Design economics vs commercial management

Susan Hanley explores the two Level 3 core competencies on the quantity surveying and construction pathway and discusses how candidates can ensure they make the right choice


Candidates on the APC working on the quantity surveying and construction pathway have a choice between the core competencies of commercial management of construction (CMC) and design economics and cost planning (DECP). The RICS guidance on this states:

“For the APC, quantity surveyors working in a commercial or contracting environment will probably choose commercial management of construction to Level 3. Quantity surveyors working in a consulting environment in either the public or private sector will probably choose design economics and cost planning to Level 3.”

Candidates need to make sure they choose the competency that most closely represents the work experience they have.

These competencies cover key skills that candidates will most likely carry out on a day-to-day basis, and many candidates will carry out tasks that bridge both these competencies.

These skills are at the heart of what makes a quantity surveyor key to the successful delivery of a project. By including activities such as reporting and measuring profitability and value engineering exercises, assessors can then further explore the Level 3 reasoned advice given as a result of the candidate having undertaken these tasks.

Whether working in private practice or contracting, quantity surveyors must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the basis of their costs. Contractors need to understand the different elements that make up project costs, whereas those in private practice should be familiar with the sources of cost data used and how cost planning changes as it proceeds through the various stages.

Take yourself out of your comfort zone

The assessors want to make sure that a candidate is a “safe pair of hands” and can operate sufficiently and safely as a chartered surveyor. Once you become chartered you could move on from your current employer and even set up in practice for yourself. The assessors need to be sure you would still be able to provide the level of service expected from a professional chartered surveyor.

With that in mind you need to prepare for some questions that may push beyond your field and experience.

One of the mistakes candidates often make is to think about their role in isolation; a good APC candidate who perhaps only has work experience in one field, be it contracting or private practice, should not be narrow-minded. They should be able to understand the role of the quantity surveyor in its entirety and demonstrate an understanding of how the tasks they carry out and the advice they give affect others within a project.

Assessors are often looking for candidates to understand the bigger picture, so think about how your actions impact on the project as a whole.

Value engineering

Value engineering is something that is covered under both competencies, and many candidates include an example of this task in their summary of experience at Level 2 and/or Level 3.

Activities can often be named as value engineering by candidates when in fact only a cost-saving exercise has been undertaken; candidates covering value engineering must also look at aspects such as time, aesthetics, buildability, or maintenance implications to ensure they are in fact offering value engineering.

They must also ensure they deal with revisions to design in a responsible and safe manner. When putting forward technical changes these must be done in conjunction with the design team to ensure the appropriate insurance is in place. The new guidance note in the Black Book (see “hot topics”) contains excellent guidance and examples.

Level 1 sources

Candidates should read the guidance notes in the Black Book, which cover many aspects of these competencies, including cost reporting, cost analysis and benchmarking, and be aware that the RICS launched a new guidance note in March 2016 on commercial management of construction.

Unfortunately many candidates are still coming forward for final assessment without even being aware of the existence of the Black Book – this is their opportunity to avoid that pitfall.

Candidates can also look to the new rules of measurement (NRM) suite of documents for guidance on cost planning and cost reporting (available free of charge to RICS members).

QS&C candidates are fortunate to have the supplemental guidance at the back of the QS Pathway guide and should use this to aid their revision.

For most candidates the choice between these two competencies should be straightforward (ie dependent on the type of organisation they work for).

For other candidates, in particular those with more experience or who have worked in both areas, they do have the option of choosing the competency not selected as a core as an optional competency at Level 2.

Candidates who are still not sure should ask themselves:

  • Where does most of my experience lie?
  • Under which competency have I worked at a more senior level?
  • Which of the competencies contains the most examples of activities I have carried out?
  • Which competency would I be most happy to expand on at final assessment, including giving reasons for my actions and details of the options I considered?
  • At Level 1, where does my base knowledge come from and how up to date am I on the current issues?


  • Think about tasks you have carried out and why you have carried them out
  • Think about the “bigger picture”, ie why you are carrying out a cash flow forecast or cost to complete and what it tells you/others
  • Think about the action you might take as a result of some of these tasks, ie cost to complete may lead you to investigate unexpected costs
  • If you are including an example of value engineering, make sure it is not simply a cost-saving exercise and be ready to demonstrate the added value
  • Think about all parties involved, ie how do your actions affect the end client or the professional quantity surveyor (even if your contract is not with them)
  • Make sure that you can justify your actions and reasoning and are not simply carrying out a task in a particular way because that is the way your company does it.


  • GooNRM1 Order of cost estimating and cost planning for capital building works
  • NRM3 Order of cost estimating and cost planning for building maintenance works
  • Sources of cost data, such as BCIS and Spon’s
  • RICS Black Book Please note this is a collective title for a large number of very important guidance notes. As a RICS member you have free access to this information and it is a key APC revision element for all built environment candidates. There may also be elements of interest for other APC pathways.


Don’t assume that the questions given here will be asked at an APC assessment. Assessors will focus on and pose questions on the basis of the candidate’s declared competencies, pathway guide requirements, up-to-date developed knowledge base and the examples provided in their summary of experience, etc.

Level 1

  • DECP) What are the various stages of cost planning?
  • DECP) What adjustments may you make to a cost plan?
  • CMC) How do you prepare a cash flow forecast and what is it used for?
  • Both) Where would you look for guidance on commercial management procedures?

Level 2

  • (DECP) Talk me through the headings within your cost report
  • (DECP) How did you deal with risk in this cost report?
  • (Both) Tell me about the value engineering exercise you undertook
  • (Both) What was the difference in cost between the two construction methods? What were the other impacts from the change?

Level 3

  • (CMC) What advice did you give on the basis of your cash flow?
  • (CMC) What actions did you recommend as a result of the delayed programme? How did you calculate the cost of this overrun?
  • (DECP) Tell me about how you valued the risk you identified – how did you deal with the risk in your reporting? What advice did you give in relation to dealing with the risk?


APC Presentation

This online masterclass discusses key elements of the APC final assessment interview. Hints and tips at

APC mock interviews

An opportunity for candidates to practise their APC final assessment interview including presentation and competency-based questioning. It comprises a full hour interview just like the real thing and constructive feedback from two assessors, including hints and tips on best practice:

Supervisor and counsellor APC training/recordings – formal CPD

Guidance on how to manage and support candidates to get them through the APC. Free one–two hours of formal CPD requirement:

APC Commercial Property Revision Guide

Every forward-thinking APC candidate’s reference book for APC preparation:

APC Explained Masterclass

This helps candidates to understand what needs to be done, including a walk-through of the DeLever APC process timeline and myAPC Diary:

Timeline wallchart

An A2 pictorial view of the APC process. Free copies are available at:


These should be read at least once every three to four months and fully understood. Candidates from outside the UK also need to check their regional websites for any local APC requirements:

How to help

If you have numerous candidates going through the process then set each candidate a topic to research and present back on to others.

Candidates then get Level 1 knowledge and understanding, CPD is being undertaken and presentations skills are being rehearsed.

Make sure you test candidates on their experience at all levels. By obtaining a copy of their up-to-date competency statements before meetings you can prepare questions across the levels relative to their experience, as the assessors will.

Susan Hanley FRICS is an APC chair of assessors and DeLever APC coach

Click here for full access to EG‘s pathway to success series on APC competencies.