The plans are on the street, now what?
Once the Invitation to bid (ITB) is drafted, and sent to every subcontractor on your bid list, you’re free to pursue the other work that piled up. The more your internal systems are built to output an accurate ITB and an optimal bid-list, the more these tasks will depend on a thorough review of the Construction Documents (CD’s). By having an ITB template that requires answers to the most common bidder questions, you’ll be able to focus your review of the Request For Proposal (RFP) and Construction Documents (CDs). Be advised that defining which trades you need to invite isn’t necessarily a quick process.
“Sure you’re doing six things at once, but could you go a bit faster?”
A specialty trade or a really small scope of work may be required via a single note in the drawings. It may be a better choice to get the ITB out to the obvious trades, than to hold everything until you’ve scoured the plans for a buried specialty vendor.
An absolutely pivotal concept of reliable estimating is knowing that time is more valuable earlier than later.
You get more out of the early minute than the final hour.
Learning you need to fix a “hole” in your estimate one hour to deadline means you’ve got 60 minutes to get a viable bid together. Until that problem is solved, the idea of winning takes a back seat to the risk of submitting an incomplete bid! In comparison, an estimator who found just 20 minutes three weeks earlier could have addressed all the issues completely.
I’ve been in the war room in the final hour when we discovered that nobody had invited an entire trade of subcontractors! Until we found a sub with a complete bid, we had only our historical pricing to go on. If we bid and won using our historical pricing, we took a risk that subcontractor proposals would be substantially higher than what we carried. Given the great value of that scope of work, our exposure threatened the success of entire job. We were in such a hurry with the bid letting software that a single trade was left out.
Even with the satellite, Dave couldn’t make the connection…
Nobody found time to verify the invite list in the intervening weeks. Don’t let it happen to you.
Series of sweeps
It’s really simplistic to assume that estimating is a function of counting, pricing, and totaling. The efforts that make the difference between winning and losing are rarely attributed to punctilious spreadsheets. Broadly speaking, a GC estimator needs to conduct a series of sequential sweeps through the CD’s looking for four basic criteria.
Getting the ITB on the street required the first sweep of the CD’s to determine who needs to be invited, and what information they’ll need to get started.
This is where the estimator gets a handle on what’s supposed to happen in the project. Estimators must pay particular attention to where scopes of work overlap between design consultants. Architects are famous for not telling their engineering consultants about an alternate request, and engineering consultants are famous for not sharing requirements that should be included in another consultants documents. For example, an electrically operated smoke damper which is shown on the mechanical plans, but not on the electrical. Estimators must review plans looking for where trades will overlap on scope. If the plans aren’t clear on who does what, it’s the estimators job to provide direction to all concerned. Leaving this to chance on bid-day ends up with double-ups or holes. The scope sweep should enable the estimator to roughly define how much work there is for each trade. Any trade with an especially small scope of work should be noted for a mandatory follow-up with a trusted sub. The same goes for sub-tier subs like Fire Alarm, Pavement striping, HVAC Controls, Coring/Drilling, Imaging, etc. I call these “ghost trades” because they’re never clearly visible, but they’ll haunt your bid if you ignore them!
After two sweeps of the plans, the odds are good that you’ve already come up with some questions for the design team. The goal isn’t to pick the plans apart, so much as it is to resolve issues that are likely to impact the bid. CD’s often fall short of defining vital project information like site logistics, alternates and phasing. Getting these questions into Request For Information (RFI) format early in the process gives the design team more time to answer which may in turn allow you more time to communicate the answer to your bidders.
There are lots of GC estimators out there whose entire strategy is to simply rely on subcontractor bids to deliver their victories. This flawed approach hinges on two fallacies. The first fallacy is that there’s something magical about their company that makes subs want to give them better prices.
You can howl, but then you’re singing along!
The second fallacy is that all subs are bidding all jobs at all times. By inviting everyone, they feel sure that the market leaders will send them a bid. This “strategy” is successful only when there’s no real competition.
Estimating is about controlling risk. If it were possible to simply add everything up and arrive at an accurate price the industry would use cashiers instead of estimators. Risk and how it’s controlled is how a plan becomes an opportunity. A lot of estimators get hung up on risk as a one-sided concept. I hear a lot of GC estimators looking to press project risk onto their subcontractors. Poorly defined scope, misleading diagrams, or counter-intuitive specifications are all treated like it’s the subcontractors problem. These GC’s fail to understand that the uncontrolled risk raises subcontractor prices, making the GC noncompetitive. It’s of pivotal importance for a GC estimator to understand that winning bids is a function of reducing risk for everyone.
Taking responsibility for sorting this out is how a GC estimator can set themselves apart from the field and thereby attract the market leaders. It’s pivotally important to understand that this is a proactive measure administered fairly to all involved parties. Bid directives are an effective means to mass-communicate a plan of action but they can be easily shared with your competitors. I recommend using bid directives to provide clear and accountable leadership that your competitors would shirk. Strategies should be treated as confidential information, and communicated accordingly.
Very few jobs will present an opportunity for a single overarching strategy to secure a victory. That being said, if you can’t find any advantage, you won’t likely land a job. Very often the greatest advantage a GC will have is due to an existing relationship with market leading subs. In that case, picking work that’s best suited to the top performers becomes the GC’s strategy for success.
Finally, we’ve reached the point where most folks believe the real estimating begins; the quantity take off (QTO). I’ve written about software technology for estimating before. There have been notable advancements in how estimators tasks are completed, like computerized QTO. For example, it’s now possible to measure, count, and color the plans without the printed plans, scale, paper, calculators and pencils. While that’s a huge advancement, most of these proprietary programs lack the logical “polish” of standard business programs. These programs offer an exponential increase in the speed of QTO’s provided the estimators learn their idiosyncrasies.
Whether you’re using a digital system or manual takeoffs, there are some aspects of reliable estimating that never change.
“One pass” takeoff
After all the effort to define which Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Masterformat divisions pertain to your project, it’s tempting to conduct the QTO in “CSI order”. Lots of estimators will begin their takeoffs with Division 2 Sitework and skim through the plans looking for anything that pertains to that division. Unfortunately there are often solitary notes pertaining to a small scope of work that’s unique from everything else shown on the page. This means that the estimator skimming for a specific CSI division will ignore that solitary note figuring that they’ll get it when they sweep for that division. When the note is on a particularly unlikely sheet, it’s often forgotten. Later, when their Project Manager comes down the hall complaining about how they missed something, that note will be very familiar.
I advocate what I call the “one pass” takeoff. I make sure that absolutely everything depicted, noted, or specified on the page be taken off before I go to the next page. If you’re doing manual takeoffs, this means you’ll have to start a CSI division sheet for each division as they present themselves. It’s a lot of shuffling to record your measurements, and the sheets tend to look less tidy from the many edits. This is still worth the effort since it not only catches the one-note traps, I’ve found it’s actually faster than repeated skimming.
Knowing where to stop is as important as knowing when to stop
Unless the job is fairly small, chances are good that your QTO’s will be interrupted or at least spread across several days. Estimators should understand that co-workers have no comprehension of how much focus it takes to complete some takeoffs.
I’m…gonna need a moment here…
Something as simple as the height of a concrete stem-wall may require calculations based on information scattered across several sheets. It’s therefore good practice to write (or type) notes on the plans providing the necessary information where it would actually do you some good. General items like area and perimeter measurements for each room can prove incredibly helpful since a myriad of takeoffs are based on these two pieces of information. By leaving a record of basic measurements, you’re able to pick up where you left off with minimal wind-up.
I would also recommend that your day’s work be paused at a meaningful and reliable point. Stopping mid-way through a sheet is sure to keep you up worrying about what you missed. Choose to either stop early or work late in order to leave yourself a clear conscience.
Before you begin an intense take-off, consider your schedule and the day’s obligations. It’s unwise to get a half-baked start on something complicated right before a meeting. One of the advantages of the one-pass takeoff method is that you don’t have to do the sheets in order. If you’ve got a limited amount of time before an appointment, pick a sheet you can complete. Estimators must accurately track and predict how long each element of a QTO will take. The fastest QTO’s are the ones that aren’t interrupted, however estimating is about more than take offs. Getting interrupted at an inopportune time is part of the job.
Three round review
Checking for errors is the best way to catch them but how you go about it can greatly increase your reliability. Huge data sets and tiny differences can stymie even the most dedicated review. The key to catching errors is to structure your workflow around meaningful review points. The simplest problems are most easily caught earlier in the process. Breaking the QTO down, this begins at the page level. Before moving to the next page in the plans, the estimator should review everything they took off on that sheet. The minute detail is fresh in your memory, and transposition errors are more easily spotted. The vast majority of errors are caught at this level.
The next round of review is when tallying a division as a GC, or a major component as a sub. The errors found at this level tend to be more dramatic because you’re moving the contributions of several plan sheets. A flooring subcontractor might take a moment after tallying the carpet and the tile measurements to see if the relative difference they’re seeing aligns with what they’d expect. These order of magnitude comparisons can tell you if you’re missing an individual room or an entire floor.
The third round of review is after the QTO’s have been entered into the estimate. Does the estimated cost outcome align with the division level review? By using the earlier reviews as benchmarks to compare against, the subsequent reviews become more reliable.
You could say the process leaves a mark on you…
I would strongly caution an estimator against more frequent reviews of their work because reviews without benchmarks are little more than skimming plans looking for stuff to add. After a person has looked at the same information a few hundred times, their ability to recognize new information diminishes. You have to be able to trust your work by testing it at intervals that allow you to know if you’re right or wrong.
An awful lot of estimating comes down to judgment when dealing with uncertainty. It’s not fair, but an estimators judgment is often criticized after the uncertainty is removed. People don’t care that you had a good reason for your decision, they only care about the outcome of your decision. It’s therefore absolutely critical to develop the habit of clarifying, stipulating, and excluding anything that requires judgment on the proposal. Effective proposals define with minute clarity what is driving the uncertainty. For that, you’ll need to take notes of where you found the problem. Keep in mind that as an estimator, your work is laying the foundation for the Project Manager’s efforts. Everyone needs to know where the tricky bits are located. Plus if you’re expected to present your estimates for review at your company, it’s good to be able to provide references for all the hard decisions you made.
As mentioned earlier, interruptions at inopportune times are part of the job. I’ve had multi-million dollar estimates interrupted at the last moment over questions on a $50.00 change order! Estimating is about controlling risk even within the estimating process. Plainly speaking, an estimator must not only predict how long a QTO will take on a piecemeal basis, they must also be capable of plotting a path to recovery when they’ve been derailed. It’s at this point that many, many, “old-school” estimators just plan on spending the night. I believe that most estimators could substantially improve their quality of life by committing themselves to solving schedule problems with overtime as a means of last-resort.
Schedule recovery may involve many approaches ranging from additional workers, to less detailed takeoffs. Estimators should consider the value and the risk associated with each scope of work they’re taking off. A perfect paint takeoff can take a considerable amount of time, yet the paint scope is relatively inexpensive when compared to plumbing. Since the paint scope is relatively inexpensive, the relative risk of an imperfect takeoff is quite low unless you can’t attract more than one painting bid. Estimators should always prioritize on high value, and high risk scopes of work. As a GC estimator, knowing which direction to go between similar bids on bid-day is why you’re doing the takeoff. Continuing with the paint example, a pressed-for-time estimator might shift to a square foot cost for the paint scope followed by a list of scope inclusions that painters might miss. Providing sufficient information to scope sub bids is FAR more important than knowing the precise square footage of Paint color 1.
Lots of GC’s have a team of people working on an estimate. If you’re heading up the effort you will need to think on your feet when people call in sick, show up late, or otherwise drop the ball. Project Engineers are frequently “loaned out” to help in estimating, however they are rarely relieved of their normal responsibilities. Many will prioritize their ongoing projects at the cost of your time-sensitive estimate simply because they don’t work for the estimator. Lead estimators must provide and enforce deadlines for every task. Never give a helper sufficient time to squander your recovery. It’s better to check on them too much, than to find they’ve dug you a deeper hole.
Estimators who are working with interns, Project Engineers, etc. should make a special effort to simplify and compartmentalize the tasks they are delegating. Estimators are used to thinking in terms of length, area, and volume measurements, however these terms can quickly overwhelm someone who’s facing their first takeoff. Estimators should understand that “standard” units for takeoffs are arbitrary to a newcomer. For example carpet is measured by the square yard, yet ceramic tile is measure by the square foot. Taking the time to explain that there are nine square feet per square yard can make the difference between a useful takeoff and a mess that nobody understands.
And for goodness sake, if you’re having people do this work without a digitizer, or on-screen takeoff system, then at least give them a courtesy lesson on how to measure areas that aren’t squares or rectangles! While we’re at it, teach them to use decimal feet in lieu of inches! For some reason, this rather obvious point is overlooked in most construction education.
Addenda of mass distraction
Many architects will respond to bidder questions via an addendum before the deadline. Projects and professionalism will vary which means that GC estimators will have anywhere from over a week to only a few hours to incorporate changes made via the addendum. This practice is easily the single most stressful aspect of professional construction estimating because unclear, misleading, and outright contradictory information is often presented without sufficient time to get clarification. Estimators should note that shoddy plans, municipal or “public work” clients, and last-minute addenda are constant companions.
The architect finds last minute changes to be the most fashionable…
The absolute #1 priority is to get that information disseminated to the bidders as soon as possible. The second priority is to provide the necessary leadership and communication to ensure your bid-team isn’t derailed by the Addendum.
As a start, every Addendum should be scoured for changes to the deadline, proposal format, etc. Everything that goes to the bid-team should have the most current deadline printed where it’s easily seen. Wherever possible, notify bidders when an Addendum has little or no impact on their scope. If the Addendum ONLY affects the GC’s, don’t bother the subs with needless panic-inducing addenda.
If your Request For Information (RFI) was answered in the Addendum, you might reference whether the Architect response is consistent with your earlier bid-directives. The better your direction, the lower the risk your subs will face. Lower risk leads to lower prices, this is where the truly professional estimator earns their keep. If you do your best to get in front of issues, you may be rewarded with an addendum that confirms all of your bid-directives which means your subs are the only ones who don’t have last-minute changes.
Preparing for the blitz
Bid day is a real test of your skills, knowledge, tools, endurance, and patience. The better part of victory is preparation. Heading into bid-day you’ll need several critical elements in place. First and foremost, you’ll need your estimate “built” which is to say that your QTO has been imported or entered into your template form and prepared to accept subcontractor proposals. You should have a reasonable estimate of every trades worth, and a decent idea of what the final cost will be. Second, you’ll need your bid packet, which is all the completed forms identified in the Request For Proposal (RFP). Generally, this is the proposal itself, a CSI breakdown, a construction schedule, bond, etc. Everything should be as ready as possible for the bid-runner to deliver.
Third, you’ll need the “bid tab” or “scope sheets”. These are the scope of work as broken down in the estimate in anticipation of how the subs will bid. The scope of work is generally listed in rows, and a series of columns are made for subcontractor comparison. As the subcontractor proposal is compared against each row, the item is either checked as included, marked for follow-up, or an allowance is inserted. Once all the columns are filled for a given sub, their tally is calculated at the bottom and the subs are ranked by price lowest to highest for entry into the estimate.
I should mention that every Alternate that affects the given scope of work should be built into the scope sheet. Poorly defined Alternates can wreak havoc on bid-day. It’s important to know what to expect.
Estimators with plenty of time often export their bid-tab as a checklist which they have their subs fill out, endorse and return. This helps to prevent the “gotcha” nonsense that comes with indecipherable inclusions, exclusions, and clarifications on subcontractor forms.
Projects with special requirements for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) participation should be tracked in real-time in the estimate. Allowing for “what-if” strategy is a crucial tool to making timely decisions. Very rarely will MBE companies be the lowest bidders, so it becomes a balancing act to meet participation goals, without undue cost.
As you head into the final hour, all of your hard work preceding the bid will be paying off. Be sure to “close the loop” with everything you’ve learned on this estimate by tying your estimate tracking to your bid results. An awful lot of an estimators daily struggle comes down to reconciling the big picture against today’s efforts.
Winning profitable work is the estimators constant goal. Very little has more influence on your ability to win than choosing the right opportunities. Everything is an opportunity to people lacking perspective. Estimators must take it upon themselves to provide not only estimates for projects they’ve bid, but perspective on the market in which they compete. It’s vitally important to show your work in much the same way as an estimate validates the proposal amount.
Reliable estimating practices not only improve bidding, they enable decision-making.
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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved
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