It’s easy to become a fully qualified damp and timber surveyor…right?!? One three-day training course with some exams chucked into the mix. Surely it can not be that hard?!?
It is a criticism we do hear from time to time. For all those that have put in the dedication, hard work and time to get qualified…it is rather insulting! However, we are also often asked by both students and those interested in going onto our training courses and sitting our exams what exactly happens, and what can I expect? Well if you are a junior surveyor looking to get qualified, a student going through the process, or an employer looking to gain some insight into what is involved; then this is an article you want to be reading and sharing!
Rather than ourselves explaining the experience, off the back of a Zoom call, Richard Hall of the Cook Group Ltd opens up about his recent training and qualification journey within the Q&A session below, and explains some of his motivations and how he likes to try and help the public.
A big thanks to Richard from all at the PCA for agreeing to the interview and congratulations to you on your recent qualification achievement. To learn more about Richard’s journey, continue to scroll down…
Q. Introduce yourself Richard?
Hello All! I am Richard Hall a Surveyor & Contracts Manager within the Building Preservation Industry. I am very proud to say I am now qualified after a lengthy training and development journey, starting in January 2016 and culminating in successful examinations in March 2019 and January 2020.
I’ve had quite a varied career background starting from a humble Demolition Operative, initially working holidays but ending as a Contracts Manager, then moving on to being a Health & Safety Consultant and Asbestos Surveyor, to where I am now and all after an early stint at Law School!
Happily married with 4 children living in and enjoying the Yorkshire Wolds……a fiercely proud Yorkshireman with all the stereotypical attributes such a person has, but we are chosen to be born into God’s own County, right?
Q. How long have you been in the industry?
4 and half years with the last 15 months as a fully qualified Certificated Surveyor of Timber & Dampness in Buildings (CSTDB) surveyor in the Building Preservation Industry.
Q. Cutting to the chase and the question most often asked by students…How did you find the CSTDB exams?
Multi-disciplined? Varied topics? Legal and Health & Safety knowledge needed? An excruciating oral exam? Yes to all 4 and some more beside, meaning for a very daunting experience!
For me, I had had experience at University of Law Exams. I can tell you this…I studied as much for my CSTDB in terms of hours and reading as I did for my law modules & exams. Luckily, I passed both! However, I will say the CSTDB means most personally to me due to the process to gain the award.
Having said that, the exams should be tough! It shouldn’t be simple. The process must be demonstrably resilient as once qualified, you’re out ‘live surveying’ with only your own personal standards, the knowledge gained and your surveying skills between you and the paying customer. It should never be to their detriment if you cannot meet expectations – a tough, robust CSTDB process ensures those who are ready, pass.
However, CSTDB is like a driving test! If you study, you can pass, but the day you pass you are on a lifelong learning curve as a surveyor. Critical to this is the much feared CSTDB Oral Exam. Can you demonstrate that your key knowledge exists and expand on it if you were in a similar position with a client, architect etc? If you cannot, then re-sits beckon until you are good enough. Harsh? Perhaps, but it does reinforce the message and makes you realise that you will soon be in a scenario of trust with a client and you must be good enough. It’s not their fault if you aren’t up to scratch.
Many people who have not experienced the process totally misunderstand and denigrate what it takes to gain CSTDB, and why it must be robust for the long term to produce a good surveyor.
Q. Did you revise?
Such a simple question to answer with – Oh ‘hell‘ yes, I did and then some!! I cannot emphasise that reading, research and revision are critical to passing. Right from the start, there is a large reading list to get through.
Let me wind the clock back a little bit first by way of fuller explanation. The road to exams is paved with people who have tried and failed based on the flippant view that CSTDB is just a ‘3-day course with a quick exam’.
My revision journey included the 3-day Surveying Timber & Dampness in Buildings course. The PCA advises you fully before, during and after that the course does not give you what you need to become a fully complete surveyor, nor does it necessarily give you everything you need to pass the exam!
As I started my journey I enquired with my Employer and Senior Surveyor how I would be CSTDB qualified?
The answer as it turned out was very tongue in cheek, “Hey Rob…help your colleague Richard out with a bit of the ‘old library’…go on pal…cheers Rob. Ohh…and Richard, stop sitting on your ass and get on the blower to the PCA!”.
So, as I started in 2016, a colleague was sitting his exams who had recently completed the 3-day course and was revising for his upcoming exams…and was unfortunately lumbered with me! Poor guy…very off putting I suspect! He was allowed time in work to study in the office 2-3 afternoons a week as well as his own private revision at home. I saw however, the sheer volume of research, reading and revision he was going through which very much made me wonder if I ever would be in a position to sit a similar set of examinations? He had also had some time on sites actively doing some of the varied work we undertook….something I had limited time on (at the time)!
It quickly became apparent that there was a mountain to climb. How do you collect enough knowledge across such a diverse industry especially when like me, you come into the industry not from a trade background of having seen first-hand and carried out works such as timber treatments?
This is where the Property Care Association comes into play.
Q. How did the PCA assist in your journey to becoming CSTDB qualified?
There is a very diverse range of courses available through the PCA, so we treated my approach toward the 3-day Surveying Timber & Dampness in Buildings course and exams in a modular progressive manner.
Over 24 months I attended and passed by examination several PCA courses on very wide-ranging subjects to simply embed key knowledge. In doing so, I became familiar with Codes of Practice etc, related to the course subjects, many of which but not all by any means, written by the PCA.
For practical experience, I spent time on-site with Qualified Surveyors and Operatives. I also spent time with other PCA member companies who specialise in certain aspects and in addition, spent some arranged time with members local to me who are RICS accredited.
I thought this was an exceptional way to approach CSTDB requirements to pass. Little did I realise until I met other CSTDB delegates that many had followed a similar route with their companies!
Q. How diverse a job is that of a Damp & Timber Surveyor?
Very…no two client queries are regularly the same. Personally…I have learnt to look at everything! Moisture in the wrong place has the potential to cause decay of timber, whether that’s a fungal attack or a wood-boring beetle infestation, to structural movement and along the way, degraded decorative finishes due to hygroscopic salts and indoor environmental issues such as condensation and the effects on health that can cause.
Often we are surveying on the back of requests from locally based RICS Surveyors and Structural Engineers, who value our expertise with correctly identifying the accurate causes of damp, fungal decay and wood-boring beetles; as well as the specialist solutions we can deliver particularly when structural timber is affected.
Q. What motivates you as a Surveyor in the industry?
Raising standards. A short answer! Time and again I have seen and read really quite poor surveys and large quotations presented to people for work they do not always need in full, by untrained persons or for me, arguably worse, by trained Building Surveyors who went through a purely academic process without any site mentoring experience relying solely on a damp meter – which any worthwhile CSTDB surveyor simply would not do due to their training and understanding.
Q. How does the PCA support you?
Everything from detailed and wide-ranging training programmes, to technical support and mentoring via fellow members – some leading experts in their field, many are nationally and internationally recognised academics.
For example, in my journey to CSTDB qualification I spent time on numerous training courses in the run up to the Surveying Timber & Dampness in Buildings course and very importantly, I was mentored with a PCA Member who gave me free time with them in their laboratory to discuss, measure and understand atmospheric moisture diagnosis.
It is difficult based on personal experience in my early previous career within the UK Demolition Industry to think of any other organisation or membership that is so open to engagement, advice and training in order to raise standards in its surveying body as the PCA is.
For example, the PCA is engaged in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with University College London, to which I contributed diagnostic information by using data loggers. How many members of any organisation can say they have such a chance of engagement at a similar level with a prestigious UK academic institution like UCL? The results of this endeavour will change the understanding of atmospheric moisture – a benefit for the whole population over time.
Q. How do you continue to develop?
I sit down annually with my employer and set out a training needs analysis plan and target courses held by the PCA and other organisations which would be beneficial for key knowledge.
We run a mentoring programme internally and share experiences and learning with a small group of local PCA Contractors. I am also often invited to the local RICS meetings as a guest for topics that have interest.
Q. What do you like most about life as a preservation surveyor?
The sheer variety of issues we see across a working week and the genuinely helpful assistance you can give clients, often when faced with difficulties and erroneous repairs requested or sought from them particularly via quotes from lesser qualified or misinformed contractors.
There is a real sense of excitement though for me personally when you save a client money by making an accurate diagnosis and often limiting the costs of the previously advised invasive works
Q. Most interesting thing you have seen?
A room full of RICS Surveyors engaged in our CPD presentation on atmospheric damp! As one subsequently said in the coffee break, ‘I only thought you got Rising Damp!’.
Personally though, the damage caused by a leaking gutter to a 5-storey Victorian property and the subsequent Dry Rot outbreak, the scale of the damage across four floors of the property was at that time simply amazing to me for a fungal growth.
Q. Biggest challenge?
I cannot split them as they were both personal punch the air moments, so two I’m afraid!
Delivery and working successfully with our local authority Conservation Officer in respect of all damp issues on a local Grade 2 listed Chapel, where lime-based products were annually failing requiring expensive redecoration every 5 years. This was not, as we painstakingly proved, due to rising damp but due to atmospheric moisture. It would have been so simple to sell him the highly invasive specification of works he originally designed and called for, but that is the total opposite of what we and the PCA stand for. I am happy to say surface decorations remain as good today as they were when completed some 3 years ago and show no signs of deterioration.
As my own project, the survey and delivery of an adjoining local authorities largest ever dry rot Court Order for repairs project. I must say here, it is thanks in part to the PCA. I had been on a course which had discussed surface deterioration of painted timber and tell-tale signs that include paint rippling due to shrinkage as part of a Dry Rot outbreak. Attending a 5-storey Victorian property I met the client rep and two very qualified surveyors (a Building Surveyor and a Structural Engineer) and we looked around with the client, as the Court Order was to make this occupied property safe and habitable for one existing elderly occupant.
There was much discussion that the timber floors, which couldn’t be fully accessed due to coverings, had ‘moved’ in alignment and had corrugated areas due to historic subsidence, or in their opinion less possibly due to ‘damp’ – the former being almost approved when I spotted in a door frame what I thought was a slight paint ripple affect due to Dry Rot shrinkage, and therefore a potential outbreak which may have spread and become the cause of the floor corrugation. I was practically laughed out of the building but the Local Authority rep had an inclination to check ‘just in case’.
We discovered an extremely large Dry Rot outbreak which we treated with very limited chemical input, as the client preferred not to for environmental considerations, by opening up and drying the areas thoroughly replacing affected timbers.
How has the qualification helped you???
For me in one very critically important way…Validation! The CSTDB / CSSW (Certified Surveyor in Structural Waterproofing) are nationally and internationally recognised. I met people form Australia recently training for their CSSW and a senior Structural Engineer for a large London Property Developer. Why? It is fundamentally important to be seen as an equal in business meetings with Clients and other professional persons who are engaged in the contract, such widely recognised qualifications as can be gained via the PCA give you validation.
As a younger person (well…youngish), I remember my first ever contract meetings in the demolition industry surrounded by Architects and Engineers. They seemed to me lofty qualified personages and quite frankly, I felt very much out of my depth. It became apparent quickly that substantial well-respected qualifications were needed if I wanted to help elevate a valid presence and opinion. I recall a meeting where the scheme proposed by the Structural Engineer would, in my opinion, have caused structural collapse. I wasn’t popular when I advised my opinion and was even told in reply, “In theory I see what you’re trying to say, but what qualifies you to state it?”. Sadly at the time, my only answer then was “nothing formal, but I have driven machinery and demolished similar structures myself…”. It was hardly a glowing faultless opinion base for professionals to sit up and take note of.
These days however, it is very much a case of changed times. Don’t get me wrong…the construction industry still holds a lot of value in the qualifications a person has however, gone are the days of me not been qualified! Simply due to qualifications such as my CSTDB / CSSW qualifications, industry professionals now directly pause and contact me for opinion and advice. How the tables have turned!
It’s very easy to assume there’s no substance to a PCA accredited surveyor but more often than not you couldn’t be more wrong.
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