ago?
Computers were in their infancy. Windows had started being used only just before we formed. We worked with word processors and saved everything on floppy disks. It was all pre-email and like everyone else we sent letters in the post. We used drawing boards and pens rather than CAD, and worked out our figures on a calculator, not a spreadsheet. The new(ish) office technology is definitely a plus, and like many other businesses we got to grips with video conferencing during the lockdowns.
30 years ago there were no alternatives to site visits to check the condition of properties and determine exactly what work was going to be required. It is a lot easier to take and share photographs and videos these days, and though there can be undoubted cost savings in using visual technology rather than making personal inspections, I believe they should be used as back-up reminders and for support. There is still no substitute to seeing a challenge with your own eyes, and maybe also feeling it with your own hands. More people seem to look at costs rather than value these days, but at the end of the day you largely get what you pay for, and part of that ought to be seeing what needs doing with your own eyes.
To my mind, even as we celebrate 30 years, it also seemed easier back then to focus on doing what building surveyors do. There is more legislation to be aware of and comply with, such as enhanced health and safety and even anti-slavery laws. Heightened awareness of climate change and sustainability, plus inclusion and diversity issues have to be taken in to account, and we are embracing these as best as we can as a small company.
Mentoring through Grosvenor Estate’s “Net Zero Programme” is certainly helping on the sustainability issues. We are also building insights on inclusion and diversity from the efforts I am involved in to widen membership of the Pyramus & Thisbe Learned Society for party wall professionals.
Technology certainly marches on, but are there any aspects of the work that have remained pretty much the same?
Things that have remained constant include the importance of strong client relationships. I’ve already mentioned video meetings, though I believe firmly that there is still a need to physically engage with people. Soft skills are, and always will be, very important. While we master video tech, it must not be thought of as a complete alternative. When clients are paying for services delivered to a very high standard, you can engage more with eyes and ears when you meet someone in the flesh. You can exchange information well enough on a video call, but building mutual trust and respect is more difficult.
What does the future hold for Murray Birrell?
I know I’m approaching the twilight of my career as a building surveyor, but I do believe firmly that the day you stop learning is the day to pack your bags. You have to remain prepared to change or you become redundant. You need an enquiring mind to be the best that you can be. It’s certainly a quality we look for in anyone who works at Murray Birrell, and it’s a quality that will take Murray Birrell still further after I do finally hang up my hard hat.
In the meantime I remain a member of the Senior Management team, recently boosted with the addition of Sam Field and Amanda Taber. We will face different challenges to those Keith and I had to overcome when we started the business. As Murray Birrell celebrates 30 years, we’re all too well aware that sustainability requirements in response to the impact of climate change, leading a more diverse team, and staying on top of new technology will require further skills, insights and understandings to maintain Murray Birrell’s performance and reputation among clients. We’re looking forward to the future opportunities we will create.