Nearly every type of construction estimate can benefit from a job walk. In its simplest form, a job walk is a field trip for the estimators so they can get the lay of the land. Sadly, much of this opportunity is squandered by folks posturing, preening, and trying to “sell” their client. Equally unfortunate are the squinting mutes who want nothing more than to get away from the outside world. Job walks are where a lot of winning and losing takes place. The only thing worse than missing a critical detail and losing the job, is to win because you didn’t cover the cost!
What matters most?
BEFORE the job walk, every estimator should have reviewed the plans to get a good handle on what is supposed to happen. If the entire job is not depicted on the plans, you’ll need to define how every building system gets tied into the project. This requires a good deal of curiosity and perseverance. Be very careful to stay oriented when walking through an existing building. It’s easy to get turned around in buildings that lack symmetry and consistency between levels.
Gotta watch your step…
An office remodel may seem simple until you notice they’re adding a break room in a space that never had one. Plumbing lines; water, sewer and gas, may need to run to the building mains, so you’ll need to know where they are! Engineering consultants routinely ignore the basic necessity of providing these critical locations on their plans. GC estimators should be using the job walk opportunity to define not only the locations of the necessary systems, but the lengths and routes necessary to make them feasible. Existing buildings often prevent straight-line “as the crow flies” runs of pipe, duct, or wire. Inaccessible ceilings, floors, fire rated walls, and height changes often require that a building system be routed around building features. Often when systems must take longer routes, the size of the line must be increased which can have a profound impact on pricing. Keep in mind that pathways must be sealed to the weather, and aesthetically acceptable to the design team where they are exposed.
Proprietary systems abound in modern buildings. HVAC Controls, Security, Audio/ Visual, Fire Alarm, Elevators, Photovoltaic (solar), Public Address, Nurse Call, Access Control, and so forth. Literally every system needs to be individually identified by brand, model, make, etc. This often means asking the client/ job walk guide, for access to these systems for closer inspection. Proprietary systems often have designated local vendors/installers. Fire alarm systems are infamous for having software “locks” which prevent any but the installing company from making any changes to the installed system. Get a bid from these firms, but don’t expect it to be reasonably priced! “Wire” doesn’t make it an electricians job, any more than “pipe” makes it a plumbers. GCs must be responsible to know what they’re looking at if they’re to estimate professionally.
Some products have very long warranty periods. Roofing systems are often warranted for 10 years but only if a certified installer does the modifications. This means that every new plumbing, electrical, and HVAC penetration must be done with that roofing installer or the existing roof warranty is voided. Ask the client to look it up if they don’t know.
Don’t forget the basics
Deck height is an absolutely critical bit of information that design teams never reveal. Bear in mind that absolute precision isn’t necessary for most of the bidders. If the deck is sloped (most roof decks are) take an average, or a minimum measurement. Subcontractors (subs) need to know how much room there is above ceiling grids, it’s better to know within a few inches, than to guess within a few feet.
The Golden Rule of critical plan dimensions
Roughly plot the course each building system must take to connect to the existing building. If there are natural “choke points” where all building systems must share a chase, passage, or hallway, make note of the approximate dimensions. Rough calculations of each building system should give a sense of whether there’s a problem getting everything through. Remember that discovering a problem now means the solution is profoundly less expensive than later on. Publishing a request for information (RFI) on the problem may lead to an addendum response obliging all contractors to the same solution. This keeps the conscientious bidder in the running against less attentive competition.
Moving past existing openings, it’s time to address opening new ones. It’s amazing how often a job walk is held and nobody bothers to inquire as to the structural composition of the existing floor(s). Post-tensioned slabs, slab on deck, slab on grade, twin-tee, there are many different ways to make a floor. It’s critical to inform your subcontractors on what you’re dealing with. Structural floors typically require imaging before cutting, drilling, or coring to avoid damage to embedded reinforcements. X-ray, ground penetrating radar, and sonar are some of the options available for imaging. They each excel in specific applications so it’s important to know ahead of time.
Some imaging technology is pretty specialized…
Savvy GC’s have learned that imaging firms have very high mobilization (cost to show up) charges. Rather than have each bidder include their own imaging which multiplies this cost, the GC hires the imaging firm and simply requests that the bidders include their requisite number of penetrations on their proposals.
Opening holes in walls can require the services of dedicated demolition firms however it’s critical to address temporary supports known as shoring, rigging , cribbing, etc. The demolition firm may include these supports for the duration of their own work, but not the entire project. GC estimators may need to ask these bidding firms for additional costs to leave the temporary supports in for longer. Very often this cost is a separate mobilization for the demolition firm. In more extreme cases, the temporary supports may be rented from a specialty third-party vendor. In this case, it may behoove the GC to contract directly with the temporary support vendor as needed.
Construction is loud, dirty, work that involves moving large amounts of cumbersome materials. Demolished materials need a path out of the working area, and new materials need a path into the working area. Working in and around finished areas requires protection, encapsulation, and cleaning. Some clients are easier to work around than others. Is there a place for a construction dumpster? Is there a material lay-down area so that trucks may unload in a timely manner? Is there anywhere for the workers to park? If the work is above ground level, is there a freight elevator? If there is crane access for rooftop work? If a crane is necessary, how long must it be to “pick” the equipment?
Ground-up construction may be just as difficult in different ways. For example, storm-water management is an increasing concern for cities looking to protect their natural resources. Digging a hole at a geographic low point means you’ll be pumping any existing ground water until you’ve got the final systems in place. In other situations, you’ll face hard-rock excavating, mud jacking, piles, caissons, etc.
I’ve visited sites that were depicted as a shallow hole in the existing civil plan, that were in reality a considerable hill! The last lot to be built in a development is often the handiest spot for excavators to dump extra fill. Design teams may spend several months developing the plans, much can change between their site visit and yours. Existing-to-remain structures might have been weather-damaged, vandalized, or pilfered by the time you’re walking the job. Take photos to prove what was there when you walked, in case something changes before you’re allowed to begin.
“As you can see, the sign is still there. We… we’re afraid to get any closer…”
Even fairly straightforward ground-up projects involve the simple question of whether you’re importing or exporting dirt. The civil engineer will never share the answer, so the GC must figure it out before the walk. Many jobs blow their budget on trucking dirt around. Savvy estimators have been known to offer solutions like spreading unwanted dirt fill over the entire site rather than hauling it off. Alternately, they might sell clean fill to needy nearby sites.
Helping everybody, benefits the GC the most.
GCs should consider problems that will be shared by several trades. One consistent issue is vertical. Several trades will need access to walls, ceilings, and roofs. Masons will always have their own scaffolding. It’s generally understood that trades may share their scaffolding so long as they are considerate, and brief. On building interiors, there are often vertical features which involve many trades. In these cases, it may be most reasonable for the GC to furnish a scaffold system for all the trades to use at lower total expense.
Safety is a loudly trumpeted aspect of ongoing construction but it’s virtually never mentioned during job walks. If a site has minimal accessibility, and requires long walks through narrow corridors, how can emergency responders be expected to save an injured worker? Secure facilities like military bases, or prisons may actively block 911 calls from inside their perimeter. I helped to carry an injured co-worker out of a prison remodel because the prisons medical staff had no direct path to our site. Even if they had access, they were too obese to climb stairs and ladders to reach the victim.
Take a moment and consider how weather will affect the safety of the site during construction. Exposed excavations and torrential rainfall can be a dangerous mix. Snow removal can consume a lot of time and limit productivity.
Lots of job walks have curmudgeons with clipboards harrumphing at “this dang-fool design that can’t be done”. More often than not, it’s a minor problem, an unfamiliar approach, or it just looks wrong when viewed out of context. Job walks should not be a critique of aesthetics, that’s not what the build team is for. The job walk is an opportunity to “build it in your head” while considering the existing conditions. Many times I’ve spotted something unconventional in the plans that made sense only in the context of existing conditions. Plans never say “we went with this expensive thing because we discovered it was cheaper than re-working an entire system to comply with building code“. Be careful about criticizing the design teams judgment because they generally have a lot more information than you do. Lots of GC’s toss out value engineering suggestions before they fully understand the real problem.
Very often the architect will attend the job walk which gives the prepared GC an opportunity to respectfully ask about expensive items. If there’s design flexibility, you’ll gain a pricing advantage without causing the architect to lose face. Specialty material reps may have misinformed or misled the architect into thinking their product was the most cost-effective option.
True show-stopper problems discovered at the job walk should be brought to their attention. Buildings may be so old that there are no drawings of as-built or existing conditions. A simple interior remodel plan may be derailed when a structural flaw is discovered. GCs looking at these projects should be particularly careful to inspect any building systems that impact their project but are “not in contract” (NIC).
I once had a job walk for a project which revealed an NIC structural impediment to the contract design. It took six months of building department appeals for the architect to get an alternate arrangement approved. While it was inconvenient for the job to be put on hold for half a year, it cost us nothing. If this issue had come up the first few weeks of the job, that delay could have proven very costly to all the companies involved.
Remodel projects may require phasing the work to accommodate the client. Most Architects shy away from drawing phasing plans, however there is typically a note or a specification requiring the GC to “coordinate phasing“. It’s during the job walk that you’ll learn what the client’s concept of phasing is. Some clients pick phasing lines based on their departmental layout rather than building features. Phasing work can dramatically affect the price. Nailing the phasing plan down during the walk is a critical step to ensuring you are all bidding the same job. As the client is defining their phasing highlight a small printout of the floor plan accordingly to generate the phasing plan. Savvy GCs will send a copy of this plan as an RFI asking the Architect to confirm that it’s the desired phasing plan for all bidders.
Make a note of how many trades will be forced to do out of sequence work in order to allow phase turnover. These notes will become part of your scoping checklist heading into bid day. Making sure that your subcontractors are bidding the work as it will happen will cut out preventable change orders.
One area of profound improvement in job walks is that everyone has a camera and they are able to share photos with their bidders. Some folks are veritable shutter-bugs , who take dozens of photos as they walk around. It’s here that some good advice is in order. First and foremost, it’s critical to have some sense of scale in every photo. A zoomed in photo of a white wall may tell the drywall bidder that it was finished to level three but it doesn’t tell much else.
Stacey has a photo album of all the white walls she’s ever seen…
Very few job walkers bother to take “big-picture” shots that give a sense of how things are arranged. How high is the ceiling? If you can’t measure it, at least take a photo with a scalable object in it. A 7′-0″ door in a very tall demising wall gives bidders a means to determine how tall it is. A really simple trick is to open your tape measure to some convenient length and place it in the photograph.
Photos save tremendous amounts of time transcribing small written detail but they’re virtually never used that way. If there’s a proprietary system in the building, take a photo of its nameplate. It’s absolutely incredible how often a GC will say “Oh I took a photo of that panel”, only to reveal that they photographed it with the door closed! A painted metal box with the door closed might be anything from a high-end security system, to a first-aid kit. For goodness sake, open the door BEFORE you take a picture!
Building systems have a make and model in addition to physical attributes defining them. If there isn’t much to work with, take a photo with a section of your tape measure showing to provide scale.
Bear in mind that if you’ve got to write an RFI about something you discovered during your job walk. It may prove immensely helpful to have a photo on to which you can write notes to direct the Architects attention.
It should be obvious that people should bring plans, pencils, business cards, clipboard, tape measures, flashlights, and a camera to a job walk. Yet many folks choose to bring full-sized printed plans causing them to forgo virtually everything else simply because they couldn’t carry it.
Full sized plans are enormous obstacles to paying attention as you’re walking around in a space that might be poorly lit, and strewn with trip-hazards. Half sized, or shrunk-to-fit 8.5×11 paper is a much better option for portability but you’ll lose legible detail in the exchange. The rise of tablet computers has allowed many professionals to shift to paperless plan reading which is very helpful.
Dedicated estimators should maintain a clipboard, or bag with all the normally needed job-walk tools at hand. Measuring wheels are incredibly useful tools that should be stowed in your trunk along with personal protective equipment (PPE) like reflective vests, safety glasses, steel toed boots, and hard hats. Laser or ultrasonic measuring devices allow rapid measurements across interior spaces. They are particularly helpful in taking floor to deck height measurements without disturbing occupants.
Ladders are very helpful in interior remodel projects, although occupied spaces will typically have one on hand in the maintenance room.
Basic questions everyone should ask
When will the job start? Request For Proposal (RFP) documents are often very optimistic about construction start dates and very rigid about construction end dates. Optimism won’t get permits issued on incomplete plans. Many design teams count on several rounds of building department review before the permit will be issued.
Above: Experiments in Architect accountability have been promising, however more research is needed.
Design teams rarely face a penalty for causing permit delay, however contractors face a very real schedule compression as the process drags on.
Specifications bury and confuse basic contractual information that affects your price. Bonding, Taxes, Liquidated Damages, Minority owned Business Enterprise (MBE) participation requirements, Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) requirements, are all critical questions to pose to the client/architect.
In many cases, just asking about an onerous requirement caused the client to strike it from the contract! Thousands of dollars worth of risk get waived aside simply because the client’s attention was drawn to it.
Tax questions dodge ball
Clients and Architects never want to answer tax questions. Tax-exempt, and partially tax-exempt status is very common with schools and government offices. Punctilious responses about consulting the specifications for requirements to adhere to tax law, never actually state where the taxes land on the job. Look it up and pose the question listing the actual percentages and the subtotals as they contribute to the final answer you came up with. For example;
“Does this project have W% for City, X% for County, and Y% for State totaling Z.Z% for the job?”
Getting a straight answer on applicable taxes is the holy grail of job walk intelligence work. If they won’t answer, I’ve found that asking “Why is it a secret?” tends to illustrate how silly the situation is.
You can trust Architects to know silly when they see it.
Get loose ends on the record
The best thing about asking questions during the walk is how often they are incorporated into the Architects next addendum. Costly concealed requirements are revealed to all bidders, which holds everyone to the same standard.
RFPs may omit details that really matter to bidders. When will a decision be made on contract award? What criteria (beyond low price) drives award decisions? What does the client/design team have budgeted for the project? Is the project fully funded, or will financing be secured after the bid? Clients and design teams who are wasting the markets time are especially evasive about answering these questions. Bids are not free so estimators must put their efforts towards the most viable opportunities.
Best value. A real attribute, or a real liability?
RFP’s which stipulate that contract will be awarded based on best value should be carefully considered. Without a scoring rubric or a stated hierarchy of selection priorities, best value becomes a liability to the honest bidder. The competitive bid may be a feint intended to legitimize awarding the contract to cronies. Honest bidders should never lend their credibility to corruption.
Take the opportunity to ask the client to define how they’ll assess best value. If necessary, ask how that assessment will be shared with the bidders. Transparency is a rare trait in clients, bid accordingly.
Some walks lead to walking away
Some jobs will be more risk than they’re worth. Designs that seem straightforward on paper might be missing existing conditions that profoundly change the challenges the build team will face. Estimating is about controlling risk within the confines of your purview. Sometimes factors will stack up to an untenable situation that’s just bad business. Low budget clients are often limited to low-end properties riddled with hazardous materials, or unsafe structures that were revealed at the job walk. Unless your firm is looking to make a charitable donation, there is little to recommend taking on this risk.
The construction market is balanced at one end with clients hiring the low risk contractor at one end, and contractors declining the high risk client at the other.
An estimator can learn about much more than just the existing conditions at a job walk. In my next blog post I’ll be illustrating how you can gain greater understanding of your local market by attending job walks regularly.
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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved