It all seems so easy. The owner sent you some plans and a deadline – you answer with a dollar amount. What’s so hard about that? Well everything’s neatly included in the plans and specifications. You could go through and measure everything, count everything, and categorize everything. Then you could take that stack and price each bit. Stack all the bits together and add them up and what have you got aside from a tower of paper? You’ve got a rickety and slow operation like most beginners. Here’s the thing; every moment spent quantifying a given thing needs to be efficient by being logical, repeatable, and also changeable. There are two things that will remain constants if you spend any time as an estimator. The first is that you’ll have to get faster with each job just to keep up, and the second is that you’re going to be interrupted right when it’s most critical to keep working.
A little perspective on precision
Let’s start with a bit of perspective. The more complex a project is, the more subcontractors will be needed to do the work. As a General Contractor (GC) looking to subcontract this work, the GC’s estimate needs to be set up to reflect what you expect each subcontractor to bid. This can be as simple as a list of critical features or it can be as precise as counting individual bricks. So how precise do you need to be? Well the answer to that lies in what you want to do. Precision gives you flexibility at the cost of time, whereas coarse measurements may not be useful enough to merit their work. No matter where you settle, it’s much harder to fill in information once you’ve started.
Flexibility for the win
The reason precision equates with flexibility is best shown through an example. Take an interior concrete slab. With very little trouble you can figure out the area of the slab. If you wrote down “Interior slab: 200 SF” you could probably use that information to check bids for furnish and install interior slab work. However, concrete firms will provide direct quotes for the material. Buying the material directly gets rid of the subcontractor’s material markup which is great. However concrete is bought by the cubic yard, not the square foot! Any mistakes can be costly.
Do your own work
You might be thinking, “Just ask the concrete guy how many yards they had figured to install”. Here’s the thing: a subcontractors quote can be viewed as a promise to do the job for a sum of money. If they short change themselves on material, they still have to honor the bid. If you’re not paying them as a consultant, you have no reasonable guarantee of accuracy. Plus it’s bad form to assume that they have to share information that may help their competition. With your own measurements and pricing you can error check. For example, if you have a furnish and install quote that’s lower than the cost of material you have very good reason to suspect there’s an error on that quote. Ethical issues aside, it’s important to see that establishing your budget on bad information is going to cause a problem for your company.
Sure they look the part, but you don’t want to trust their figures…
How it all comes together
Relating back to organizing your work it’s important to classify the ways a given scope of work may be approached in bidding. They could furnish and install (also called turnkey), They could furnish material only (often called vendors), they could also install only (often called installers, erectors, carpenters, or millwrights). Another option is for your company to self perform a task. If you want all these options, you’ve got to break things down to whatever material units you’d get quoted. If you can live with only turnkey bids, it’s fine to only measure assemblies like “Chandeliers 100 each “. Complex trades like Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing (MEP) fall into this camp. It’s simply not realistic to purchase materials for them to install, and even if you did, they get better pricing due to volume purchasing so no money would be saved. The degree of precision can be called granularity.
Continuing with the classification, the work must be divided into the pertinent trades. The Construction Specification Institute is a uniform standardizing body that has assigned a “Master Format” CSI number to each scope of work. Originally there were 16 major divisions, which were revised to 32 in 2004. On projects with a well-developed specification manual, the divisions and subdivisions will be listed out in the table of contents. The RS Means Building Construction Cost Data book provides a handy reference for how work is priced. Look in the links section for more on CSI Master Format and the RS Means books.
C.S.I. vs. Trades
While this provides a very precise means to divide up the work, it’s also a potentially tedious endeavor. Electrical for example has many subdivisions all of which are normally included in the electrical contractors bid. This can be a very frustrating thing because it often feels as though there is no rhyme or reason as to why some divisions are so fragmented.
Other times the reasons are fairly obvious…
Get used to asking subcontractors what they do and don’t do. It’s absolutely worth the time to keep a database that references each CSI Code to a subcontractor. Most companies have a contacts database that is severely reliant on user knowledge. For example a database that only allows a search for a company by name or address but not what they do. Some bid-letting software includes subcontractor databases. Be advised that it’s no guarantee that the subcontractors actually agree with what the software say’s they’ll do.
So assuming we’ve determined what trades will be bidding, and how they’ll be bidding, we have a general level of precision in mind for each situation. Give yourself a moment with the plans and develop a narrative of what’s going on with the project. A reasonable synopsis would include what is getting demolished, what is getting added, and generally speaking how is that going to happen? Take note of unfamiliar things and scan for overall symmetry. For example a roof top unit would likely appear on Architectural, Structural, Mechanical, Plumbing, and Electrical plans.
Setting up the pipeline
Now take a moment and consider how you’re going to deal with the information you generate. It’s here that technology and technique must be in line with one another. We’ll save bidding software discussions for a future post but it’s necessary to touch on the point that you need to know how the information gets from the plans into your estimate, and how you can manipulate that information once it’s there. It does no good to build a template that doesn’t accept the way you’ve quantified the work.
One method is the “one pass take off”. You get everything on the page before going on to the next one. For example,the finish floor plan. You measure the length of the sides of the room. From this you get the perimeter and the area of the room. If you are doing this on paper drawings, You could write the perimeter in linear feet (LF) and the area in square feet (SF) inside of that room on the plan. A quick check of ceiling and wall heights give all the needed variables to calculate the Drywall, Tile/Carpet, Floor base, Paint/ Wallcovering, and acoustic ceilings. Each of which would be separately cataloged according to the estimate template.
Not only is this fast, it’s secure because all the relevant details of a plan have been recorded before moving on. Plus by looking at a feature as an assembly you are more likely to see where trades will overlap. Help your future self and leave a trail of where you’ve been and what you’ve measured. If you’re doing things manually, use colored pencils and shade whatever you’ve completed. Estimating programs have various ways of doing the same thing. Some people prefer to scan the entire drawing set one trade at a time. While this provides a fairly linear logical exercise. It’s easier to miss something you’re not looking for as you scan all the pages in the set. Studying one page at a time tends to reveal small scope items. Also, a considerable amount of time is lost flipping the sheets around looking for things to take off.
In all of this it’s important to ask yourself what questions will come up on bid day. What do you actually need to answer these questions? Software can be a tremendous boon by automating various processes. It can also strip an estimator of their ability to think on their feet. Last minute changes are part of the business. Whenever a sub couldn’t answer a question without “running it through the software” it seemed like the program was calling the shots. They were constantly “going to the oracle” for answers they should know. However there are times where it’s valid. For example the MEP trades are very complex in that they use thousands of different parts that are subject to price swings making it a daily struggle to stay on top of the current price. Still it’s annoying to wait a half hour to get the adder for another outlet.
Build your own tools
This leads to what should be considered to be the mark of a professional: building your own tools. Earlier we covered an example of quick calculations for an interior room. Office buildings have these kinds of things all the time. Taking the time to make a spreadsheet that allows you to enter the room number, room perimeter, room area, wall height, and ceiling height for each room allows you to move quickly from measurement to sorting. Some plans will have a finish legend which is organized by room number. Mimicking the finish legend that same spreadsheet can be made to allow a selection for flooring, ceiling, paint color, and so on. Building on basic formulas it’s quite easy to have a summary total for each trade.
Test before you trust
Beware of building a monster! Spreadsheets that go sideways with a weeks’ worth of data entry is a wasted week. You should build spreadsheets gradually and test them often. Over time you’ll have a series of tools that make you faster, more accurate, and less stressed out.
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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved
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