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We estimate the cost to build a design because neither the design, nor the construction are perfectly controlled. Most buildings end up with notable differences from the bid-day plans. Since the bid-day amount is the basis of contractual award, these differences take the form of change orders. The only thing clients dislike more than change orders, are delays. As estimators, we have the ability to set a project on the right course by calling the design-teams attention to likely problems.

Before we get too far into that process, it’s important to understand the perspectives of all the key players. Effective communication comes down to how you ask a question, rather than what you’re asking about.

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“While it may have been a good question, the response left the stronger impression”

The Client thinks you know the cost of everything all the time

Since estimates are “free”, clients tend to think of estimating as an auction where each bidder knows the projects’ value from the beginning. Clients may assume that a few days with the plans and maybe an hour walking the site is all a contractor would ever need to build a job perfectly. General Contractors (GCs) are guilty of creating this impression when they’re trying to get on the clients bid list. Like any sales job, there must be a balance between what’s promised and what can be delivered.

The Architect believes their intent is obvious, and it’s your responsibility to know what to do.

By the time a set of plans has been put out to bid, the Architect has spent a tremendous amount of time developing the design. The minute differences in paint shades may have more emotional value to the Architect than the way something’s bolted together. While Architects may spend months or years developing a set of plans, the majority of their time may have been sunk in helping their client to pick between different schemes. This means that the nuts and bolts of the final design are put together in a compressed timeline.   Clients can and do make substantive changes at the last moment, causing predictable grief for the Architect. Nobody’s going to say this before the bid, but the Architect relies on the GCs estimators to make reasonable assumptions about missing information. If your Project Manager (PM) tries to submit a change order for something the Architect feels is obviously necessary to fulfill their design intent, they’ll claim that means and methods are the GC’s responsibility. For example, it’s not ordinarily the Architects job to define the length of screw necessary to attach a substrate to a structural element.

Once the answer is known, everyone will think the solution was obvious from the beginning

Estimators face a completely different set of challenges. Bids must be competitive, thorough, defensible, and profitable. A proposal distills all of the scope of work to a few variables like cost, and duration. This has the effect of making every proposal appear uniform, while concealing the impact of unanswered questions.  Many estimators have won a bid by incorrectly interpreting the Architect’s intent.

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Architect: “No, no, I wanted all three like the middle one!”

  Be advised that many Architects include a General Conditions specification that stipulates that whenever the contractor is faced with multiple requirements, they should always defer to the most costly option. This gotcha specification works in obvious conflict with competitive market pricing. After the bid, it’s always obvious that they wanted something expensive. Before the bid, they don’t have time to answer your question.

Fast answers to easy problems

Estimators may have a few days with the plans before the Request For Information (RFI) deadline. Architects have RFI deadlines to provide themselves with sufficient time to properly respond to bidder questions before the bid deadline. On many commercial projects, it’s very common for the RFI deadline to be a week ahead of the bid deadline. Be advised that most Architects see absolutely no problem in answering all the RFI questions the day before or the day of the bid deadline. GC estimators won’t have time to generate easy to read directives for their subs. It’s a race to make last-minute changes before the deadline.

This leads to the first imperative of RFI writing; getting fast answers. It’s pretty tough to improve on a “yes or no” response in terms of rapid communication. By extension, this means that RFI’s should be written to elicit a yes or no response. The key here, is to understand that multi-step or multifaceted questions lead to confusion and delays.

Let’s say that the finish floor plan shows a room that’s missing any call-outs for wall finishes, trim, or flooring. With rare exception, specific paint colors won’t affect the price for bidding purposes. Asking if the walls should be painted may elicit a simple “yes”. In contrast, a request for the desired finishes of all the walls in room XYZ could lead to a situation where they don’t answer because the Architect is still debating between paint colors. Bid day passes and you never got to know if the room will be painted or not.

Addressing one issue per RFI allows the Architect to answer the easy questions right away. If they’re still debating about paint but not carpet, they won’t answer an RFI asking for both the paint and carpet. From an estimating standpoint, getting half the missing information might be worth its weight in gold.

Every design is a work-in-process

It seems painfully obvious that estimators questions are going to be focused on getting the job priced. If two options cost the same, we don’t need to know which one in order to bid the job. Design teams know that their published decisions are fulcrums for accountability. Estimators must keep in mind that design teams and clients may have little knowledge of how their aesthetic decisions affect the budget. An open-ended requirement in the plans is seen as a “placeholder” for a future decision. The problem for GC’s is that it’s a contractually binding requirement to an unknown. From the client and design teams perspective, the missing information is “no big deal” because they presume the estimator knows what everything costs all the time.

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They get cranky when you point out the holes in their design”

Applying this insight, estimators are well-advised to do a little research on what’s at stake before they draft their RFIs. If a fixture specification failed to define the finish, the estimator should inquire as to what impact the available choices will have on pricing. If there are prices for the “good, better, and best” options, draft the RFI with those options listed. It’s possible that the design team is debating between colors at the same price point. Getting the design team to define the price point, solves the estimators problem. Questions that won’t affect your bid should be noted for future hand-off to the Project Manager since it’s not worth the administrative effort until you’re under contract.

Get a complex problem on one page, and a proposed solution on another

It can be particularly difficult to get a yes or no answer to a complex problem pertaining to spatial relations. Architects use a variety of perspectives to depict the project scope. It may require constant flipping between a plan view, a cross-section, and an elevation drawing to visualize the problem you’re trying to address. The RFI needs to be less work for the Architect and for everyone who must understand their response. One very low-tech way to address this problem is to literally photocopy the plan areas in question. Re-size and cut out the copies until they fit on a single 8.5″x11″ sheet. White-out every note, callout, or icon that doesn’t pertain to the question. Make a copy of this sheet. Use one for the question, and the other for a proposed solution. Label them accordingly. Bubble the areas in question to call attention to only what you’re asking about.

The RFI should simplify the problem and refer the reader to the first sheet, before suggesting a solution referred to on the second sheet. Simply asking “Is the proposed solution acceptable?” This leaves you with an RFI that could get a quick “yes” while providing your subs with a simplified two-page diagram of the issue and it’s resolution. Be advised, creating a simple diagram of a complex solution can be a very arduous task. Try it yourself and you’ll have newfound respect for Architects.

Many architects will follow-up later with an addendum or an ASI which incorporates their RFI direction into the plans.

Respect the designers intent.

Architects spend a great deal of time refining their aesthetic vision of the project. While competitive estimators are motivated to find cheaper options to land the job, Architects fulfill their duty to protect the design’s integrity. This often places them at odds with budget conscious clients and their contractors.   It’s therefore good form to treat their designs intent with respect. In the simplest of cases, an RFI might open with an explanation of the issue, followed by “we believe the design intent is: (your suggestion)…” wrapped up with “Is that correct?”

The tone of the question implies that you’re on their side and that you see their solution but you want to check with them first. Estimators should studiously avoid phrasing that communicates: “hey these plans are wrong, here’s a cheap shortcut.”

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“Good information, but… wrong application”

Some thoughts on suggestions 

RFIs are the only way that a GC Estimator can communicate on the record with the design team. On the surface, it seems like an RFI could only be used to ask questions. In fact, the majority of the time, the GC will have a distinct preference for how any given problem is solved. Including a suggestion in your RFI is how you can try to steer the solution to your benefit. If there are multiple potential solutions, you should never assume that the Architect or the client will know which suggestion is the most cost-effective one.

I’ve encountered situations where moving a wall 3″ in a single direction saved thousands of dollars compared to any other option. Including that information in my RFI proved instrumental in getting a prompt reply. Architects who aren’t sure which choice will be the most cost-effective may request alternate prices on the bid. Alternates exponentially increase the estimators workload without offering much potential for reward. RFI’s that lead to more questions than answers are bad for business so share what you know to facilitate solid decision-making.

GC estimators are looking for better, cheaper, and faster solutions. The natural opposite of all of these things are sole-sourced specialty products and their vendors. Sole-sourced items tend to have long lead times and high prices compared to similar products. Architects have very little concern for lead times or difficulty in managing prima-donna vendors. That’s the GC’s problem. As surely as night follows day, specialty products tend to create unusual problems for the build team. Bringing this back to RFI’s, the estimator will often find it necessary to resolve issues pertaining to, or caused by, specialty products.

Defensive designers will delay decisions

Architects tend to believe that high prices come with high quality (except for change orders), so design teams tend to be quick to shoot-down any efforts to replace over-priced products with substitutes. If you’re competitively bidding a project, the cost of an expensive assembly is only a problem when there’s a reasonable chance your competition will miss it. Estimators who ask for solutions geared towards retaining the annoying, expensive, and long-lead product will get quicker replies from the Architect than those which oblige the Architect to defend their design decisions.

The one-note trap

The more expensive, hard to get, or outright difficult the product is to work with, the more likely it is that the Architect will require it with a solitary note located where absolutely nobody would look for it. Estimators who catch the note risk losing the bid by including the high-priced item that their competitors will overlook. Architects spend lots of time picking out something that’s dear to their design, so it’s very suspicious that they’d take chances on its inclusion through minimalist notation. This may be a trap intended to make the GC pay for signature design touches that the client can’t afford.

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Daylight is the best disinfectant

Whenever these traps are encountered, estimators should draft RFI’s identifying precisely where the note appears, why it appears to be an error (i.e. because it looks like it doesn’t belong) and asking the design team to confirm that the sole-sourced thing has no allowable alternates. When it’s appropriate, ask the design team to list the approved vendors of the specialty product, because chances are excellent that they worked with one of them directly.

Architects can’t afford to ignore that RFI, and by answering it publicly, the bidders are all on equal footing to compete. By all means keep that feature’s price handy because once the budget is blown, it should be item #1 on your list of Value Engineering ideas.

Some notes on notation

Construction Documents (CD’s) are the composite of a set of drawings (plans), Scope letters, Request for Proposals (RFP), specifications, soils reports, directives, Addenda, and RFI responses. Mid-sized projects may have literally thousands of pages in their specification manuals, and hundreds of sheets in their plans. After all the work in putting them together, design teams are often imperious about questions that are answered in the CD’s.

RFI’s should pointedly reference the applicable sheets, details, and specifications down to the individual sub-heading. If you don’t tell the design team where to find what you’re looking at, they won’t have much reason to believe there’s a problem.

Whenever necessary a screen shot, or photocopy of the relevant information with bubbling around the area in question should be attached to the RFI. The motivation is to guide the reader through your natural confusion. For example:

Note A on Detail 5/A5.1 calls for “5/8″ thick ceramic tile”, which corresponds with the dimensioned layout of the room shown on the Floor Plan Sheet A6.1 (see attached). In contrast, specification 9300-122,A,5 calls for 24″ thick ceramic tile (see attached). We believe the intent is to install 5/8″ thick ceramic tile.

Is that correct?

If not, please provide the desired tile thickness for the area in question.

Be forewarned, irrelevant details always attract attention and causes confusion. Screenshots are really easy but it’s virtually impossible to cut out all notes, dimensions, and icons that will distract your reader from the real question.

Formal for a reason

RFI’s are a formal and contractually binding process between the GC and the Architect/ owners representative. The questions and their answers become part of the defined project scope of the contract. This means that unless otherwise noted, the questions you asked the Architect during the job walk are off the record. They can absolutely disavow any direction, instruction, hint, or help they gave you.

You should not directly ask any questions of the Architects’ consultants (engineers, interior designers, landscape designers, etc.) because the consultant’s response would effectively bypass the Architects’ control over the design. Architects extend the same courtesy to the GC by not communicating directly with their subcontractors. Most GC’s instruct their bidders to direct questions only to the GC’s estimator and emphatically warn bidders that contacting the design team or client will result in exclusion from the bid.

Life in the slow lane

The price paid for binding answers is time. RFI’s involving multiple design disciplines take the longest since there is more coordination required to answer. If the design team is answering multiple GC’s questions, they might compile and collate the RFI’s looking to avoid redundancies on their next bid-directive. This leaves even the easy to answer RFI’s waiting for a last moment response.

RFI’s are frequently misunderstood, or mishandled leading to situations where after weeks of waiting, the response fails to solve your problem before the bid. Architects who don’t understand your situation aren’t inclined to extend the bid, or revisit a “closed” issue.

Estimators need to understand the stakes of writing RFI’s properly. Many botched RFI’s lead to Architect responses that add additional layers of confusion, risk and frustration. Perhaps worst of all, your competitors poorly written RFI might oblige you to sort out a problem they created.

Informal guidance          

Occasionally there will come a problem that leaves your estimate stuck until you’ve got the Architect’s answer. In these cases, Estimators should reach out to the Architect informally and ask for advice on how to phrase the problem so it will be easily resolved. Some Architects will appreciate the courtesy and may even tell you how they’ll answer your RFI. Not only is the RFI answered, but the estimator gains time to share the information with their subs before the bid.

Subcontractor driven questions

Skilled trade subcontractors can come up with some very technical questions. A GC Estimator may lack the trade-specific knowledge to properly articulate the question to the design team. Many GC’s simply copy and paste a subcontractors RFI onto their template and submit it as though it was their question. These RFI’s may be poorly written, or asking for information already provided in the CD’s.  Since skilled trades generally correlate to engineering consultants, the RFI responses may be full of incomprehensible engineering legalese. This is most prominently displayed when a soils engineer answers an excavators poorly written RFI.

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Rick knows what he’s doing but his writing is atrocious.”

GC estimators should take the time to learn what the sub is asking about. If this issue affects one bidder, it likely affects others. Getting to understand the problem and it’s likely solutions, is critical to asking only what you need to know. There are lots of sub estimators who were pressed into estimating, or are expected to estimate in addition to a host of other duties. RFIs before the bid should be decidedly geared towards answering estimating questions. You need to know enough to price the job, not to perfectly build it on bid-day.

Preparing for the bid

Sometimes the most dearly needed RFI’s go unanswered before the bid deadline. Estimators need to prepare contingency plans for every significant RFI. Generally speaking, the suggested solution in your RFI should be your bid-day default condition. If that RFI goes unanswered, then your proposal clarifications will need verbiage informing the client that you’ve included your specific solution to an issue raised in RFI (#) submitted to the Architect on (Date). Most clients aren’t paying attention to their Architects RFI log. A submitted bid implies that you had everything you needed to accurately bid the job. Architects who ran out of time answering RFI’s should have every sympathy with your situation. If the issue is serious enough that you can’t risk such a move on the project, it’s time to reconsider the opportunity. Sometimes missing information is intentional.  Weak design teams and unreasonable clients won’t improve after the contract is written.


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© Anton Takken 2015 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: View all posts by Anton Takken

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