Plans and Specifications Part 2

Addenda, RFI’s and ASI’s

Addenda are Architect initiated changes BEFORE the bid. Architect’s Supplemental Instruction (ASI)’s are Architect initiated changes AFTER the bid.  This is significant because in most cases, the contract has been written before an ASI was issued.  The ASI should be reviewed for cost and schedule impacts which will require a change order to incorporate into the contract.

Directives from the Architect fall into a gray area, they are typically an informal document intended more to guide interpretations of intent than to augment the design.  An example would be : “The south end of the parking lot may be used as a material lay down yard.”

A Request For Information (RFI) is a question initiated by the General Contractor (GC).  If  there is only one GC bidding a project the RFI’s may be answered directly.  If multiple GC’s are bidding the RFI’s are often answered via a final addendum.  Newer changes trump older changes regardless of which document is used.

In a typical hard-bid situation the Request For Proposal (RFP) will include a deadline for RFI’s and a date for final addendum.  Depending on the duration of the bid, the final addendum may be delivered a day or two before the deadline.  The Architect compiles all RFI’s into a single Addendum document which answers all questions.  This ensures that all bidders are working on the same information. RFP’s are sent to GC’s from clients, whereas Invitations To Bid (ITB) are sent from GC’s to subcontractors (subs)

In practice, this often presents a situation where multiple significant changes to the bid must be accomplished in a very short amount of time.  The GC’s must hurry to get this information to subcontractors.

“I’ll get to that later…”

Many estimators “keep their heads down” trying to complete Quantity Take Offs (QTO), build estimates, and distribute the bid information to the subcontractors.

Plans and Specifications Part 2

Yep, gotta make production….

This practice can compound problems when new projects come in while other bids are underway.  Prioritizing work based on deadlines tends to reduce the effective bid envelope for your team and your subcontractors.

Failure to launch.

New ITB’s represent an opportunity to streamline the information before it goes out.  Well organized and easily searched files benefit your team and your subcontractors.  If your firm uses any kind of plan distribution software, the subs will move far smoother if the information is easy to find.  It goes against the grain of some folks to admit it, but it’s a simple fact that most subcontractors will not look at all the plans and specifications.  The subcontractors are not getting paid to bid, reduce the cost of bidding to your firm by being less difficult to work with.

This is what you actually “do”.

As addenda, RFI’s and directives come in, sort them to folders.  If possible, it’s immensely helpful to publish a bid directive listing the changes chronologically and broken down by CSI divisions.  This directive can become part of a proposal scoping set for the team on bid day.  Keep your eyes up and get the subs unfettered access to the plan information.  If too much importance is placed on having perfect QTO’s and estimate templates, the subcontractor bids will be lacking.  That means they’re either coming up short and costing you profitability or they’re padding for risk and costing you the win.  If you want to win profitable work, you need to run a good bid.  That means precise, prompt, and easy to understand information.  This is especially important with a weak design team.

Get your head up

An interesting paradox exists within the average bid.  The constant interruption that robs you of time to make final touches to your estimate before the deadline is directly proportional to the effort you sink into communicating earlier.  Many estimator’s feel they don’t have time to “spoon feed” information to their bidders.  These same estimators often end up either “walking a sub through” their bid at mach 6 minutes before the deadline, or they get really high subcontractor quotes from bidders trying to cover the risk.  Project Managers posing as Estimators seem predisposed to this mindset, much to their detriment.

Plans and Specifications Part 2

Keep it up Sparky, see how that works out for you…

Plan review

Taking a step back to the ITB, it’s very worthwhile to do a quick scan of the plans.  Get “the gist” of what’s going on for the project.  Take notes on which trades are involved and keep an eye out for trade overlap.  If there’s a new Roof Top Unit (RTU), you should see some structural support, plumbing, and electrical in that area (on the respective sheets).  Be wary of anything with “match existing”, or “building standard” as these are not specifications or definitions, they are requirements to field verify or guess.

Look for avenues for material movement.  Site logistics can often have huge influence over production rates.  Protecting pathways, elevators, stairwells, doorways, or exterior finishes are all often requirements for the project.

If you find an RFI question GET IT OUT RIGHT AWAY!  If possible, ask your RFI questions at the job walk because sometimes the architect will give an informal answer.  Whatever you find you should share with your bidders.

Check the specification manual for missing sections, it’s very common.  If there are any non-traditional relationships get them to the forefront.  Examples include owner furnished and contractor installed material.  Requirements to purchase materials from a national account, or vendor.  Requirements to coordinate with owner subcontractors and so on. Put all of these notes and comments on an eminently readable form easily downloaded by your subs.  If it can’t be read at 90 miles per hour, you’re including too much detail!

Paint a picture, don’t write a book

Don’t forget that alternates may be defined haphazardly in the plans.  Sometimes the very best solution is to draw boundaries and color areas on the plans to convey limits of phasing, breakdowns or alternates.  Referring subcontractors to tedious detail drawing buried in the Architectural plan set is less helpful than a single page saved for their quick viewing.

Ideally, you want to include as much of this information into the subcontractor ITB as you can.  Telling them when the job walk is, what they’ll need to look for, and how the bid must be broken down at the START tends to have much better impact than later down the line.

Great expectations and future plans

Bid day arrives and subcontractors are sending in proposals with items missing.  It’s quickly clear that they didn’t read the specs, the addenda, or whatever.  What could possibly be their problem?  Take a moment and consider a few things.  Are you competing on this bid?  If so, is this subcontractor a loyal bidder to your firm?  If not, this may be an insight into how your competition handles their bid documents.

Many subcontractors will bid a project to a GC then send a version to competing GC’s.  Depending on the project and the GC’s in question, each one may receive a different number.

It can be very frustrating to suspect a competitor won a job by carrying a subcontractor that was missing some scope items.  One way to keep this from happening is to notify the sub they’ve made a grave mistake and send them a link to your well-organized construction documents.  Even if they don’t have time to revise their number, they may still pull their bid from your competitors.  In one kind act you may earn the respect of a subcontractor and prevent a competitor from snagging the job.  That subcontractor may well return the favor by giving your firm their best price on the next job. All of this hinges on the presupposition that you have your “ducks in a row”.  This is one way that the best estimator can rise to the top.

Posting plans and specs

Wherever possible it is more professional to post the INDIVIDUAL pages of the plan set rather than one file.  Large files take longer to download and consume more computer resources for subcontractors than they should.

Save the pages with a MEANINGFUL TITLE.  Bear in mind that many file systems will automatically alphabetize a list of files.  Beginning the page name with its number in the stack will help keep things in order.  Specification manuals can be broken into major divisions as well.

Whatever system you use, be sure to log in as a subcontractor and view the experience firsthand.  Some systems are very time-consuming to obtain the plans.  Do whatever you can to make it fast and easy to get the plans.

Incoming changes!

Changes to the construction documents during the bid can be an enormous interruption.  Time is of the essence which makes you question why some Architects thoughtfully arrange their materials into humongous files that choke email, and cripple servers. Balance speed against utility.  If the architect replaced every sheet in the plan set but only changed two pages it behooves everyone for you to pull those changes out.

Addenda should be in separate file folders on your server, or web drive to make it easier to find everything. Again, save the files as individual pages to make it faster for subs to get what they need.  If the Design Team’s narrative is weak, consider writing your own addendum narrative.  Be very, very, cautious of design teams that won’t bubble, box, or otherwise highlight their changes on the CD’s.  It’s either incompetence or dishonesty,

Plans and Specifications Part 2

Sometimes it’s both.

 

Seek to balance speed in getting the information to your bidders against providing easy to understand information to your bidders.  Weak design teams with sloppy addenda merit a request for a deadline extension.  Don’t hold your breath because weak design teams often work for bad clients who have high expectations and low budgets.

Control the risk by doing your best to ensure that the subcontractors pick up on all the changes.  Often it’s possible to immediately post the addenda files, then follow-up with supplementary information and better file management.

Technology

Most estimators use some form of bid letting software or a private server.  Some of the bid letting software systems will automatically send an email to every invited subcontractor every time you post an addendum.  Private server systems vary but most of them require a separate email to go out announcing that new information is available.

Private servers have plenty of advantages but without automated emailing, there exists the potential for changes to be posted unannounced.  Many firms expect an office administrator, intern, or secretary to handle bid communications.  Few estimators follow through to ensure that everything is getting transmitted properly and professionally.  Subcontractors may not want to speak up when an administrator is sending incomprehensible emails for fear of being excluded on future bids.

Feedback

Since bid communications are so critical, it’s a good idea to generate a secret “fake subcontractor” that has an outside (not part of your firm) email address you can check periodically to ensure you’re getting all the posted changes.  Emails with ITB’s should include the pertinent details in the body of the email.  The deadline should be included in the subject line of the email.  Some GC’s send generic emails with links to the actual invite buried in text or within attached documents.  This is needlessly time-consuming, unprofessional, and self-defeating especially when the link is to a site requiring usernames and password.  While we’re on that topic, usernames and passwords are just terrible time-wasters.  Sites that demand a commitment to bid, or identification verification’s before allowing access to the construction documents are ineffective. Lot’s of estimators hope that these systems will alert them to who’s bidding as some measure of confidence that they’ll receive bids on time.  Estimators need to focus on selling the opportunity rather than nagging for commitment.  Subs will not feel obliged to bid a job simply because they once clicked a “Will Bid” button to see the plans.  Systems that “bury the lead” behind links, buttons, or other nonsense are reducing the odds that your bidders are making your projects a priority.  Few of these systems would persist if more estimators ever saw how irritating they are.

Follow through

Speaking of irritating, plenty of estimators feel that nagging the subs via phone calls is a vital and necessary part of the bid.  This drudgery is often passed on to the aforementioned administrator, intern, or receptionist.  The notion that nagging subs leads to bid is very flawed.  Subs remember to bid on work they want to win and show particular enthusiasm for projects they feel likely to win.

Consider the following;  Estimators transmit endless demands.  Bid this by then, include this, not that, be low and maybe we’ll hire you but no promises.  Subcontractors are looking for opportunity and they are turned away by risk, uncertainty, and delay to name a few.

The amount of labor expended in irritating the subs could be much better employed in making it easier to bid for subcontractors.  Estimators could address most of this by shifting their attitude.  Thoughtful actions that reduce subcontractor risk are huge because they make the job more profitable and easier to win.  Work that’s more profitable and easier to win is a better opportunity.  Subs are working with much less time than you are.  If they have a question, don’t delay, dither, or pass the buck.  Asking for alternates is asking for additional work.  If your answer hinges on knowing the dollar value of an option, tell the sub that.  An educated guess may give you enough insight to pick a path and get the sub rolling.  Subcontractors can be incredible sources of knowledge so don’t be afraid to ask a question to help yourself to give a better answer.  If it needs to go in front of the Architect then get the RFI drafted right away.  Write it yourself, if you don’t understand the question, you’ll surely screw it up at some point along the line.  Take the time to learn what’s involved so you can represent the build team knowledgeably and responsibly.

Final thoughts

Be aware of how you appear.  Overly cautious and conservative estimators may pose little risk to subcontractors.  However they pose little opportunity on a hard bid because they are consistently high.  It’s an estimate which means there MUST BE SOME RISK which means you must make difficult decisions.  Make sure your bidders know you’re actions align with your words.  Many fraidy-cat bidders call subcontractors claiming they are “really going after” a job.  Over time their calls end up unanswered. Speaking of unanswered calls, it’s significant to maintain professional distance.  Be kind, polite and professional but keep it short since time is money.  Subs that like to talk a lot should hear from you just before lunch to provide a handy conversational exit.

Whenever possible you should use email to maintain a record of the who’s, what’s, when’s, and why’s.  Make an effort to personally thank at least one different subcontractor every bid.  That will get you remembered because it’s shamefully rare.

Plans and Specifications Part 2

 

 

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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: estimatorsplaybook@gmail.com View all posts by Anton Takken

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