Tag Archives: estimating program

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


Software technology for estimating

Construction Management encountered a bit of an educational boom in recent years with everyone from four-year universities to local community colleges filling the airwaves with advertisements for the new “High tech, fast-paced” world of construction management.

While it’s certainly true that some companies make an effort to stay on top of technology the reality is that the vast majority in the construction industry do not hold a degree. The “school of hard knocks” remains the primary educator for the rank and file. Not that I’m picking on them. The construction industry is somewhat anachronistic in that it’s still fairly common for a person to start as a laborer and work their way up to leadership. People who’ve earned their status tend to respect what’s learned through hands-on experience. There’s a natural urge to keep what works, so in some ways innovation is slow.


Modern Dinosaurs

Technology firms focused on the construction industry have a split in their demographics. The bulk of the existing leadership is composed of elderly professionals who appreciate operational familiarity with legacy programs. The small remainders are typically younger professionals looking for an edge in the market. Lacking a long history with existing programs, these folks are open to learning to use whatever software they’ll need.

We all know how to use a road.

Take a moment and consider how homogenized the computer experience has become over the last twenty years. Everything from websites to spreadsheets will jump to the next value if you press “Tab”. Left mouse clicks select, double left mouse clicks open in just about every application. Navigating unfamiliar programs is MUCH less frustrating because we don’t have to think about these little details.

Except in this industry.

Inexplicably, popular estimating programs will not tab to the next obvious insertion point. Spell-check and formatting options are bafflingly missing in Project Management software that generates RFI’s, Memos, Change Orders, and Payment applications that get submitted to clients and architects. Copying a file may result in a pop-up window telling you it’s done without opening the copy or the original. Often otherwise identical insertion windows will wait until you’ve entered considerable data before a pop-up window informs you everything was deleted because no job was selected.

It’s common for programs to have incredibly counter-intuitive command names and sub-options. This is likely due to proprietary naming conventions. But I believe there’s another, much more frustrating reason.

Programs for the construction industry are written by and for people who have never used a program that was streamlined for the construction management user.


“You know who you are”

Over time, the firms making these programs have added features here and there which are trumpeted in advertisements as improvements. The obsession with legacy layout has resulted in programs that are very frustrating to use. For example, one very popular project management program has job reports separated under upwards of five different sub-headings. It’s not possible to go to “reports” and find everything you’d need. Instead you’re forced to navigate through menu’s primarily used for data entry.

Dumb defaults

Above and beyond these arbitrary obstacles, the programs “default logic” is genuinely irritating. Getting a report to print often requires as many as twenty different operations to select dates, printer settings, and so forth. 99.999% of the time you just want it print the current report from the start of the job to today! Somehow it’s never an option to “save” all those keystrokes into a single operation.

Users are not permitted to alter menu structure or interface to improve workflow. I was at a training seminar for the most popular electrical estimating program in my area when I asked the instructor why the program wouldn’t allow me to tab to the next insertion point and partially type the variable I wanted to search for.

The instructor appeared genuinely shocked that anyone would want a $3,000 program to be quick to use. “I guess there are some things that could be a little better” was the instructors reply. Antiquated input structure slows the users down at the worst possible time. This program goes back nearly 20 years and boy, you can tell!

Quantity Take Off systems

Estimating software’s are often referred to as Quantity Take Off (QTO) programs. Older systems utilized a digitizer for data entry whereas most of the newer systems import plan files and digitize the measurements on the computer screen. Digitizing, is correlating the represented image to a scaled value linked in to your QTO and potentially your pricing system. Rather than fussing around with scales, calculators and graph paper, you can lay down a linear takeoff on the computer screen. The program will automatically calculate the real length, and link that measurement to a takeoff value such as “base molding”. Most QTO systems operate entirely on-screen allowing the plans and the takeoffs to be visible at the same time. These systems don’t require plan printing AT ALL which is not only less wasteful, but it’s also MUCH faster because you’re not constantly waiting on a plotter or print shop to deliver.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss old-school digitizers. Generally they were a large fixture or mat placed on a plan table onto which the drawings were physically secured. Using a stylus or digitizing mouse, the plans were traced with the measurements being correlated by scale and input designation. Digitizers were particularly useful for earth-work take offs where the existing and proposed elevation contours could be traced as separate layered conditions that were interpolated into a wire frame model depicting the site cuts, fills, paving, foundations, and so forth.

In use they were cumbersome because if the page moved, the entire plan had to be benchmarked again. The estimator had to mark the plans wherever a measurement had been taken to ensure it wasn’t doubled up. The data entry was difficult for frequently interrupted measurements because the digitizer is huge, and there was rarely a convenient place for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse near the plans. If there was an addendum that replaced a sheet of your takeoff, it was nearly impossible to successfully edit all the affected layers of a takeoff. Ergonomically, these systems resulted in some very long days for the estimator.


Some of the older systems were a bit odd to say the least…

Going to the big screen

Today most QTO programs that will import a plan file and allow takeoffs using the computer’s monitor, mouse, and keyboard. Some proprietary systems utilize a touch-screen tablet as well. I would heartily recommend the computer based systems over the traditional digitizer or the hoary old manual measurement methods.

There are a few things to consider. First off, plans are more or less standardized according to Architectural paper sizes. The two most common are D and E1. “Arch D” measures 24″ x 36″ (610mm x 914mm) and “Arch E1″ measures 30″ x 42″ (762mm x 1067mm).

Arch D is the more common of the two for general construction, however large buildings or those drawn by Architects with especially quirky eyeglasses go with Arch E1.

Arch D is 6 square feet, and Arch E1 is 8.5 square feet per page. Most reasonably sized monitors will display 2-3 square feet maximum. A goodly portion of which is consumed by the program that actually does the measurements. This means that a plan displayed at full size in a software window will reveal less than 30% off the total surface area of the plan. The most common scale is 1/8″per foot which means a 6″ wall is depicted at 1/16” thick at full size (100% zoom).

Ramp the zoom

In order to get anything done, you’ll have to get used to one of the most frustrating aspects of software oversight I’ve ever seen. The plan area is huge relative to the window through which you’re working. This means that the plans are either zoomed-in such that you can’t see areas immediately adjacent to what you’re looking at, or you’re zoomed-out such that you can’t see any detail. I call it “ramping the zoom” because you’re zooming in to start a measurement, then zooming out so you can cross the plan area faster, then zooming back in for the “landing”. I know of one program that offers a “magnify” hot-key that pops up a magnified window at your cursor when it’s pressed but leaves the page zoom level alone.

Key notes are often listed on plan margins, in a small font, in ALL-CAPS, in huge blocks of text that may not actually list left to right, top to bottom. It’s a gigantic pain in the rear to go define a key-note and return to what you were doing because it’s invariably across the sheet, and never where you’d expect it to be. Few if any systems have a “go back” function allowing you to return to the display settings and area of your last measurement.

Traversing the plans

Since the plan area is so large relative to the displayed area, it’s a constant necessity to scroll vertically and horizontally. Some programs default to “right-click = grab” which means you click (and hold) to “grab” the page which then moves with your mouse. Other programs use the mouse roller in combination with Shift or Control to scroll horizontally or vertically. It can take a lot of “getting used to” learning how to smoothly navigate the page. The “grab” is less difficult to operate but some mice have “smooth-rolling” scroll wheels that you can spin quickly to smoothly cross the page.

Most systems employ an “overview window” which shows a very small image of the plan with a boxed shadow depicting the viewing window’s boundary relative to the sheet. You can grab the box and move what’s displayed in the viewing window without changing the zoom setting. This tends to be very coarse and difficult to employ making them pretty useless.

Every system I’ve used had selectable cursors with defined functions. A “grab” is different from a “takeoff tool”, which is different from a “zoom” tool. These are generally located on toolbars at the margins of the working window. One of the market leaders inexplicably doesn’t allow keyboard shortcuts to switch to all of the cursor functions. This means you’re forced to mouse all the way to the top of the page to get to toggle between functions you CONSTANTLY change. It’s a huge waste of time.   These programs already require the keyboard to operate some functions, oh how I wish they would allow users to set up hot keys!


Submitted without comment

So what do you do?

One costly option is a large monitor. Larger monitors can display more working area of the plan for any given level of zoom. Time spent ramping the zoom just to continue a measurement is greatly reduced. Bear in mind that larger monitors really benefit from a good video card. “Big but blurry”, isn’t helpful. It’s worth mentioning that system requirements for these programs aren’t very stringent but minimum level systems will slow down towards the end of a particularly complex and lengthy takeoff. Losing your productivity at the last hour is extremely stressful.

Everyone’s going to have their preferences but I’ve found that a great deal of QTO program setbacks can at least be mitigated by using a track ball mouse. I can whip the cursor across the screen with one motion rather than being forced to wipe the mouse across a pad several times. The sensitivity settings on mice will always be a frustrating compromise with QTO systems because you’ll really need precision control and rapid movement. The trackball accomplishes this pretty well. Every QTO program I’ve used required some degree of numerical data entry on lots of individual takeoffs. The cursor stay’s put while you move back and forth to the numeric keypad. If you do use a standard mouse, I recommend you buy a premium quality one. A mouse that would work fine for most applications will force you to pick between speed and accuracy. A job with miles of measurements will take its toll on you in short order.

If there are any hardware developers out there, I have a suggestion for you. Take the “3D mice” that architects and engineers use for 3D CAD/ CAM programs and re-program them to be used as analog joystick mice. The multi-axis control could be used to control several functions simultaneously on QTO programs. Being able to zoom out, while traversing the sheet with an ongoing take-off measurement would allow “cross the building” measurements like main trunk lines without all the tedium or repetitive stress injuries.

Menu madness

Another aspect of QTO programs is a preoccupation with staggeringly long menus of parts, assemblies, or whatever the programmer named them. For example an interior wall in a commercial building might have 3-5/8″ metal studs 10′ tall 16″ on center, with 1/2″ gypsum wall board on both sides finished to level 3.

It makes sense that this is just one option among literally thousands of possible configurations. Most plans will include a wall type schedule listing only those that are used on the job. For the sake of example, let’s say there’s five shown.

QTO programs tend to be built around menus that list every possible option for a given assembly type. That means that an estimator in this example would only use five out of maybe 2,000 options which are all presented in a truncated form alongside one another. Typically this list is buried in a sub-folder, within a directory, and so forth. Everything is a list of lists!

It would be substantially less difficult to set up the program to ask sorting questions of the estimator to present a shortened list of available options. Allowing the estimator to define and name the five options so they match the plans and allow for quicker repeated access would cut the time spent scrolling through 2,000 item lists. In the same way that a traveler packs clothes appropriate to their destination, so too should the estimator be allowed to make a shorter list of parts they intend to use for each job. Some programs can import styles or preset lists to help with this. It’s worth taking the time to cull the list to what works for you. Still it’s a shame that the “default” is so dim-witted.


No sir, she’s not built for speed…”

One easily overlooked aspect of QTO systems is information management. Plans come into the program in any one of dozens of file formats. Most programs must convert the plan files to TIFF format to work. The original file, and the new TIFF files must be stored somewhere. Some programs will allocate memory space on the system/network for these files, others will allow the user to select each one individually. Be careful because it’s very common for companies to track projects in Estimating in different file locations from projects in Project Management. Moving files from one folder to another may prevent the QTO program from working and copying them to both locations consumes too much space.

QTO programs that are tied to pricing programs often must import/export between the programs. Job numbers, file locations, dates, times, and job names must be identical to work.  It’s therefore impressive how rarely the defaults are set to prevent errors!

Estimating systems

Estimating or pricing programs are much older than QTO systems. Most estimating programs feature some means of importing current material pricing. Ranging from general to trade level specialization, these systems can provide a benchmark for labor productivity and commodity level material pricing. Specialized items are priced via the distributor chain. Being older, estimating programs are very prone to “legacy layouts” that often look and feel like something out of the 1990’s. Some popular project management programs include an estimating function. Project Management programs are a specialization of accounting software. As a result it’s built to automatically save anything that’s entered. Anything you change is changed immediately and forever. “Undo” is still being touted as a “new innovation”! If you want to conduct a “what-if” scenario with an estimating program, you’d better be sure of what you’re doing. Often it’s easier to just copy the job and futz with the copy so the “original” is still there for you to return to.

Updated pricing

“Automatic daily updates of all your commodity pricing” sounds great but there are many defaults that work against this notion. For example, it makes sense that once your deadline has passed, your price should remain “frozen”, i.e. not continually updating. When you create a new job, there will be some means of identifying the bid deadline. On many systems this will default to the current date and time. That means the pricing is frozen at the start.

The deadline spiral

You might have a quick bid that you put together in an hour. No big deal that the pricing is frozen right? WRONG! Some “automatic” updates will automatically connect to a server, download all the current pricing, then WAIT TO UPDATE until a job is created that’s not frozen. That means that as long as you’re doing quick-hitter bids, none of the system material pricing will update!

But wait, there’s more! Let’s say you create a new job in a hurry and forget to enter the deadline that’s a week away. If you go back and edit that setting you’d think you are in the clear. NOPE! Often in a sub-menu option there will be a check box for “freeze pricing after deadline”. If you create a job with frozen pricing, it stays frozen until you uncheck that box AND set the bid date for the future.

So surely it’ll update now?…Right?!?”

Sadly, no. Once a job has been “frozen” its ignored by the updating function. You’ll now have to work your way through the intricate menus regarding imported material pricing and specifically force the program to update the job you just created. Now, finally the estimate will use the updated material pricing. Just don’t forget to re-check the “freeze pricing after deadlinebox! This entire spiral of madness exists for two reasons. First, the program doesn’t default to updating material pricing for every new job. Second, the “freeze pricing after deadline” check box is needlessly pedantic. It’s understood that pricing freezes after the deadline, so it’s counter-intuitive that changing the deadline fails to trigger the update. A pop-up screen warning of an impending update following a deadline edit would prevent any mistakes.

If an old job needs updated material pricing, it’s better to make a copy of the job set to the current date.

However your specific system works, you must verify that your jobs are working off the most current information. Some programs allow a user to search the material database. Pick something commonly used in your estimates and compare the database to what your job is listing. I’ve found that out-of-date material pricing can “stack up”, pushing your bid way off the mark.

Be advised that updates can be wrong. I’ve received “Emergency notification” from these services advising estimators that a mistake was discovered. I’ve also caught material pricing that was set to the wrong $/ unit magnitude. For example a part might be priced per each (E), per ten (D), per hundred (C), or per thousand (M). Most systems include a drop down list with E, D, C, and M. Updates can change the cost per unit magnitude. Imagine being wrong by three orders of magnitude! That’s a very serious problem I’ve encountered more than once.


“The stress eventually drove Rusty here to a life of crime.”

Patchwork leads to more work,- for you

Automation is often touted as an error-reducing technology. Programs that must import and export with one another are often “patched” via a set of concealed default conditions. In practice this means that anything the patch programmer interpreted differently than you do, will generate an unpredictable result.

Because estimating programs have the historical foothold on the market, “patched” QTO systems are generally hobbled to suit the estimating program’s limitations. A QTO system might be able to let the user modify far more parameters of a given “part” you’d use for a takeoff than the estimating system can support. The “patched’ duo is sold with those parameters helpfully disabled. Advances in QTO programs are often held back by antiquated estimating software. It’s not really possible to easily link independent programs without substantial programming capability. However most QTO and estimating systems will import/ export spreadsheet files. It may take some work, but it’s generally possible to get the two programs working by spreadsheet exchange.

New part = no part

Most programs allow for the user to create a one-time or temporary part. As is often the case, these are odd-ball items you’re trying to address. If the receiving program doesn’t know what that temporary part is, chances are good that it’ll go wrong. It’s absolutely critical that you “check the chute” to make sure that everything in the import/export stream made it from one side to the other unaltered.

Be advised that some patched programs will doggedly resist any efforts to alter the audit. Say you imported the job then noticed you were short one item. It’s an easy fix to add one more on the estimating program. If the takeoff program quantities differ from the estimating program quantities, some systems will badger you senseless.

This is particularly infuriating when a project comes in over-budget prompting the design team to “revise” their plans before demanding immediate pricing revisions. It might be perfectly obvious that you’re deleting this and adding that. Getting the system to quickly make those changes can be a needlessly difficult task. Two scope changes can result in upwards of fifteen separate operations just to stop the error messages from popping up.

In fact, it’s often easier to just create a “new job” that’s nothing more than the addition and subtraction of various line items. Be advised that it’s far from ideal to hand over an estimate with a stack of rag-tag modifications attached. Many Project Managers will insist on a “clean” estimate that reflects what they’re under contract to build. So “save time” at your own risk!


“Do this instead of that” sounds pretty simple but most estimating software is woefully equipped to get this right the first time. QTO systems range from pretty good to outright hostile to alternate pricing. Much of how it will behave hinges on how the data is compiled. Repeated conditions get tallied, that makes sense since it’d be annoying to have fifty measurements of the same carpet type rather than a total for all of it. If the system can’t/won’t delegate between base bid and alternate for each measurement, the alternate get’s thrown in with the base bid tally skewing everything.


Apartments and hotels often have repetitious floor plans where the designer will only detail a single example of each repeated plan. Some QTO systems are built without the capacity to define everything on a given plan as a multiple. I’ve struggled through 250 room nursing home takeoffs that took heroic efforts to work around this shortcoming. If you’re bidding multifamily work, don’t buy these programs. Most salesman are spectacularly unaware of how useless a program becomes when it can’t do basic math functions like these. In case you’re wondering, some estimating programs can multiply imported items. So while it is technically possible to calculate multiples, you’re going to be selecting these items down out of a long list of similar entries. Once a change is made it can be very difficult to be sure you’ve done it right. I would strenuously advise against this practice because it’s very slow and error prone.


Pictured: a slow and error prone approach


Overlays allow two plan pages to be displayed at the same time. Most commonly, overlays are used to compare different versions of the same plan as with Addenda or ASI’s. Comparative overlays generally color new blue, and existing red. Anything that perfectly aligns is purple indicating no change. It’s possible to catch Design teams that don’t/won’t bubble changes to their revisions using overlays. That being said, it’s an imperfect solution. If the plan is moved within the space on the page, it’s no longer possible to align everything at the same time. Overlays work one page at a time, so addenda that replace every sheet means you’ll be overlaying every sheet individually. The old-school addenda method of putting changes on “sketches” formatted to a 8-1/2″ x11″ page so they could be faxed is a constant source of misery. Overlaying multiple sheets, with different orientations, and scales is barely possible with some systems. In fact some programs only allow a single overlay at a time. Comparing more than one set of changes is a multistage process.

Subtle changes to scale, alignment, and orientation all require constant fiddling while staring at a blurry purple screen. Design teams with several addenda, will often remove earlier bubbling which adds to the discrepancies you must sort through in the overlay. Text changes within schedules will be illegible in the overlay. Sadly this advance in technology has been greeted with enthusiasm by irresponsible design teams who see it as an opportunity to avoid writing a narrative of their changes. Often these teams simply replace the entire plan set regardless of whether changes were made to every sheet. Lacking bubbling, the estimators are obligated to long hours of eye strain trying to figure out what happened. General Contractors can and should demand design-team narratives of changes to uphold professional integrity.

Updates, upgrades, marketing and mischief

I once had a QTO program that after some intensive setup was working really, really well. After a year or so, the program was sold to a different company who announced that a new and improved version was coming out. Emails listing all the new features were very exciting. Compatibility with popular tablets, phones, and programs were touted and many promises to smoother functioning were made.

Long story short, the upgrades caused problems which were patched, causing further problems eventually reaching a point where about 10% of the plan sets I had to bid on wouldn’t import into the program. Their software developer told me directly that it was a marketing decision to hold off on providing the desperately needed fixes until they’d worked out their newest upgrade which made them compatible with Apple computers for the first time.

To those marketing folks, there’s no “selling point” to software that just works. The priority was having some new feature to advertise. Everything was about upgrade launch dates followed by inevitable patches to fix whatever was broken. If there weren’t enough people clamoring for help with a problem, it didn’t get fixed.


They would consider this a lifetime parking upgrade

I still receive about five emails a year from them informing me that they’ve decided to put another one of my suggestions into development for future upgrades! Sadly the “make it work as advertised” suggestion remains unaccounted for.   It’s been years since I worked with that system, it had great potential and terrible ownership.


Just about every legitimate estimating software supplier will include free training and a free trial of their program. In my experience, the free trial was a limited “viewer” version of the real program. In other words, it wasn’t possible to actually complete an estimate but you could see a bunch of unresponsive icons and menu screens. Several firms create a “user database” of video tutorials that provide instruction on how the various parts work. The video’s are great provided you do things EXACTLY as depicted. Few of these tutorials spend much time explaining why you’d check a certain setting. Misleading option names, and unfamiliar layout leaves a user desperate to understand why it won’t just do what it’s told.

The salesperson will recommend you spend some time watching the video tutorials and puttering around with the software before your training session. In my experience, the “trainer” will get on the phone with you, link up to your computer and conduct a “mock estimate” that’s literally identical to the training videos. I found myself asking more advanced questions of the trainer, and they never knew the answer.

Tech Support

It can be very frustrating to wait on hold knowing you’re just getting further behind schedule. The key is to understand that tech support is WAY more qualified to answer user questions than the sales and marketing team. Once they’ve solved your main problem, take the opportunity to ask questions to learn more about the program. These folks teach really well because they can usually log onto your machine and literally point you in the right direction.

If you’re learning the system from a co-worker, be advised that typically they’ve worked out their way that works. Asking questions about un-used options may frustrate them.Lots of people have a “need to know” policy about all those options. If they don’t use them, they figure they don’t need to know what they control! I encourage you to be curious and thorough. Software may provide multiple paths to the same solution. Understanding how they all work allows you to find the most effective way.


Its sometimes possible to work around a programs shortcomings. For example if you’re using a Project Management program that doesn’t have normal text editing features, you can copy and paste text out of a word processing program into the Project Management text insertion windows.

Bill of Materials (BOM) are common requests and a complete nightmare to output with some QTO systems. However nearly all QTO systems feature an “Export to spreadsheet” function that you can then sort, cull, and print. Whenever you’re trying to “check the chute” to verify that the QTO program exported everything into the estimating program, it’s really handy to have a list of what was supposed to export to check against. Estimating programs will generate reports which consolidate the data making it difficult to see what might be missing. For example if your estimate program displays 1,000 feet of pipe, but your exported list tallies to 1,020 feet, you’d know to look through your export list looking for a 20 foot long measurement. Chances are excellent that will be the one that didn’t import properly. Plus most spreadsheet programs will “find” a keyword or number with a search function so you can quickly get to the entry that’s in question.


Check the scale. I’ve won at least two major projects because the scale was not correct on the drawing. Commercial doorways are 3′-0″ wide. Parking stalls are 9′-0″ x 18′-0″. If the plan scales different, you know there’s reason to be suspicious. Be advised that any plan developed by an Architects consultant is probably drawn on the Architect’s background drawings. So if the Mechanical floor plan is labeled at a different scale than the Architects floor plan of the same space, chances are good that one of them is wrong. Most commercial projects utilize similar scales for their plans. Architectural floor plans are often 1/8″ = 1 foot or 1/4″ = 1 foot.

Scales like 3/32″ = 1 foot and 3/16″ = 1 foot are really close to the “normal” scales, be very careful. Many QTO programs will crash if you try to change the scale AFTER doing a lot of measurements. Also check that your scale is correct vertically and horizontally. I caught on to a local printer who was mistakenly creating files that had different vertical and horizontal scales!

Define any alternate early on. It’s generally much less difficult to control where things end up when you define them at the start. Often alternates defined with the job can be imported/exported between programs much easier at the start than later on.

Import the alternates last. Estimating programs have an audit display showing all the imported data. Most will default into order of entry. By leaving the alternates to last, you can jump to the bottom of what can be a REALLY long list. Having everything for an alternate in the same place reduces the confusion and searching when the deadline is looming.

QTO programs will display your takeoffs on the plans. “If it’s colored, it’s counted” is their credo. Depending on display settings; the icons, line weights, and numeric references, can obscure a great deal of the plan.   It’s entirely possible to take off a wall section on a plan view and lose sight of a window you should have counted. Unless you provide a means to “turn off” the wall QTO, you won’t notice when you’re missing something. Conversely, if you don’t have a means to only display windows, it’s harder to notice one missing. Some programs have check-boxes next to QTO items allowing users to turn them on or off. Other programs require QTO items to be categorized in “layers” which can be turned on or off. Going along counting a repetitive item it’s easy to miss just one. If those items are the only ones lit, it’s much easier to verify by symmetry, function, and overall layout.

deft touch

It takes a deft touch…

Auto count, the incompetent tool.

QTO program salesman love to tout their cutting edge auto-counting tool.  It’s supposed to reduce the drudgery and knock out QTO’s like clockwork.  They are uniformly terrible in my experience.  If a salesman offers to demonstrate this tool, make sure they use your plans. Real project plans are much harder for these tools.

Copy and paste the indispensable option.

A much bigger deal is being able to copy and paste a slew of takeoffs.  Architects love symmetry so lots of elements in their designs are copy’s or mirror images.  Not every system CAN copy and paste.  Being able to rotate, invert, or flip a copy can finish a takeoff in a fraction of the time.  It’s a really big deal that nobody talks about.

Patterned workflow

If you’re using a separate QTO and Estimating program, you’ll benefit from a patterned workflow. Estimating programs will have a unique input format for each entry. Structure your QTO output to match the estimating programs format. It’s much less work to have the data in the order it’s asked for. Also, if your estimating system has separate menu’s for different assemblies, divide your QTO output accordingly. You might have noticed that I’m writing “QTO output” rather than QTO program. Exporting to a spreadsheet allows you to change the order of the items by sorting.

If you pay attention to how your QTO program exports, you might find that doing your takeoffs in a particular order helps smooth out the works. Smooth is fast, so focus on reliable techniques to improve your workflow. QTO programs will sometimes allow the user to select or define divisions, breakdowns, etc. You might find that you can sort the exported spreadsheet by these terms thereby reducing your labor to put everything in order.

QTO and estimating programs can be a great asset in the modern bid market. I’ve been able to consistently increase the quantity and quality of my bids year after year. I owe much of my increased productivity to QTO programs. These programs will NOT make you a better estimator, nor will they prevent you from making mistakes. Like everything in estimating, it’s about controlling risk. Automatic operations seek to avoid “human error” and to a great extent they do. Programs are only as good as their code. Eventually the system will do something unpredictable. Never forget that it’s your bid and your company that must accept the risk. Control the risk by checking on your programs frequently.


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