Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

Where do projects come from? As estimators we’re often less concerned with the steps that came before plans landed on our desk that we should be. Everything starts with a client and their idea. There’s an awful lot that has to come together to translate a clients idea into a reality. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has outlined the Best Practices for architectural design into three main phases.

Basic concept

Schematic design (SD) is the earliest phase and it’s where the required functions of the project are defined and refined. A lot of effort goes into the research and due diligence necessary to ensure that the project will conform to zoning, jurisdictional requirements, etc.  Estimators often refer to these as the “napkin sketches” because the intent is to convey the magnitude and orientation of major project features without necessarily providing much detail. Smaller projects may feature a narrative which can be as simple as a list of required functions, assumptions, and minimum requirements. The SD drawing set may be put out to contractors as a “gut check” to level the project requirements against the client’s budget. More on this later.

Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

“It may not look like it, but I’m here to help…”

Rough draft

Design Development (DD) is the next phase and it’s here that more detail is slowly added. Generally, (but not always) these plans lay out the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing (MEP) details as well as the structural and architectural details. It’s at this stage that signature elements are typically selected, often based on comparison between one or more schemes. When these plans are sent to contractors, you’ll often see them referred to as “Pricing plan” (PP) or clearly marked “NOT FOR CONSTRUCTION”. The DD phase is typically concluded with a formal presentation to the client in hopes of getting approval to proceed to the next phase.

Final plan

Construction Document (CD) phase is the final phase of architectural design. Complete CD’s are sent to contractors for final bidding and subsequent contract award. Many clients and/or architects require contractors to bid on incomplete CD’s which are marked with the percentage complete.

Concept to contract

Estimators are frequently asked to price SD and DD drawings as a courtesy to the client or the architect. It’s understood that designs must progress in order for there to be work for GC’s to do. Beyond simply aiding a design development, many GC’s seek to lay the groundwork for contract award or negotiated agreements by making themselves indispensable to the client and/or architect.

Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

Savvy bidders are quick to lock their competitors out

This tactic is called “client capture” and there’s a lot to recommend the practice because GC input early in the design can reduce prices, and increase the odds of project success.

Refine by bid

The GC’s motivation to capture the client is understandable, however their effort can stray into becoming an unpaid construction consultant.   There are clients who limit their design team’s scope of work to SD or DD level drawings, which are then sent out to bid with requests for “complete” proposals. Estimators pricing these projects balance between hard-bidding and design-build as they attempt to fill in the blanks. Each round of bidding provides the client with information to refine their drawings for re-bidding.   Bidding GC’s will find their good ideas incorporated on plans sent to their competitors to bid. It’s entirely possible to spend so many labor hours in conceptual bidding, that the subsequent contract work is no longer profitable!

Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

Window shoppers

Competitive bidding is the most reliable and consistent means to ensure market pricing. Clients who find their budget’s blown on bid day are getting valuable feedback on their projects. There are some clients who continually re-bid their projects hoping to “beat the bushes” for a better price. If the client can’t raise their budget to market-value, or reduce their scope to suit their budget, they’re not a real client. These “window shoppers” have no concern for the time and money they cost their markets. There are always more window shoppers than real clients, so estimators are well-advised to bid judiciously.

Some clients find themselves debating between two or more different addresses which require tenant improvement (TI). Metro areas often feature design firms that specialize in tenant planning for leasing negotiations. These firms specialize in drawing plans that facilitate conceptual pricing, but never lead to construction contracts. In fact, there’s little reason for these design firms to involve contractors because historical data coupled with some basic estimating skills would provide their clients with sufficiently accuracy to negotiate leasing terms.

Signs to watch for

Estimators looking to maximize their chances of success must develop judgment to pick the best opportunities to bid. There’s an old maxim that states : “Good judgment is based on experience you can only get through bad judgment”. As a logical starting point, estimators must understand that functional relationships are based on reciprocation. Bidders understand that submitting the lowest complete proposal (for free) by the deadline is their obligation, and awarding the contract to company with the lowest complete proposal is the client’s obligation. Bidding for “free” is the contractors commitment, awarding a contract on the basis of those bids, is the client’s commitment. Moral flexibility separates the window shoppers from the real clients.

Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

Here are couple examples of how life is better without gray areas.

Many ethical clients see conceptual estimating as an expected courtesy, if not an outright prerequisite for future invitations. If the client isn’t promising to select a contractor based on the outcome of a conceptual bid, the GC’s are forewarned that they can expect additional rounds of competitive bidding before the contract is awarded. Estimators are well-advised to pay particular attention to what is and isn’t promised at the “final” bidding opportunity. There are clients and design teams who expect “do-overs” whenever there’s hope of capturing some additional savings. An awfully old trick is bid the job before submitting plans to the building department, then re-bid the job after they’ve got inspector’s comments. Lots of value-engineering (VE) ideas from the bidders get rolled into that last set. This effectively gives your competitors a chance to capitalize on your good ideas for the client.

Clients who consider conceptual estimates to be a prerequisite to inclusion in the final bidding should be starting with a short list of pre-qualified GC’s. Pricing all the SD, DD, and CD revisions can range from three estimates, to dozens of pricing exercises that could take place over many months. Clients who expect this courtesy should reciprocate by limiting competition to a short list of qualified competitors.

Clients who demand extensive competition throughout conceptual bidding will generally accept any bidder on the final round. These clients may pay lip-service to GC’s making themselves indispensable but they’ll only award after they’re sure there’s nobody cheaper on the market.

Estimators should be especially wary of bidding projects which have different deadlines for participating GC’s. Sharp-eyed estimators will pay particular attention to the dates on the plans. It’s very rare for a legitimate conceptual bid to have plans that are more than a few days old at the time of the request for proposal (RFP).

Often Architects will revise the plan legend as progress is made on the sheets. “Final” or “Pricing set” drawings that aren’t quite 100% complete are fairly typical for hard-bidding, however estimators should consider the timeline of the updates in the context of the final set’s date. If there was steady design progress between updates however the “Pricing set” you’re looking at is several months old suggests that this isn’t the first time these plans have been out to bid. Especially long gaps between “Pricing” and “For Construction” sets, begs the question “why didn’t they award the job on the pricing set?”

Never underestimate the value of direct communication with the client and their design team. Job walks are a vital social opportunity to gain insight into the project and where it’s heading. Clients may freely admit that a project has been out to bid previously. Design teams may drop hints about expected changes, budgetary issues, or client expectations. GC estimators should cultivate their leads in the subcontractor community. Reputations are earned, and people have long memories when it comes to hard-earned judgment.

It’s much easier to close a deal with a client when you’re well-informed.

Tips and techniques

Conceptual estimating, even as a courtesy carries a certain amount of risk. Regardless of what qualifiers, clarifications, or exclusions you might make, the one thing that every client remembers, is the lowest number they heard. Estimators need to be VERY careful about how information might be misconstrued especially at the earliest stages of design.

We all understand that complex assemblies are built of smaller parts and pieces. Clients tend to think of these pieces as individual and uniform when it comes to cost. The cost to furnish and install any given thing seems like it’s an easy enough question. The problem with this thinking is that it’s simplifying the context, and ignoring the impact one part has on the larger system. For example, adding one more faucet may require another sink, which may require another drain which may exceed the design’s capacity in numerous ways.

To the estimator, “menu pricing” conceptual elements is not only risky, it’s potentially never-ending. It’s important to pull back a little, to get perspective on what the client is actually trying to achieve. Rather than indulging in micro-managing breakouts, the focus should be on guidance to achieve the clients project goals within their budget. Identifying cost centers and their proportional contribution to the total gives meaningful feedback on incomplete designs. Estimators looking to capture a client through conceptual pricing should look beyond pricing every request to address the clients root concerns. Helping a client with their problems should not give them the tools to hire your competitor. A pattern of brute-force low-bidding on multiple rounds of conceptual estimating isn’t a substitute for strategy either.

Conceptual estimating, client capture or wasted time?

Hitching their wagon to the wrong horse is a recurring trend in the estimating field…

Not every client will be interested in selecting a GC during the conceptual bidding. In many cases the courtesy bidders find themselves losing to firms that didn’t bid the conceptual rounds. If conceptual bidding won’t lead to client capture, it should at least lead to successful pricing strategies. There’s never an end to going-nowhere conceptual pricing requests because clients and their design teams are getting free construction consultants. It’s hard enough to win profitable work as it is without giving our best efforts away for free.

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© Anton Takken 2016 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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