An estimators guide to design trends

We often think of trends in design as driven by an aesthetic or fashion.  However design is a business, which means that market trends can have an effect on the outcome.  Just as business can influence the trends, so too, can the trends influence business.  From the estimators desk, it’s critical to spot the trends which lead to changing design practices.  Adapting to these practices allows your business to stay abreast of all the challenges that new trends may bring.

Abby finds it difficult to maintain a trendy surfer accent while yelling.

Throughout my construction career there have always been innovations which promised to simplify or consolidate complex assemblies.  In some cases, this took the form of factory-built replacements like pre-manufactured homes which tremendously reduced the work of constructing a house on site.

Trends impact design

Innovations that simplify or consolidate complex assemblies are most often manufactured solutions.  Getting these innovations into a design-teams plans will typically require that the manufacturer provide the necessary design of their product.

In simple terms, a portion of the design is converted into a specified part.  This part may be depicted in a manner that is visually similar to conventional assemblies, but without the detail and/or section drawings that one would expect.  For example, custom made millwork will typically detail every joint in a cabinet door, however a premade cabinet assembly might only show the rough layout in plan view.

So how does this affect me?

The fine detail of the pre-made assembly is usually the manufacturer or sales representative’s responsibility to deliver, especially for custom applications.  Here again, trends in business can translate to changes in design practices.  For example, a design team may specify a single manufacturer in exchange for design-assist services.  The drawings landing on your desk may have semi-detailed plans for the premade assemblies that were generated by the manufacturer or their representative.  Cost-conscious clients may require their design teams to allow multiple manufacturers of premade assemblies.  In this case, the plans may feature blocked off areas with key notes requiring final design from the relevant vendors.

Submitted without comment.

Estimators should be aware that “all in one” pre-made solutions tend to be very inconsistent.  Determining “who does what” in terms of trade overlap can reveal very complicated relationships.  The representative or vendor of the pre-made solution may only deal with the design teams.  There may well be completely separate individuals who quote, design, fabricate, and install the pre-made solution.  It bears mentioning that these firms are seldom “built” to facilitate the needs of an estimator.  The sales agent working with the design team will often have access to information that the quotes department does not.  Many such firms will insist on a process that is almost guaranteed to oppose conventional workflows.

For example, some firms will only quote work per internal directives.  This is particularly common when the manufacturer has a contract with clients that build retail chains.  In this case, the quote may look nothing like what you’re seeing on the plan.   In other cases, there are firms that will only quote after they’ve completed their design.  This is a particularly difficult requirement in situations where you are competitively bidding a conceptual design.

Trends impact designers

Thus far, I’ve focused on manufacturing innovations.  Market trends can affect the design as well.  Despite the many advances in computerized design, getting from concept to construction documents takes a lot of time.  Design professionals tell me that this is because clients are seldom decisive, disciplined, and aligned to the realities of their situation.  Competition drives prices down, so naturally, design firms look for ways to improve profitability in competitive markets.  “Standards of care” or “Design level” are terms that relate to industry defined practices for design professionals.  Greatly simplified, design professionals offer services priced by different performance levels.  This allows a client to inexpensively hire a design team for a crude schematic design for example.

Some market trends have evolved to counterbalance hiring design teams at a lower standard of care by requiring additional services of the build-team.  This can take many forms including a design-build contract, or a design-assist contract.

Responsibilities rolling downhill is a trend too!

In some situations, this counterbalancing is done by adding requirements to the specifications (specs).  This can include tasks that would typically fall under due-diligence for the design team.  Indeed there is a design trend where design and engineering consultants actually require subcontractors (subs) to hire their own independent engineering firms to verify that the proposed design is safe and appropriate for the existing conditions.  Coordination tasks are also being pressed onto subs via requirements for shop drawings of assemblies that involve multiple trades.

This can create a lot of issues for the build-team, which affects their ability to price the work.  For example, the specifications might require the electrical contractor to provide shop drawings of floor box layout with dimensions coordinating furniture, millwork, glazing, framing, structure, mechanical and plumbing. Typically, the electrical sub does not have any contractual authority over the other subs.  The specification requirements for these shop drawings never include a rubric governing which systems have precedence in the event of a conflict.

Advancements in debate technology are still in the experimental stage.

Consistently lower standards of care have found their way into construction administration practices as well.  Design teams still require submittals, shop drawings, and close-out documentation, however they eschew any responsibility for the information they review.  Many such firms will stamp “Reviewed” or “No Exceptions taken” with requirements that the contractor verify that everything they submitted complies with the construction documents.  Hand-in-hand with these requirements are specifications which state that conflicting requirements will resolve to the most stringent standard, as determined by the design team and the authority having jurisdiction.

Since this approach does not reveal mistakes, omissions, or clarifications in the submittals, we can expect two obvious outcomes.  The first is that the wrong material will be installed, which has the potential to compromise design integrity unless the design team catches it during their inspections.   The second, is that the contractors will recognize the trap laid for them by the design team.  If there is no way to prove that you have met the specified criteria, there’s always a risk that the design team will require costly changes when time is short.

Submitted without comment (again)

This trend obviously increases the contractors risk.  Savvy subs who find themselves in this situation may try to mitigate this risk by refusing to place a costly material order without Architect of record, or Engineer of record approval.  Please seek qualified legal council where necessary, as many states have laws pertaining to professional obligations.  It’s also worth knowing that contracts with a severability clause may feature clauses that cannot be legally enforced.   This may be part of a strategy to bluff contract signers into accepting unfair/illegal conditions.  Please seek qualified legal council before signing any contracts!

We’ll fix it with technology!

Some General Contractors (GC’s) attempt to supplement the lack of design coordination with Building Information Modeling (BIM) which is used for clash detection.   Since most GC’s lack extensive knowledge of Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing, (MEP) trades, they prefer to require that subs in these trades generate their own BIM model of the project, which will then be used for clash detection.  Here again, standards of care and detail levels play a vital role in defining what actually gets done.  In the context of competitive bidding, BIM modeling requests are generally between vague and meaningless.  These requests are vague because the GC has no idea how coordinated the plans actually are, so they don’t know how to quantify what it would take to resolve the issues.  The only party who does actually know what needs to be fixed/coordinated is the original design team.

“Go ahead and ask them what’s missing, I’ll be right behind you..”

Be forewarned that the same market trends that make it necessary to sell lower standards of care, encourage design firms to eschew “premium” services that don’t sell.  In the worst cases, the end result are plans of poor quality, which must be aggressively salvaged by a slapdash application of technology.  Please seek qualified legal council where necessary, as many states have laws pertaining to professional obligations.

If you are trying to price BIM and clash detection services, I would start by separating the proposals.  One price should be for a specified number of hours to develop a BIM model at a specified level of detail.  This should stipulate the required documents, standards, and files before the process begins.  The second price should be for a predefined number of hours to address clash issues.  Make sure to stipulate the hourly rate for overages.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them” -Albert Einstein

Trying to coordinate a design using third party independent contractors in a process named “Clash Detection” has a few obvious pitfalls.  GC’s and subs alike should understand that the resultant “BIM Team” works very differently than if the same firms contracted with one another to design the project.

Not all clashes are easily resolved.  Some resolutions will materially change the cost, profitability, duration, utility, aesthetics, or performance of the end-product.  It’s also important to understand that clients purchasing clash detection, do so assuming that this process will eliminate change orders.  For these, and many more reasons, clash detection has the potential to consume a tremendous amount of time.  Estimators should carefully manage their clients expectations.

Trends in bidding

Estimators working in markets with an influx of pre-made solutions should adapt to the lack of detail by exposing what they do, and do not, know, using the Request For Information (RFI) process.  Bear in mind that in most cases, someone on the design team has been working with someone at the manufacturer.  Asking for the contact information of the manufacturer’s representative is an excellent way to get access to the individual who knows the most about this project.  Be advised that the representative may not be aware that the job is out to bid.  Clients with national accounts for materials, vendors, and subcontractors, have a bizarre predilection for design teams who systematically withhold any mention of these contractual relationships.  When asking about these accounts, provide any information you have, because many reticent design teams have no interest in communicating their client’s contractual relationships. Sometimes these relationships range from tricky, to downright risky.

For example, there’s one major firm with a national account for lighting fixtures which goes out of it’s way to conceal that this account arbitrarily excludes emergency egress fixtures such as exits, and frogeye lights.  The client demands that electrical subcontractors buy all their lighting fixtures from the national account  vendor.  However, that vendor will not provide pricing for the exits or frogeye lights until after the contract award.

When they do, the national account  vendor’s price for the egress fixtures are artificially high.  The client refuses to accept financial responsibility for this outcome since they believe they made their requirements clear.  Whether by coincidence or by design, that National Account relationship sets the contractor up for an ugly surprise.  RFI’s about this subject put the issue on the record for all bidders to see.  If/when the vendor refuses to quote the full package per the client’s direction, the contractor can forward the vendor’s response to the design team while asking for direction.  If/when the design team runs out the clock on that RFI, exclude, qualify or quantify the costs for the issue(s) in question on your proposal.

The client set up a national account vendor to secure advantageous terms on pricing, performance, and quality control.  The vendor may be technically selling their goods to the subcontractor, but they view the national account holder as their client.  Estimators pricing work requiring these vendors, should anticipate a lower level of vendor performance as compared to market leaders.

You might say they’re hard-headed and crooked, but that’s just one point of view

In particularly competitive markets, there is a trend where the General Contractor (GC) is awarded based on a hard-bid of the schematic design (typically 10% complete).  The awarded GC then conducts a competitive bid based on the design development set (typically 50% complete).  This bid is often “open book” to the client which means they are presented with all the bid information.  In many cases, the most complex and/or time-critical subcontractors are awarded.  The GC then conducts a competitive bid on the Construction Document (typically 95% complete) set.  This is ostensibly to award the remaining subcontractors, however the subs awarded on the 50% round are expected to revise their proposal and offer guidance on constructability, scheduling, and cost-control measures.  Finally, there is the budget reconciliation round which is the permit set (typically 100% complete).  This is where the client expects the GC to lead their subs in value engineering exercises.  In extreme cases, the client will threaten to suspend, cancel, or re-bid the entire project unless their budgetary, design, and schedule demands are met.  This practice only happens in especially competitive markets since nobody on the build-team is paid for their design-assist work.

 

For more articles like this click here

© Anton Takken 2021 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: