Tag Archives: Computer Aided Design

Power tool safety for estimators Part 1 : Software hazards

There are no shortage of software “solutions” for construction estimating.  It seems like every one is advertised to deliver greater accuracy with less effort so one estimator can do more.  Experience has taught me to be pay attention to the problems these software systems are claiming to solve.  I’ve worked with several of the most popular estimating programs and all of them exhibited basic problems that can really mess up a bid.  Speed and ease are selling points for systems that are very difficult to override when they screw up.   If we think of these programs as the “power tools” of estimating, we can easily see the need for “safety training”.

There is no more important estimating safety tool, than to wear your reading glasses…

Looking at a floor plan, it might be fairly obvious that the flooring is 60% carpet and 40%  vinyl tile.  When the quantity measurements are entered into the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) format , it’s difficult to see the carpet quantity relative to the vinyl flooring because they’re often separated by hundreds of lines in the final estimate.  Many Quantity Take Off (QTO) programs will convert to  square yards when measuring carpet versus square footage for vinyl flooring.  This means that the numeric difference between two installations that are commonly installed in the same areas, will appear nine times less significant than they really are.

Research on perspective enhancement is ongoing…

Take the 60-40% split mentioned above with 1,000 square foot total.  1000 * .6 equals 600 square feet.  Divide 600 by 9 to convert to square yards and you get 66.66 SY.  Compare that to the vinyl at 1000 * .4 and you’ve got 400 square feet.  If you are quickly scanning the output numbers looking for obvious errors, 66 looks a whole lot smaller than 400.  Depending on the software’s report settings, the units of measure might not appear immediately alongside the measured quantity you’re checking.  Trying to check quantities and units in the software can be very tricky when the software doesn’t allow the user to highlight or increase the contrast of a particular line.  That’s a serious downside to software designed with a minimalist aesthetic.  This is why some  estimators prefer to check their work with a printout and a straight edge.

Caution, powerful settings buried below

While I’m on the topic of minimalist aesthetics in software, there are a few other issues that bear mentioning.  Program-specific terminology can be a major stumbling block.  One industry-leading QTO program conceals its ability to multiply repetitive takeoffs like hotel rooms in a multi-story building behind a two item drop-down list.  Neither item on that list alludes to this functionality.  Making things even more difficult, the relationship between floors and rooms are defined by a matrix where the rows are defined through completely different menus than those to define the columns.

The matrix menu allows changes to the rows, but not the columns.  This means that an estimator who’s discovered an error in the columns of the matrix, must close out the screen showing the matrix and return through a completely different set of menu options to fix it.  The window displaying the matrix is limited in size and is only open while a menu is active which means that an apartment building with ten or more unit types cannot display all the rooms and all the floors in a single screen.  This makes error checking much more difficult than it needs to be.  Answering simple questions like “how many apartments are in the estimate?” is profoundly difficult because the program’s design isn’t effective.

QTO programs are often bristling with options to adjust the scale, alignment (level), image rotation, image contrast, etc.  Rarely are these options identified with meaningful terminology, nor are they located to minimize the mouse movement required to operate the program.  Terms like invert, flip, and rotate are scuttled in preference to diminutive arrow icons that all look the same.

I’ve worked with a market leading QTO program that won’t allow a to scale setting change after any substantial amount of takeoffs have been done.  If you discover that the scale is wrong on a page, you have to delete all the takeoffs before you can correct the problem.  Always check that the labeled scale is correct by measuring a known feature.  Be sure to check vertical and horizontal measurements.  More than once I’ve encountered .pdf format drawings with an aspect ratio problem.  Most QTO programs cannot accommodate a separate scale for horizontal  and vertical.

Even relatively innocuous changes can be harder than necessary.  Some programs require multi page menu navigation to achieve what other programs do with a single drop-down list.  All of them get slower in proportion to the total file size of the job.  This leads to an infuriating situation where the program reduces workflow to a crawl right when the estimator has the least amount of time to wait.  The critical lesson here is to confirm that your settings are right early on.

Warning! This machine has no reverse!

Some estimating programs are only capable of importing QTO measurements that add to a takeoff smoothly.  Any sort of deduction, or change of breakout to imported quantities may require a manual import for each individual measurement.  For many estimating systems, the manual overriding triggers an overall update to the estimate which can take several minutes on a large estimate.  If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s not possible to group import several negative measurements.

To the user, this means scrolling through thousands of lines of small print text looking for items that don’t have a small check mark in the “imported” column.  There’s no “search” or “sort” functions to cull the data, nor are there any means to adjust the diminutive single-spaced fonts.  These programs are like a drag race car.  Everything is optimized for moving in only one direction.  If you need to back up, you have to get out and push!  For an estimator with an error in their QTO and a deadline rapidly approaching,  they may need to make some hard decisions.

I recommend using a proposal template that is completely separate from the estimating or QTO program.  A simple spreadsheet or word-processing program will allow the estimator to enter what’s actually needed when time is short.  If/when a situation arises where there is an error in the estimate without sufficient time to  fix it, the totals can be manually adjusted on the proposal template.  I’ve known several contractors who missed a deadline because they couldn’t generate a proposal without fixing a simple subtraction problem with their intractable estimating program.

Repetitive Stress Injuries

Some QTO programs will attribute each assembly takeoff to the plan page of the drawing set.  This gives the estimator a way to determine where the quantities are coming from.  Other QTO programs will allow for repetitive applications like hotels or apartment buildings.  Each “Unit type” can be taken off one time, then their resulting QTO can be attributed to however many repetitions the design requires.  The time savings can be profound, however estimators should be very cautious lest a mistake be multiplied throughout their estimate!

One particularly tricky aspect of this practice pertains to rooms that only appear to be symmetrical.  For example, consider a hotel with L shaped rooms running along a hallway oriented North to South.  The “L” shape intersects between pairs of adjacent rooms so that the “L” is upside down on alternating rooms.

Now for sake of example, let’s say they are all the same room dimensions.  The room finish schedule defines the walls by cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West).   Let’s say that the finish schedule defines the West wall finish as wallcovering (a.k.a. Wall paper).  It’s tempting to simply choose a unit, and measure the West wall to define the wallcovering takeoff for all the rooms.

The problem here, is that the rooms with a long axis on the West wall will have more wallcovering than the rooms with a short axis on the West wall.  Depending on the overall design, and the discipline of the Architect, the odd room numbers may correspond to one condition, with the even-numbered rooms corresponding to the other.   Estimators must  verify for themselves because they are responsible for knowing what is actually required.  Be very careful about getting these measurements correct because even small errors get compounded in repetitive takeoffs.

Transfer traffic safety

Every QTO and estimating program I’ve ever used allowed for user-customized parts/items in the estimate.  The “rules” for how these customized parts work within the larger estimate are similar to pre-defined parts with a couple of notable exceptions.  In most situations the QTO program and the Estimate program are “patched” together via an import/export relationship.  In theory, it’s possible to generate the custom part in either program.  If the part is generated in the estimating program, it needs to be exported to the QTO program to be used for measurements.  On the other hand, if the part is  generated in the QTO program, it needs to be imported into the estimating program.  Depending on the specific nuances of the programs and how the patch works, there will be one direction (import vs. export)  that works better than the other.  Generally, the provided training or tutorial videos accompanying the software bundle will present the direction that works the best.

“Sure, there’s a faster way to get where you’re going but I… wouldn’t recommend it”

Keep in mind that some exports need to happen with the receiving program closed, while others won’t reliably work unless the receiving program is open.  Training videos and software instructors often neglect to mention when the receiving program must be closed for reliable transfer.  It’s on the estimator to pay attention to whether they are opening verses maximizing the receiving program.

Savvy readers will have noticed that I emphasized reliable transfer.  I’ve used several program packages which appear to import and export without any particular issue or error message.   Yet when I check the received information against the sent information, I’ve found custom parts that were not fully transferred.  In my particular case, custom parts that are generated in the estimating program, then exported to the closed  QTO program, will work like any ordinary part for QTO, then will import properly into the open estimating program.  Any other combination leads to failures in about one-third of the cases.

It took me a long time to figure this out because the problem was intermittent.  Once when I was on a technical support call regarding another issue with the software, I mentioned my discovery to the technician.  The technician told me that was a known issue and pointed out that their training videos only depict that specific approach.  It was only after the call that I noticed that their video left out any sort of warning about doing things differently than they recommended.  There’s a lot of that sort of thing in estimating software.  If you’re using the program differently than they envisioned it, there’s no guarantee that it will behave as advertised.

Pop up windows, the Big Red Button of estimating software

Manual overrides are any kind of user-input that interrupts, or changes something during an automatic function.  An estimating program might be configured to provide a pop up window for the user to adjust a variable, or to confirm that a default is acceptable.  Very often, a user-generated custom part will trigger a pop up window during the import.  Every pop up halts the import until it is answered.

In use, the estimator has completed the QTO and has imported all the measurements into the import stack of the estimating program.  The whole import stack is selected and “import all” is initiated.  At this point the program will import the data serially which may take some time if the estimate involves a lot of measurements.  As soon as a custom part is encountered, the pop up window interrupts the import.  Nine times out of ten, the estimator only needs to press the “enter” button to accept the value and continue the import.

This means that the estimator is looking at a twitching display of all the data being imported waiting for a pop up to tap the “enter” button again.  If there are a lot of custom parts, this can mean tapping the “enter” button every few seconds as the program makes its way down the import stack.  Since this is one of the final steps of an estimate and time is always short, the estimator might get anxious for these interruptions to be over.  Woe betide any estimator who taps “enter” before the pop up screen appears!  Inexplicably, this automatically excludes the next part requiring authorization from importation.  There won’t be any error message or notification that this happened.  The program will bury that custom part next to something  in the imported stack and leave it for the user to find.

Similarly, any other manual override pop-up that is “answered” prematurely will generate unpredictable yet consistently counter-productive results.  It behooves the estimator to be patient with these lumbering pop-ups.  A word of caution, if you decide to work on something else while the import is running, be sure to minimize the estimating program entirely to keep it from responding to the “enter” button.  Just be sure to check back periodically to see if there’s another pop up holding up the import.

 Safety net, or hidden snare?  Don’t let dopey defaults do you in

Trade-level estimating programs often feature default functions meant to avoid common mistakes.  For example, an electrical estimating program might trigger an error message if an estimator tries to put an oversized wire into an undersized conduit (protective pipe for wire).  Since these relationships are based on uniform standards like building codes, the defaults here are able to catch a lot of mistakes.  The savvy reader might have noticed that the default “saved” the estimator from mistakenly overfilling a conduit which ranges from a safety hazard to a physical impossibility depending on the degree of the mistake.

Now consider the relationship in reverse.  If the conduit is oversized for the wires within, there is no safety issue.  Since larger conduit is more expensive, it’s important to use the correct size for the application to keep the pricing competitive.

The “safety net” of the defaults only protects against underbidding the job in very specific situations.  Efforts to guide estimators to “just right” assemblies generally revolve around incredibly long lists of every possible permutation.  This is a terribly inefficient approach because the programs lack the intelligence to make reasonable suggestions for what is needed. Forcing an estimator to select one item from a list of one thousand means 99.9% of what’s presented is wrong!  These default lists are tightly packed error inducing machines.

Automatic update, friend or foe?

Another aspect of defaults that can play havoc pertains to “quoted” goods versus commodity pricing.  Trade-level estimating software often features commodity pricing which is updated periodically according to national, and local average databases.  Several trades involve thousands of different parts available in dozens of sizes which means that the complete list for commodities can have 100,000+ items.  Even a modest commercial project can require a thousand or more unique parts.  If all the contractors  requested distributor quotes for every line item on every one of their estimates, the distributors would be overwhelmed and gridlock would be inevitable

Commodity tracking systems are an invaluable aid to trade-level estimators because they automatically adjust the pricing of hundreds of thousands of parts to reflect current market conditions.  Errors can and do happen so it’s important to scan the estimate for anything that stands out.  One very embedded error that occasionally pops up is in the unit of measure for a commodity price.  Some parts are priced per each, others are priced per the hundred count, and still others are per the thousand count.  Commodity price updates might have the correct commodity price with the wrong unit of measure which can shift the commodity cost in your estimate by three orders of magnitude!  I’ve encountered situations where a single unit of measure error in the commodity pricing update added several million dollars to my estimate!


Continued in next article:  Power tool safety for estimators Part 2 : Safety in the estimators shop


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© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

For many estimators, the shift from paper plans to digital or “on-screen” takeoffs brought about a fundamental change to how they spend their days. By extension, the familiar scales, calculators, measuring wheels, digitizers, and ubiquitous colored pencils all get used much less now. Digital takeoff systems are run on computers just like those used in accounting, project management, scheduling, or marketing.

Periscope vision

Digital takeoff systems have one obstacle that creates a unique user experience, the plan area is nearly always larger than the computer’s monitor. Typical architectural standard sheet sizes like ARCH D (24″ x 36″) or ARCH E1 (30″ x 42″) would require a 46.47″ and 51.63″ monitor respectively to display at 100% size.

Even if your company would pay for such a large monitor, it wouldn’t be convenient to work at the extreme corners of the display . Imagine holding an open newspaper at arms’ length and trying to read the top left paragraph of print and it will be obvious why bigger isn’t always better.  The current solution is to adjust the zoom in and out as needed which feels like you’re trying to read the plans with a periscope.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

As you might have guessed, there are some design issues…

 Most programs offer the user two ways to adjust the zoom; toolbar buttons, and scroll wheel. I’m sure someone out there uses the toolbar buttons, but I’ve never met them. The reality is that most accurate measurements will require zooming in. A continuous measurement like a long wall, or a large area will quickly reach the border of the displayed area. Waiting at the edge of the border will occasionally cause the program to side-scroll but it’s almost always too fast or too slow to be useful.

It’s unspeakably frustrating to be focused on items in the middle of the displayed area and controlling the zoom with a toolbar button that’s somewhere on the perimeter of the program window. You’re forced to stop everything you’re doing to futz with the zoom buttons so you can see where to continue your work. Mousing across the entire screen to access the buttons is slower than using the scroll wheel. It’s been a while since I used Planswift, but it used to allow zoom commands from the zoom toggle on my Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard. I’m currently using On Center’s On Screen Takeoff which doesn’t recognize the zoom toggle.

You’ve got a hitch in your get-along

Zooming in and out to see what’s going on is only half the struggle. Actually moving the displayed area on-screen can be a surprisingly counter-intuitive process. Planswift assigned the right mouse button as a “grab” that let the user move the sheet around within the display window. OST does have a “grab” tool which they call “pan” but it’s only activated through a toolbar at the perimeter of the display area. You can shift the displayed area in with the scroll wheel to move the display up or down and Shift+scroll to move the display left or right.

This method prevents moving longitudinally and laterally at the same time. You can however zoom out, place the cursor where you’d like to center the display, then zoom in. Zoom in OST is control+scroll. I should mention that the keyboard arrows do technically work, and that you could also use the OST overview window to “grab” and move the sheet. The problem is that you’re making gross corrections within a display window that’s maybe 1/10th the size of your working window. The lack of coordination makes this VERY frustrating. If anybody at On Center is reading this, it would be HUGE if you could assign keyboard shortcuts to change cursor functions.  The spacebar toggles between takeoff and select, but it’s clumsy and it would be awesome to engage “pan/grab” without the all-too-distant toolbar.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

The upgrade affects your performance as soon as you lift the handles

Why the mouse’s design becomes critical

Digital takeoff programs require a lot of “horsing” to simultaneously see what you’re doing, and get to where you need to be. Neither of those functions are actually getting the work done, yet a good half of my mouse movements are spent this way. Entering data in a spreadsheet, you can happily tab, arrow, or enter your way around for most of the day without needing the mouse for anything. A digital takeoff program will have you switching between the keyboard and the mouse constantly. Most digitizing operations require data input, and the majority of that will be numeric. This sets up a repetitive stress situation where a right-handed estimator has their hand pivoting between the mouse and the “ten key” numeric pad.

A “typical” mouse presents a unique problem here because it’s movable nature means that when you’re returning to the mouse from the ten key, it won’t be in a consistent location. Further, most “ergonomic” mouse designs won’t “come to hand” easily for the estimators intermittent usage.

At this point I think it’s helpful to list the necessary attributes that I would be looking for in a mouse.  For the record, I am simply providing my observations and opinions on equipment I purchased with my own money.  I have received no compensation and I have no vested interest in any of the companies or products mentioned in this article.

#1 Static position. Since the digitizing requires near constant movement between the keyboard ten key pad and the mouse, it’s an obvious advantage for the mouse to “stay put” so your hand can quickly and reliably get into and out of mouse operation.

#2 Low profile. This one takes a little explaining. A mouse profile that is substantially higher than the keyboard requires the mouse hand to make a “jump” to get the mouse into action without disturbing the pointer location. The movement from a keyboard to mouse for a right-handed person is particularly likely to unintentionally strike the tallest part of the mouse.

#3 Scroll wheel. It’s difficult to understate just how much of the user experience depends on scroll functioning. Being able to “whip” through a particularly long menu/ text file, or to move the viewing area quickly is a pivotal mouse feature. Some designs allow the user to switch from “free-wheeling” to the typical notched detent scrolling.

#4 Traverse speed and precision. There are a lot of mice out there with adjustable Dots Per Inch (DPI), some even have buttons for on-the-fly DPI changes. The best and most useful designs allow rapid movements without becoming too coarse for accurate mouse control. Designs that allow “whipping” or “spinning” of the movement control let the estimator get to perimeter menu or buttons without sacrificing accuracy.

#5 Function buttons. Some mice have additional buttons which can add some useful functions. The most common are the “Forward and Back” buttons which typically control web browsers and multi-page document displays. “Copy” and “Paste” are profoundly useful functions with wide-ranging utility within digital takeoff systems. One often overlooked function is a “double click left” button. It seems like a minor convenience to press a button once instead of twice, but digital estimating involves lots of movement. It’s particularly difficult to double-click without moving the cursor in some situations. Many estimating programs involve extensive database negotiation so this feature can greatly reduce your repetitive movements.

#6 Durability. I’ve worn out many mice in my career, some lasted years, others only a few months. It’s particularly difficult to find durable mice that aren’t of the “typical” design. Many mice that are marketed as ergonomic prioritize comfort over durability. I know from experience how debilitating it is to have your mouse fail on bid-day. I’ve always got a backup mouse at the ready, just in case.

Estimating tools; Computer Mice



Pursuit of perfection

Logitech Wireless Trackball M570

I started off with a Logitech Wireless Trackball M570. While it’s called a track ball mouse, it’s really set up to control the ball with the just the right thumb and index finger. Being a track ball, it easily meets the static position requirement. The ball itself is fairly low profile so it worked out pretty well transitioning between the keyboard and the mouse. The scroll wheel didn’t allow for free-wheeling so the detents kept me from whipping through lengthy lists. The “middle” mouse button is the wheel. It works but I didn’t use it much because it’s difficult to control the automatic scrolling. The thing I absolutely loved about it was how quickly I could whip the ball to cross the screen or scroll through a long document. Being able to stop the ball and incrementally control it took some getting used to. The key is to wedge your fingers along the socket and add friction when you need greater precision. Logitech did a brilliant job of making the cursor move vertically when you slide your thumb along the socket. This mouse has two function buttons; forward, and back.  These buttons are most useful for web browsing, and the occasional text program that interprets these as page up/down commands.  Durability with the M570 is a mixed bag. I got about a year out of my first one which was a hard-wired version, and maybe 6 months on the second. The open ball design tends to capture crud in the little bearings. It’s not too difficult to get in a clean them but eventually I wore the bearings down until the ball would only move in twitchy starts and stops. I tried all the online tips about petroleum jelly and hair oil, but nothing worked. I gave up on the Logitech because I had developed shooting pains through my elbow, wrist, and fingers.

Kensington Expert Trackball Mouse

Image result for kensington expert



Next up was a Kensington Expert Trackball mouse. This is a substantial device with a cue-ball sized ball placed in the middle. There are four user-programmable buttons placed symmetrically in quadrants around the central ball. Surrounding the socket is a rotating ring that’s used to control scroll functions.   I thought the larger ball would give my thumb a rest because I could control the whole ball with my fingertips. The huge buttons seemed like they’d help as well. Right out of the box I found that I needed to re-arrange the programmed settings. The scroll wheel worked exactly the opposite direction of what I expected. Since the mouse has an angled base, the two buttons on the lower side are actually more useful as your “left” and “right” mouse clicks. Using the top left or right button requires raising your arm to clear the ball which isn’t convenient or comfortable if you’re doing it often. The mouse comes with a removable wrist support pad which didn’t work for me.  I found the ball moved smoothly and it “whipped” across the screen more easily than the smaller Logitech. The scroll ring/wheel was a disappointment. New out of the box, the scroll wheel had a very soft feeling detent. The size and arrangement of the ring required a finger and a thumb to move it around most of the time. Within two months scroll ring had become gritty, and caused jerky page movements. I found some advice online that suggested removing the magnet that causes the “detent”.  Please note that this requires disassembling the device which almost certainly voids any manufacturer warranty.   Even without the magnet, the scroll wheel was gritty to the extent that it was a constant struggle to stop and start a scroll.   I tried several different lubricants to smooth the wheel, but nothing worked. The size of that ball coupled with the angled face of the mouse made it easy to unintentionally move the cursor when returning from the keyboard. No matter where I placed it in relation to my keyboard, it just wasn’t possible to make an easy transition between the two. I continued to have pain in my right arm and fingers, this just wasn’t the mouse for me.

3D Connexion Space Navigator

Estimating tools; Computer Mice

This time I decided to look well and truly outside of the normal mouse offerings. I found an incredibly promising option in the 3D Connexion Space Navigator. It looks like a stubby joystick on a heavy aluminum base. This mouse was developed for Architects and Engineers working in 3D CAD programs. According to the company, it’s meant to be used in the left hand with a traditional mouse in the right. There are four axes of movement along with a left and right button on the base. At the time I found a forum post where someone said they’d downloaded a driver that allowed it to be used like the famous/infamous IBM pointing stick. I gave it a shot and ordered it. First off, the quality of the product is simply outstanding. Absolutely everything about it was awesome.

Out of the box it worked perfectly with Google Earth, and it’s absolutely amazing how quickly you learn to “fly” through the 3-D landscape. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the driver from the forum post and I am not a software programmer. When I contacted the company, they were adamant that they didn’t intend for their mouse to be used outside of 3D applications. So I had little choice but to return it. It’s a terrible shame because it would be a game changer for digital estimating. Imagine lifting or pushing down on the stick to control zoom while scrolling right or left! The best part about this device is how it uses analog force measurements to taper the speed of the cursor movement. You don’t have to choose between fast or accurate, and you don’t have to apply much effort to make things happen.

Sungwoo 2.4GHz Wireless Optical Pen Mouse

Sungwoo® 2.4GHz Wireless Optical Pen Mouse Adjustable 500/1000DPI Handwriting Smart Mouse for PC Laptop iMac Android Tablet (Black)

Desperate for solution I was online and found a completely different direction. The Sungwoo pen mouse is like a pen with an optical mouse at the tip. In use you simply move the tip along your desk and the buttons are mounted along the top and left sides (for a right-handed person). This mouse was surprising because it was VERY easy to digitize with. The left and right buttons took a little getting used to but soon became natural. The scroll wheel is just behind the “left” mouse button and it’s controlled with the index finger. You can lift the “pen” tip off your desk so that the cursor stays put while you operate the buttons or scroll wheel. It’s lightweight and intuitive to use but I couldn’t transition to my keyboard without a struggle. Setting the mouse down often caused the cursor to jump, and it’s simply too big to hold while trying to type. It came with a little stand that can be used to “park” the pen in an upright position. While it’s possible to slide the pen and stand around, the high-profile of the mouse means it gets knocked over when you’re back and forth to the keyboard. It did reduce my arm, wrist, and finger pain. It’s a shame that it didn’t work out.

Logitech Performance MX

After years of trying to find the perfect mouse I found something that looked promising, but it was terribly expensive (more on that later). That got me thinking that I hadn’t really tried using a traditional mouse in a while. After surveying the offerings at a local office supply store, I settled on the Logitech Performance MX mouse.  This mouse has a top-mounted switch which allows the scroll wheel to change from detent, to free-wheeling.  There are back and forward buttons as well as a Zoom  button.  In OST, the Zoom button shifts the cursor to zoom mode just like holding the control button down.  Rolling the scroll wheel adjusts the zoom until you press the zoom button again. There’s a “hidden” button inside the thumb well which engages a “task switcher” which pulls up minimized widows of all running programs.  One feature I had strong hopes for was the side-scrolling wheel.  By tipping the scroll wheel left and right, the display scrolls left or right accordingly.  Unfortunately, OST doesn’t recognize this control, and the limited range of side-to-side motion meant the side scrolling wasn’t too useful in other programs either.  The screen motion is so slow and imprecise that it’s less effort to simply grab a display window slider. It must be said that this is a very good traditional mouse. In fact it’s my backup mouse. Unfortunately all the reasons that traditional mice fall short for digital estimating apply to this mouse as well.  I found myself struggling to maintain my typical production simply because the traditional mouse takes so much extra movement to achieve the same outcome.  I tried all of the DPI settings and optimization controls.  I tried to stick it out in hopes that the repetitive stress pain would ease. Unfortunately, it just didn’t help.

The best by far

Earlier I alluded to a promising solution that was very expensive. The Contour Design Roller Mouse Red is a profound departure from everything I’d tried before. The RollerMouse is used below your keyboard and it features a rubber-covered roller that also slides left and right. It’s used just like a trackball. You just roll and/or slide the roller wherever you want to go. Pushing down on the roller gives you a left click, however the RollerMouse also has dedicated left, right, and double buttons. This means that you can operate the mouse with either or both hands. There is a central and separate wheel for scroll which is blessedly wide which again, allows operation with either hand. In addition to the other buttons, the RollerMouse has dedicated copy, and paste buttons. The DPI, click volume, and click force settings are all user adjustable.   The scroll wheel can be pressed for “middle” button or the user can swap the “double” function button for “middle”.

I initially tried to use the RollerMouse with my (no antiquated) Microsoft Wireless Comfort keyboard which has a wavelike ergonomic shape. This wasn’t ideal because the curved profile at the bottom edge of the keyboard pushed the RollerMouse away from the keys. I found I had to constantly slide my arms forward to type and it wasn’t very comfortable. It was pretty clear that I needed a straight keyboard. I switched over to a Logitech K360 which is a compact design. This allowed me to keep the 10 key numeric pad while using the built-in wrist support of the RollerMouse. I could seamlessly transition from keyboard to mouse without moving my right arm left or right which solved my pain problems. Not only is it more comfortable, it’s profoundly faster. I can complete my takeoffs with much less movement and far greater precision. The star of the show is the roller but I have to say that I’m stunned at how helpful the dedicated copy, paste, and, double, buttons are.

Image result for rollermouse red images

I use On Center’s OST for my digital takeoffs and I’ve found that if you’re accustomed to pulling the copy and paste command out of the right-click menu, the program can be onerous. You can’t simply select items to be copied without keeping the cursor on top of one of the selected items. This sounds petty until you realize just how precise this requirement is when you’re zoomed out. The most common time to copy and paste takeoffs is when you’re looking at “big picture” repetitions.

I should mention that it’s entirely possible to copy and paste using the timeworn control+C and control+V commands, however it’s much faster to simply tap the mouse button than to do a two key command.

The RollerMouse scroll wheel is an excellent example of what I think a scroll wheel should be. There are no detents but the program “steps” an adjustable number of lines in text programs. The wheel has enough resistance to allow precision, but it’s free enough to whip across a page. It has a “middle” button but I don’t use it much because auto scrolling just hasn’t been useful to me.

The roller itself is capable of great precision but it takes a little getting used to. One trick is to wedge your finger between the roller and the keyboard to offer a little resistance to nullify any wobble. I’ve found that I use two hands very often and it’s particularly nice to be able to mouse left-handed when you’ve got a bunch of numeric entry. I use the roller as left click about as often as the dedicated left button. Using the roller to left click works perfectly in most circumstances but it’s possible to roll up or down just a little before the click. If I’m working on a particularly precise measurement, it’s wonderful to be able to click without disturbing the cursor alignment. I can often use my right hand for the cursor control and my left for the button. This gives me great precision and speed.Image result for rollermouse red images

The RollerMouse Red is made of Aluminum and it’s very solidly made. The top edge of the mouse has continuous slots to accept “risers” which are rubber coated pieces that go under your keyboard. They can be configured to adjust the tilt and height of the keyboard relative to the roller mouse. The risers also keep the keyboard from sliding away from the mouse. The fit between the RollerMouse and the Logitech K360 is just about perfect. It’s a petty point, but the keyboard and mouse look like they were built for one another. Initially I was concerned that I’d bump the mouse while typing. The wrist pad shape on the RollerMouse gives me enough support that nothing is touching the roller when my hands are on the keyboard. It’s a balancing act that RollerMouse has managed to execute perfectly.

At this point I’ve had the RollerMouse for a year and haven’t had any major issues with it. I have noticed that my PC fails to acknowledge it after hibernating, but that seems to be a problem with the PC rather than the RollerMouse. I downloaded a driver from Comfort Design which helped with the hibernating problem but now I can’t adjust the click force or volume. Thankfully they’re both set where I like them, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m working on a five-year old PC and it’s possible these issues will be resolved when it’s replaced.

One thing I was curious about was what happens when the roller is slid all the way to one extreme. My cursor will cross the entire width of the screen when the roller is slid about one and a half inches. Anything beyond that stalls the cursor at the edge of the screen until you slide back to center. One half rotation of the roller brings the cursor from top to bottom so it’s not like you’re cranking on it to move around. Again, this is all based on my individual settings with my specific machine. As they say; your mileage may vary.

I paid just under $265.00 for my RollerMouse which is the most expensive mouse I’ve ever bought. However my hunt for a workable solution involved five different mice, spanned nearly three years, and involved a few trips to the doctor’s office for the arm pain. I can honestly say that I wish I’d spent the money earlier. Good tools make all the difference.


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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved


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


The real obstacles to successful bidding

May you live in interesting times” – Chinese curse.

We do live in interesting times. Technological advances have made it possible to communicate faster allowing more to be done in less time. Estimating in particular has benefited from software programs seeking to provide faster measurements, more accurate materials pricing, and so forth. Most Architects are using Computer Aided Design (CAD) at a minimum. Many have moved to Building Information Modeling (BIM) which further expands their capabilities. More can be done with less.

clean lines

“This efficient design gives you clean lines and a place to lie down when your air runs out.

The curse of the lowest common denominator

Despite these awesome innovations, a simple poll of the industry will show that problems our ancestors struggled with are still with us. Technology, innovation, and horsepower have yet to overcome one simple concept; much of society performs to the lowest acceptable standard. Whether it be price, project duration, code requirements, laws, or professional standards, standards tend to define minimums rather than ideals.

In the manufacturing industry there’s a failure mode described as “tolerance stack-up” which is when all the associated parts are made to extremes of their individual tolerance range. When all the parts come together, the whole assembly fails as a result. This happens in construction estimating as well.

For example: Many projects are put out to bid with incomplete drawings, a short deadline, and a limited budget. The lack of information raises the risk of the project. Limited time to develop an accurate estimate raises risk as well. High risk reduces profitability, so prices are raised to restore balance. The risk stacks up, driving the price which often exceeds the clients budget.  

Backing up a bit, we might ask why the minimums fall short of preventing avoidable problems. I believe it really comes down to how individual professionals choose to balance their efforts against what they believe are the current performance standards (minimums) of their profession.   Incomplete plans are common on projects with a client who’s short on time and money. Design professionals may forgo site visits and investigation into as-built drawings to keep their costs competitive for low-budget clients.


Drones for remote architect site inspection still have a ways to go.

Incomplete plans in this situation are a function of design professionals balancing professionalism against economic pressures.

The final cost of a cheap (but incomplete) design is hard to prove because competitive bidding is assumed to prove market value. The market consensus on a high-risk job is not the same as the going rate for similar work. Clients can’t be expected to initially realize the impacts of short-changing the design when there’s no mechanism to prove the difference. Architects can’t be expected to turn away paying clients when work is scarce. General Contractors (GC’s) can’t be expected to hit the clients meager budget when the plans are incomplete.

Technology will not solve this problem because it’s not about abilities, it’s about choices. Perspective and professionalism would go a long way towards removing these obstacles. I’m often struck by how simple the solution is to these stubborn problems.


Design professionals know what steps are necessary to produce a complete design. If the client wants to skip steps to save money, they don’t get complete work. Admitting this truth starts with plan labeling.

Design professionals with incomplete plans marked “100% build documents” are rightfully criticized.

If critical information is missing because the client wouldn’t pay for it, the plans should be labeled for the percentage of work they did pay for. Clients should not be lead to believe that 100% designs come at 50% prices. If that were possible, it would imply that the service is over-priced, or the work isn’t complete.

It’s unprofessional and unethical to expect GCs to assume the liability for the intended (but intentionally incomplete) project scope.

in the air

“The design is up in the air,  you’ll need to get under it before we release anything.”

GC’s who enable this falsehood are rewarded with a new normal of incomplete plans and reduced profitability.

Do you know what pros who don’t know do?

Good Architects could reduce the project risk of incomplete designs by stipulating budgetary allowances for unresolved items. Even a simple listing of details the design team knows are missing would be an enormous step in the right direction. Just like burying something critical in an obscure note, the “scavenger hunt” mentality builds distrust and animosity over critically important information. Incredible amounts of time and energy are expended looking for information that isn’t there.

GCs who choose to bid on these incomplete plans could categorize all undefined, missing, and erroneous information into an incomplete design contingency line item. This is the conceptual sum-total of not paying for a full design. This is not an indictment of the Architect, and it shouldn’t be presented as such. GCs are not in a position to know what the Architect was paid to do. It behooves them to make charitable and respectful assumptions of the Architect while remaining truthful about the state of the plans.


“Erik, I see what you’re looking at but I really think somethings missing here…”

Depending on the situation, it may be wise for GCs to choose not to bid. Clients competitively bidding their project with half-finished plans, short bid deadlines, and impossible start dates are obviously not real opportunities. GCs could cite the plan development percentage as reason for declining to bid. Bids are not free. Bidding a false flag project just to assuage client anxiety, or to avoid upsetting an Architect consumes enormous amounts of time, energy, and money from the market.

By extension, these GCs could reasonably expect the same actions of their subcontractors (subs). Stopping the madness of (over)pricing incomplete designs would benefit everyone.

Compensation in the form of negotiated agreements, or paying for design assist services are reasonable alternatives the client could consider when their project fails to attract market attention.


“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

The real obstacle to successful bidding isn’t recognizing that the system has flaws, it’s recognizing how your flaws impact the system. Clients should not expect minimum design to render maximum project value. Architects should not leverage their position as gatekeeper of job opportunities to force GCs to bid incomplete designs. GCs should be honest and forthright about development discrepancies. Playing politics to protect the incomplete design from criticism while overpricing the project serves to encourage these ruinous practices for everyone.

Think it through

Here are four truths we should all be able to agree upon:

  • Nobody’s work is free.
  • Risk is expensive
  • Time is money
  • You get more of whatever you encourage
  • In you’re not aiming at your target, you’re missing

The real obstacles to successful bidding/business come wherever professionals act in contravention to these truths. Pretending that business pressures excuse deliberate choices to short-change professionalism will inevitably lead to higher costs, lower quality, and market constriction for everyone.

In college management course I recall how the professors stressed that there were many different ways to handle business problems. While I can’t prove this to be false, I can say that giving professionals a chance to be honest and forthright will work a certain percentage of the time. As to the rest, I’ve found that working with dishonest people tends to give you lots of opportunities to hone your management skills!

My advice is to avoid them since their motivations are guided by malice.


It won’t stop their sinking, but taking shots at you warms the water…

Philosophically speaking, life is like a path. If we live according to tolerances with the aim of meeting minimums, we’re rewarded with insecure footing on a dark and narrow precipice. In contrast, if we live according to targeted beliefs, we’re rewarded with wide open lanes which reveal more of what’s to come.

The obstacles on that path aren’t about logistics, data sets, or market trends. The real obstacles are the choices we make knowing they’re wrong. Simple answers often demand hard choices. Ask yourself if professionals fifty years from now will still face these obstacles or if this is the generation that removed them for good.


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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved