Tag Archives: Estimating process

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


Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

The plans are on the street, now what?

Once the Invitation to bid (ITB) is drafted, and sent to every subcontractor on your bid list, you’re free to pursue the other work that piled up. The more your internal systems are built to output an accurate ITB and an optimal bid-list, the more these tasks will depend on a thorough review of the Construction Documents (CD’s). By having an ITB template that requires answers to the most common bidder questions, you’ll be able to focus your review of the Request For Proposal (RFP) and Construction Documents (CDs). Be advised that defining which trades you need to invite isn’t necessarily a quick process.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

“Sure you’re doing six things at once, but could you go a bit faster?”

A specialty trade or a really small scope of work may be required via a single note in the drawings. It may be a better choice to get the ITB out to the obvious trades, than to hold everything until you’ve scoured the plans for a buried specialty vendor.

An absolutely pivotal concept of reliable estimating is knowing that time is more valuable earlier than later.

You get more out of the early minute than the final hour.

Learning you need to fix a “hole” in your estimate one hour to deadline means you’ve got 60 minutes to get a viable bid together. Until that problem is solved, the idea of winning takes a back seat to the risk of submitting an incomplete bid!   In comparison, an estimator who found just 20 minutes three weeks earlier could have addressed all the issues completely.

I’ve been in the war room in the final hour when we discovered that nobody had invited an entire trade of subcontractors! Until we found a sub with a complete bid, we had only our historical pricing to go on. If we bid and won using our historical pricing, we took a risk that subcontractor proposals would be substantially higher than what we carried. Given the great value of that scope of work, our exposure threatened the success of entire job.   We were in such a hurry with the bid letting software that a single trade was left out.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

Even with the satellite, Dave couldn’t make the connection…

Nobody found time to verify the invite list in the intervening weeks. Don’t let it happen to you.

Series of sweeps

It’s really simplistic to assume that estimating is a function of counting, pricing, and totaling. The efforts that make the difference between winning and losing are rarely attributed to punctilious spreadsheets. Broadly speaking, a GC estimator needs to conduct a series of sequential sweeps through the CD’s looking for four basic criteria.

Sub sweep

Getting the ITB on the street required the first sweep of the CD’s to determine who needs to be invited, and what information they’ll need to get started.

Scope sweep

This is where the estimator gets a handle on what’s supposed to happen in the project. Estimators must pay particular attention to where scopes of work overlap between design consultants. Architects are famous for not telling their engineering consultants about an alternate request, and engineering consultants are famous for not sharing requirements that should be included in another consultants documents. For example, an electrically operated smoke damper which is shown on the mechanical plans, but not on the electrical. Estimators must review plans looking for where trades will overlap on scope. If the plans aren’t clear on who does what, it’s the estimators job to provide direction to all concerned. Leaving this to chance on bid-day ends up with double-ups or holes. The scope sweep should enable the estimator to roughly define how much work there is for each trade. Any trade with an especially small scope of work should be noted for a mandatory follow-up with a trusted sub. The same goes for sub-tier subs like Fire Alarm, Pavement striping, HVAC Controls, Coring/Drilling, Imaging, etc. I call these “ghost trades” because they’re never clearly visible, but they’ll haunt your bid if you ignore them!

Error Sweep

After two sweeps of the plans, the odds are good that you’ve already come up with some questions for the design team. The goal isn’t to pick the plans apart, so much as it is to resolve issues that are likely to impact the bid. CD’s often fall short of defining vital project information like site logistics, alternates and phasing. Getting these questions into Request For Information (RFI) format early in the process gives the design team more time to answer which may in turn allow you more time to communicate the answer to your bidders.

Strategy Sweep

There are lots of GC estimators out there whose entire strategy is to simply rely on subcontractor bids to deliver their victories. This flawed approach hinges on two fallacies. The first fallacy is that there’s something magical about their company that makes subs want to give them better prices.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

You can howl, but then you’re singing along!

The second fallacy is that all subs are bidding all jobs at all times. By inviting everyone, they feel sure that the market leaders will send them a bid. This “strategy” is successful only when there’s no real competition.

Estimating is about controlling risk. If it were possible to simply add everything up and arrive at an accurate price the industry would use cashiers instead of estimators. Risk and how it’s controlled is how a plan becomes an opportunity. A lot of estimators get hung up on risk as a one-sided concept. I hear a lot of GC estimators looking to press project risk onto their subcontractors. Poorly defined scope, misleading diagrams, or counter-intuitive specifications are all treated like it’s the subcontractors problem. These GC’s fail to understand that the uncontrolled risk raises subcontractor prices, making the GC noncompetitive. It’s of pivotal importance for a GC estimator to understand that winning bids is a function of reducing risk for everyone.

Taking responsibility for sorting this out is how a GC estimator can set themselves apart from the field and thereby attract the market leaders. It’s pivotally important to understand that this is a proactive measure administered fairly to all involved parties. Bid directives are an effective means to mass-communicate a plan of action but they can be easily shared with your competitors. I recommend using bid directives to provide clear and accountable leadership that your competitors would shirk. Strategies should be treated as confidential information, and communicated accordingly.

Very few jobs will present an opportunity for a single overarching strategy to secure a victory. That being said, if you can’t find any advantage, you won’t likely land a job. Very often the greatest advantage a GC will have is due to an existing relationship with market leading subs. In that case, picking work that’s best suited to the top performers becomes the GC’s strategy for success.

Measuring time!

Finally, we’ve reached the point where most folks believe the real estimating begins; the quantity take off (QTO). I’ve written about software technology for estimating before. There have been notable advancements in how estimators tasks are completed, like computerized QTO. For example, it’s now possible to measure, count, and color the plans without the printed plans, scale, paper, calculators and pencils. While that’s a huge advancement, most of these proprietary programs lack the logical “polish” of standard business programs. These programs offer an exponential increase in the speed of QTO’s provided the estimators learn their idiosyncrasies.

Whether you’re using a digital system or manual takeoffs, there are some aspects of reliable estimating that never change.

“One pass” takeoff

After all the effort to define which Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Masterformat divisions pertain to your project, it’s tempting to conduct the QTO in “CSI order”. Lots of estimators will begin their takeoffs with Division 2 Sitework and skim through the plans looking for anything that pertains to that division. Unfortunately there are often solitary notes pertaining to a small scope of work that’s unique from everything else shown on the page. This means that the estimator skimming for a specific CSI division will ignore that solitary note figuring that they’ll get it when they sweep for that division. When the note is on a particularly unlikely sheet, it’s often forgotten. Later, when their Project Manager comes down the hall complaining about how they missed something, that note will be very familiar.

I advocate what I call the “one pass” takeoff. I make sure that absolutely everything depicted, noted, or specified on the page be taken off before I go to the next page. If you’re doing manual takeoffs, this means you’ll have to start a CSI division sheet for each division as they present themselves. It’s a lot of shuffling to record your measurements, and the sheets tend to look less tidy from the many edits. This is still worth the effort since it not only catches the one-note traps, I’ve found it’s actually faster than repeated skimming.

Knowing where to stop is as important as knowing when to stop

Unless the job is fairly small, chances are good that your QTO’s will be interrupted or at least spread across several days. Estimators should understand that co-workers have no comprehension of how much focus it takes to complete some takeoffs.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

I’m…gonna need a moment here…

Something as simple as the height of a concrete stem-wall may require calculations based on information scattered across several sheets. It’s therefore good practice to write (or type) notes on the plans providing the necessary information where it would actually do you some good. General items like area and perimeter measurements for each room can prove incredibly helpful since a myriad of takeoffs are based on these two pieces of information. By leaving a record of basic measurements, you’re able to pick up where you left off with minimal wind-up.

I would also recommend that your day’s work be paused at a meaningful and reliable point. Stopping mid-way through a sheet is sure to keep you up worrying about what you missed. Choose to either stop early or work late in order to leave yourself a clear conscience.

Before you begin an intense take-off, consider your schedule and the day’s obligations. It’s unwise to get a half-baked start on something complicated right before a meeting. One of the advantages of the one-pass takeoff method is that you don’t have to do the sheets in order. If you’ve got a limited amount of time before an appointment, pick a sheet you can complete. Estimators must accurately track and predict how long each element of a QTO will take. The fastest QTO’s are the ones that aren’t interrupted, however estimating is about more than take offs. Getting interrupted at an inopportune time is part of the job.

Three round review

Checking for errors is the best way to catch them but how you go about it can greatly increase your reliability. Huge data sets and tiny differences can stymie even the most dedicated review. The key to catching errors is to structure your workflow around meaningful review points. The simplest problems are most easily caught earlier in the process. Breaking the QTO down, this begins at the page level. Before moving to the next page in the plans, the estimator should review everything they took off on that sheet. The minute detail is fresh in your memory, and transposition errors are more easily spotted. The vast majority of errors are caught at this level.

The next round of review is when tallying a division as a GC, or a major component as a sub. The errors found at this level tend to be more dramatic because you’re moving the contributions of several plan sheets. A flooring subcontractor might take a moment after tallying the carpet and the tile measurements to see if the relative difference they’re seeing aligns with what they’d expect. These order of magnitude comparisons can tell you if you’re missing an individual room or an entire floor.

The third round of review is after the QTO’s have been entered into the estimate. Does the estimated cost outcome align with the division level review? By using the earlier reviews as benchmarks to compare against, the subsequent reviews become more reliable.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

You could say the process leaves a mark on you…

I would strongly caution an estimator against more frequent reviews of their work because reviews without benchmarks are little more than skimming plans looking for stuff to add. After a person has looked at the same information a few hundred times, their ability to recognize new information diminishes. You have to be able to trust your work by testing it at intervals that allow you to know if you’re right or wrong.

Taking notes

An awful lot of estimating comes down to judgment when dealing with uncertainty. It’s not fair, but an estimators judgment is often criticized after the uncertainty is removed. People don’t care that you had a good reason for your decision, they only care about the outcome of your decision. It’s therefore absolutely critical to develop the habit of clarifying, stipulating, and excluding anything that requires judgment on the proposal. Effective proposals define with minute clarity what is driving the uncertainty. For that, you’ll need to take notes of where you found the problem. Keep in mind that as an estimator, your work is laying the foundation for the Project Manager’s efforts. Everyone needs to know where the tricky bits are located. Plus if you’re expected to present your estimates for review at your company, it’s good to be able to provide references for all the hard decisions you made.

Schedule slip

As mentioned earlier, interruptions at inopportune times are part of the job. I’ve had multi-million dollar estimates interrupted at the last moment over questions on a $50.00 change order! Estimating is about controlling risk even within the estimating process. Plainly speaking, an estimator must not only predict how long a QTO will take on a piecemeal basis, they must also be capable of plotting a path to recovery when they’ve been derailed. It’s at this point that many, many, “old-school” estimators just plan on spending the night. I believe that most estimators could substantially improve their quality of life by committing themselves to solving schedule problems with overtime as a means of last-resort.

Schedule recovery may involve many approaches ranging from additional workers, to less detailed takeoffs. Estimators should consider the value and the risk associated with each scope of work they’re taking off. A perfect paint takeoff can take a considerable amount of time, yet the paint scope is relatively inexpensive when compared to plumbing. Since the paint scope is relatively inexpensive, the relative risk of an imperfect takeoff is quite low unless you can’t attract more than one painting bid. Estimators should always prioritize on high value, and high risk scopes of work. As a GC estimator, knowing which direction to go between similar bids on bid-day is why you’re doing the takeoff. Continuing with the paint example, a pressed-for-time estimator might shift to a square foot cost for the paint scope followed by a list of scope inclusions that painters might miss. Providing sufficient information to scope sub bids is FAR more important than knowing the precise square footage of Paint color 1.

Lots of GC’s have a team of people working on an estimate. If you’re heading up the effort you will need to think on your feet when people call in sick, show up late, or otherwise drop the ball. Project Engineers are frequently “loaned out” to help in estimating, however they are rarely relieved of their normal responsibilities. Many will prioritize their ongoing projects at the cost of your time-sensitive estimate simply because they don’t work for the estimator. Lead estimators must provide and enforce deadlines for every task. Never give a helper sufficient time to squander your recovery. It’s better to check on them too much, than to find they’ve dug you a deeper hole.

Estimators who are working with interns, Project Engineers, etc. should make a special effort to simplify and compartmentalize the tasks they are delegating. Estimators are used to thinking in terms of length, area, and volume measurements, however these terms can quickly overwhelm someone who’s facing their first takeoff. Estimators should understand that “standard” units for takeoffs are arbitrary to a newcomer. For example carpet is measured by the square yard, yet ceramic tile is measure by the square foot. Taking the time to explain that there are nine square feet per square yard can make the difference between a useful takeoff and a mess that nobody understands.

And for goodness sake, if you’re having people do this work without a digitizer, or on-screen takeoff system, then at least give them a courtesy lesson on how to measure areas that aren’t squares or rectangles! While we’re at it, teach them to use decimal feet in lieu of inches! For some reason, this rather obvious point is overlooked in most construction education.

Addenda of mass distraction

Many architects will respond to bidder questions via an addendum before the deadline. Projects and professionalism will vary which means that GC estimators will have anywhere from over a week to only a few hours to incorporate changes made via the addendum. This practice is easily the single most stressful aspect of professional construction estimating because unclear, misleading, and outright contradictory information is often presented without sufficient time to get clarification. Estimators should note that shoddy plans, municipal or “public work” clients, and last-minute addenda are constant companions.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

The architect finds last minute changes to be the most fashionable…

The absolute #1 priority is to get that information disseminated to the bidders as soon as possible. The second priority is to provide the necessary leadership and communication to ensure your bid-team isn’t derailed by the Addendum.

As a start, every Addendum should be scoured for changes to the deadline, proposal format, etc. Everything that goes to the bid-team should have the most current deadline printed where it’s easily seen. Wherever possible, notify bidders when an Addendum has little or no impact on their scope. If the Addendum ONLY affects the GC’s, don’t bother the subs with needless panic-inducing addenda.

If your Request For Information (RFI) was answered in the Addendum, you might reference whether the Architect response is consistent with your earlier bid-directives. The better your direction, the lower the risk your subs will face. Lower risk leads to lower prices, this is where the truly professional estimator earns their keep. If you do your best to get in front of issues, you may be rewarded with an addendum that confirms all of your bid-directives which means your subs are the only ones who don’t have last-minute changes.

Preparing for the blitz

Bid day is a real test of your skills, knowledge, tools, endurance, and patience. The better part of victory is preparation. Heading into bid-day you’ll need several critical elements in place. First and foremost, you’ll need your estimate “built” which is to say that your QTO has been imported or entered into your template form and prepared to accept subcontractor proposals. You should have a reasonable estimate of every trades worth, and a decent idea of what the final cost will be. Second, you’ll need your bid packet, which is all the completed forms identified in the Request For Proposal (RFP). Generally, this is the proposal itself, a CSI breakdown, a construction schedule, bond, etc. Everything should be as ready as possible for the bid-runner to deliver.

Third, you’ll need the “bid tab” or “scope sheets”. These are the scope of work as broken down in the estimate in anticipation of how the subs will bid. The scope of work is generally listed in rows, and a series of columns are made for subcontractor comparison. As the subcontractor proposal is compared against each row, the item is either checked as included, marked for follow-up, or an allowance is inserted. Once all the columns are filled for a given sub, their tally is calculated at the bottom and the subs are ranked by price lowest to highest for entry into the estimate.

I should mention that every Alternate that affects the given scope of work should be built into the scope sheet. Poorly defined Alternates can wreak havoc on bid-day. It’s important to know what to expect.

Estimators with plenty of time often export their bid-tab as a checklist which they have their subs fill out, endorse and return. This helps to prevent the “gotcha” nonsense that comes with indecipherable inclusions, exclusions, and clarifications on subcontractor forms.

Projects with special requirements for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) participation should be tracked in real-time in the estimate. Allowing for “what-if” strategy is a crucial tool to making timely decisions. Very rarely will MBE companies be the lowest bidders, so it becomes a balancing act to meet participation goals, without undue cost.

As you head into the final hour, all of your hard work preceding the bid will be paying off. Be sure to “close the loop” with everything you’ve learned on this estimate by tying your estimate tracking to your bid results. An awful lot of an estimators daily struggle comes down to reconciling the big picture against today’s efforts.

Reliable Estimating Part 2 Building momentum!

Winning profitable work is the estimators constant goal.  Very little has more influence on your ability to win than choosing the right opportunities. Everything is an opportunity to people lacking perspective. Estimators must take it upon themselves to provide not only estimates for projects they’ve bid, but perspective on the market in which they compete. It’s vitally important to show your work in much the same way as an estimate validates the proposal amount.

Reliable estimating practices not only improve bidding, they enable decision-making.


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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved


Principles of Estimating

“So…how do you figure out how much it’ll cost?”

There’s a lot to it but everything builds on one concept; estimating is about systematically getting closer to the answer.  The most simplistic method is bounding the answer.  By defining the range that contains your answer, you’ve reduced the problem.  The next step is to determine what you need to know to reduce that range further.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, asking yourself what you don’t need to know can be very helpful.  The idea is to reduce uncertainty by systematically answering questions that divide the range sort of like playing “I spy”. For example: a client asks for conceptual pricing on an office remodel.  The number of occupants and what paint colors they’d choose are irrelevant.  The square footage of the space won’t change in a simple remodel and the cost of paint isn’t typically driven by color choice.

Right off the top it’s important to understand that it’s very hard to remove all uncertainty.  Better design, or past-project similarity can help to reduce the uncertainty but some will always remain.  I like to think that estimating is actually about controlling risk rather than pricing stuff.  There are lots of ways to arrive at a price – heck you might even win a competitive bid by throwing darts at numbers.  But here’s the thing that makes the estimating mindset different from an Entrepreneur.  It’s never the job that you lose that puts you out of business, it’s the job you win.  Look at it this way, the total bid amount is the company’s minimum risk for not completing the job.  That risk goes down as the project reaches milestones, and only goes away entirely after the warranty period.  All the projects a company has underway have risk which added together amounts to running risk.  More than one company has had to drop everything to jump on a project that was going badly.  That can make every job suffer which is why it’s important for someone to be thinking about this at the bid stage.  Every time I think about the risk to reward ratio in the construction market, my respect for the entrepreneurial spirit grows.

Principles of Estimating

Especially the cat washing contractors…


So how do you reduce risk?  As a bidder there are several approaches.  The most common is to define what is included and what is excluded from your bid.  Contract parlance refers to these as inclusions, and exclusions which appear on the bid proposal.  These can range from standards like “daytime working hours”, to more project specific details like “excluding carpet on floor two”. Remember they’re called “General Contractors” instead of “Builders” for a reason!

Another way to reduce uncertainty is to put part of the work out to bid. Things go out to bid for several reasons.  The first and most obvious is to use market competition to keep the price down.  A  less obvious reason is to reduce risk.  Let’s say that three subcontractors bid on a project.  The two low bidders are 3% apart.  If you win the bid with the low bidder amount and later learn they’re missing something huge, or they back out, you can hire the 2nd low for 3% more which makes your minimum risk 3% for that trade.

A good principle of business is to have a policy of “the record is always on”.  Anything you put in writing, you should expect to be saved and used later.   The subcontractor bids will have inclusions and exclusions on them.  Comparing them against each other is very illuminating.  It won’t take long to see that exclusions are the embodiment of the expression “The devils in the details“!  I’ll get more into reading bids which is called “Bid scoping” in a later post.

For now, it’s important to see that risk is contained by knowing the spread (difference between bids), and  knowing the differences in the exclusions.  Sometimes the high bidder picked up on something significant that the competition didn’t which spells disaster if you’d hired the low bidder.  Remember to call your clients attention to anything you’ve included that was tricky to see, or understand.  For example: the plans may show something is existing that you find missing during your job walk.

It’s a terrific illusion that the construction documents will provide enough information to know every quantity, every time.  In the commercial construction world, the owners and architects expect the estimator to “make reasonable assumptions” often based on “standard means and methods” when a design fails to cover something.  The consequence of these expectations is the practice of stating assumptions via inclusions and exclusions on the bid form or proposal letter. Control risk by clearly defining what you are and are not including in your scope of work.

This brings us to the Estimators Paradox which is:

When you win you worry about what you overlooked, but when you lose, you worry it’s because of something you shouldn’t have included.

Next I’d like to cover a few principles of effective estimating.  It’s hard work to count and measure everything on a project.  Conceptual or budgetary efforts for a client or an Architect are “free” services that consume valuable resources.  Many times historical data, allowances and minimal research will provide adequate accuracy for the purpose.  Having Subcontractors price conceptual work should be studiously avoided whenever possible.  Every bid should be retained for use as historical pricing.  I’ll get more into how to track your files to make this easier in a later post.

Historical pricing is only as useful as your records, and your efforts to improve on what you’ve learned.  At the General Contracting level there is a tremendous range of acceptable detail  for estimating measurements called Quantity Take offs.  (QTO).  In my experience, a more detailed QTO is a more useful QTO provided the detail exists on the plans.  For example, If the plans resolution is to the nearest foot, there is no advantage to QTO’s carried to the nearest inch.  While on the topic of inches, it bears mentioning to those inclined to the metric system that a decimal foot is a far more useful system for QTO’s i.e.twelve feet, six inches would be notated as 12.5′.  No accuracy is lost and the spreadsheets are immensely simplified.

Measurements alone are not useful without showing how they relate to cost.  I’ll provide some simple template ideas in a future post.  Speaking of units, the unit of measurement for materials aren’t always obvious.  For example carpet is measured by the square yard whereas floor tile is measured by the square foot.  The “RS MEANS” series of books will provide valuable insight into both the units of measure, and what ballpark price to use.  There are other similar resources, but I’m most familiar with RS Means.  Beware of trusting one source implicitly.  There are many factors that must be adjusted to reflect the exact situation you’re facing.  Anything that strives to be all things to all people fails on both fronts.  Get used to the idea that you’ll have to use multiple references to check accuracy.


.Principles of Estimating


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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved