Tag Archives: QTO

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

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


Where do estimators get their prices?

This simple question is complicated because the answer depends on the application. Just as fruit comes from plants, it also comes from soil, water, and sunlight. The more specific the answer, the more it will involve larger, and more complex factors.

Pick any two; Fast, Complete, Cheap,

The way an estimator proceeds will be balance their client’s needs against their firms risk.

If a client wants a fast answer with no margin for error (complete), an estimator will reduce their risk by raising their prices, and padding their bids with contingencies. The bid-day price is high, but the client is relatively safe in assuming it won’t cost more than that amount.

If a client looking for fast and cheap pricing, should expect lots of exclusions on the proposals. Expensive and necessary items may not be included so client takes a risk in relying on this information.

Complete and cheap pricing only comes from a dedicated effort to find only what’s needed, and get the best pricing possible for it.

Balancing act

Estimators must weigh the likelihood of being awarded a profitable contract against the effort to price the work.

Where do estimators get their prices?

Artistic rendering of a conceptual bid

Conceptual or budgetary exercises are often done as courtesies to clients and architects. Historical pricing of past projects is the most useful resource for this work. Comparing the proposed project against past projects gives the estimator a project-level price comparison.

By taking each projects cost and dividing its square footage, an estimator can compare square foot costs across differently sized projects. Experienced estimators exercise great caution here because some costs are not proportional to the area.

For example, restrooms and kitchens are very cost intensive because they require the work of so many trades. A large and a small office might have the same number of restrooms and kitchens. The contributing cost of these rooms is spread over a higher square footage in the larger office.   This leads to a lower square foot cost than would be reasonable if the exact same finishes were used in a smaller office.

Estimators lacking historical data may refer to annual publications of cost data such as the RS Means books. There are reference books ranging from building use cost data, to trade-specific unit pricing. Every book includes adjustment tables meant to factor for regional cost variations, project size differences, and so forth. The important thing to understand about these resources, is that they’re national averages driven by audits of last year’s work.   It’s very precise for comparison, but not very accurate for bidding.

Accuracy versus precision

Accuracy and precision are not interchangeable terms. Accuracy is an approximation of how close a measurement system is to the subjects actual value.  Precision is an approximation of a measurement systems repeatability.

Where do estimators get their prices?

It turns out that Baxter is a precision instrument…

So to apply this to estimating, the contract is awarded to the lowest bidder. Any significant difference between low and second low benefits the client by driving down the project cost. Therefore estimators seek to just barely beat their competitors to maintain profitability. The degree to which an estimator is able to hit that mark is their accuracy. Winning a job with a 5% spread is substantially less accurate than a 2% spread.

Mistakes in the bid can easily make winning the project, a fate worse than losing. The estimators ability to reliably deliver an error-free bid is their precision. Successful estimators must be accurate and precise.

Think of it this way, you could theoretically win a profitable project by guessing on every bid until you were successful.   The win was not repeatable so the methodology is rarely accurate because it not precise.

Now if you come in within 3% of the low number on every bid, you know with 97% accuracy that your methodology is precise. Figure out how to cut 3% on the next bid and you’ll probably win.

Relevant detail in the big picture

Earlier I referred to the cost data books as precise for comparison but inaccurate for bidding. The market price for work is constantly changing according to prevailing economic forces. While each participant is a rule unto itself, as a collective, the market will follow fairly predictable trends.

Where do estimators get their prices?

Downward trends are easy to spot…

General Contractors (GCs) typically subcontract (sub) portions of the project scope. The GC writes a subcontract laying the responsibility to furnish and install whatever is stipulated for that scope on the sub in exchange for the subs proposal amount. The GC isn’t concerned with tracking the changing price of a wing-nut because they aren’t responsible for buying them, the sub is. GC estimators focus on quantifying scope items that will help define what to expect of their bidders. They use these expectations to scope the subcontractors proposals on bid day.

Professional subs in the skilled trades will conduct detailed estimates down to the literal counts of nuts and bolts. The advancement of computerized Quantity Take Off (QTO) systems has made it possible for subs to estimate with greater speed, precision, and accuracy than ever before.

It’s important to take a moment to point out that granularity does not correlate to accuracy or precision.   Square foot cost’s can be just as accurate and precise as a detailed estimate. What changes is the uncertainty. Detailed estimates allow minute changes to address uncertainty related to the smaller issue. In larger firms, estimators have their work checked by the department head who doesn’t have time to conduct their own detailed estimate to check the work. Instead, the totals for meaningful scope areas are compared on a square foot basis. Detailed estimates require great focus and attention to compose properly. Many estimators end up reviewing their work many times before it’s completed. By then the numbers become familiar and it becomes harder to see when something is wrong. Estimators who don’t have anyone to check their work are well advised to review old bids to improve their ability to identify square foot costs. Being able to switch perspective from micro to macro without losing accuracy or precision is a critical estimator skill.

Detailed estimates are used to reduce uncertainty within the bid. However the bid is only accurate and precise through the crucible of competition. Market value is typically provided by only the base bid amount. This crude metric must be interpolated to define how things added up to that number. The only things not subject to opinion, are the Construction documents, bid amount, and the square footage.


Market leaders set market prices. The only accurate estimate is the profitable win. Estimators who spend all their time looking for stuff to include aren’t considering what the market leaders are doing. Their common excuse is that the low bidders are giving the work away.   This excuse is rooted in the notion that market leaders get the same sub prices as everyone else. In fact, market leading subs may decide to only bid to the best GCs. GC estimators with stagnant bid-lists may go their entire career without ever seeing a market-leading subcontractor proposal.

Estimating is about controlling risk. Counting stuff and ringing up the tally is a cashier’s job. Estimating demands much more than tidy spreadsheets and vigorous accounting. Controlling risk requires judgment, strategy, communication, and relationships with market leaders. There are estimators who fall short on these factors and they lose a lot of bids.

It’s probably a let-down for some people to learn that there isn’t a set price for anything. Even if you’re self-performing the work and you know with great certainty exactly how much it should cost. The going rate may be more or less than the amount calculated due to the economic forces of the local market. The best we may do is to stay current on pricing to maintain an informed opinion.

Where do estimators get their prices?

It’s much easier said than done

Summing up, Estimators get their prices from their from a combination of QTO’s, estimate templates, subcontractor proposals, proprietary software systems, historical data, direct vendor quotes, market conditions, and brute-force accounting of what their company needs. All of which are constantly re-evaluated and adjusted to reflect market insights and field conditions. Every price is subject to change, so be wary of trusting any resource that promises otherwise.

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© Anton Takken 2015 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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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

Relative Detail

Plans offer an estimator an incredible level of detail to build the project in your mind.  Lots of people new to estimating feel that too much is better than too little which leads to thick stacks of measurements.

Take a moment and consider what’s really going on.  The client described their desired project to the design team .  The design team translated that project into construction documents.  Now the estimator is trying to translate the construction documents (CDs) and the project, into a competitive bid.

Just as the construction documents must be useful for more than attracting bids, so too must the estimate accurately convey the relevant project features for the build team to be successful.

What are you trying to achieve?

Breaking it down, the estimator needs to accomplish several tasks.  First off, the estimator will need to ensure adequate subcontractor coverage by determining what trades are necessary and which contractors are best suited to the project.

Second, the estimator needs to be prepared to scope subcontractor bids.  If only one subcontractor bid comes in on bid day, the estimator will need to compare bid inclusions against their own measurements.  Accurately priced measurements give a meaningful metric to determine if there are errors or omissions.

Third, sometimes things go wrong and it’s necessary to “plug” a cost into the estimate to cover something that none of the subcontractors included.  Depending on the value in question, this can be a mighty test of an estimators confidence in themselves.

Fourth, the take offs need to be flexibly done to provide accurate comparison data regardless of how the work is pieced together.  For example, a concrete foundation may have separate firms providing rebar, concrete, formwork, and placing labor.

Fifth, the estimate needs to provide the basic project structure for the build team to work with.   Complex and needlessly detailed estimates discourage the build team from relying on your work.  Any significant item you caught then buried in minutia will get missed by the build team.

Relative Detail

Guy’s…that’s not what green building means at all…

Again, the answer seems to be “more detail is better” since so much rides on this information.  In fact, the answer is to pull out MEANINGFUL detail.  Rebar and structural steel are priced by the ton, which means that there isn’t much pricing granularity.  Major assemblies need to lead the show, followed by a list of ancillary items that are easily overlooked.  A classic example in structural steel are embeds for masonry  connections.   Their weight won’t drive the cost but they will appear in the inclusions/exclusions sections of the proposals.  Oddball stuff like structural steel awnings should be broken out as well. Especially if there are requirements for specialized manufacturing-level coatings like anodizing, galvanizing, or ceramic coating.

Scale it back

There are certain trades where a high level of precision isn’t necessary because they are relatively inexpensive.  Paint is a good example, if you’re off by a couple of square feet, it’s not going to change much.  Painters don’t often list their square footages so it’s more important to touch on the areas by name or material.  Stuff like “conference room ceilings” will prove more useful than a square footage of all painted surfaces.  Takeoffs should be geared towards precisely measuring items that are likely to be overlooked by your bidders.  It should go without saying that anything self-performed should be measured and priced with precision commensurate to the value of the work involved.

Be cautious about what you’re spending your time measuring.  The Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing (MEP) trades can demand a very high level of knowledge to accurately price.  Unit costing fixtures and equipment can be very difficult because complex issues drive the cost.  Consider the MEP systems to be like the circulatory system in a body.  Cost centers will be around major organs and arteries so don’t spend your time measuring capillaries or counting hairs!

How much vs. how little

Speaking generally, the level of relative detail should be inversely proportional to the professionalism and directly proportional to the overall budget impact of the trade in question.

Relative Detail

Don’t let the fancy hat fool you – that guy’s a snake.

Material vendors like door hardware suppliers will be inclined to list out each individual hinge which implies that anything not listed is excluded.  This is a very unprofessional way to bid the job because you’re inundated with inclusions, and never alerted to exclusions.  If there isn’t much scope for the door guy, it’s not a big deal to really drill this down.  Whereas on a really big job, the door hardware supplier isn’t necessarily likely to influence you’re odds of winning or losing compared to trades like concrete, structural steel, HVAC, or electrical.

If there’s time, by all means get after the details but understand that pedantic spreadsheets don’t win bids.  It’s about having the tools on hand to aid your judgment on bid day.  Being “really sure” about a dimes difference is less useful than knowing when something looks to be a dollar off.  Quantity take offs for scope that you’re subcontracting should be optimized for reviewing subcontractor bids, not replacing them.  An awful lot of estimators forget that.

Too much of too little

At the opposite end of the spectrum  is the square foot methodology.  An example is “Plumbing: $8/ SF”  This is a “fair weather” method that’s only going to give you a single theoretical number to compare the subcontractors to.  Lots of bid-mill GC’s employ this tactic because there’s no time to be professional when there’s so many bids to crank out.  Square foot costing does have its place in conceptual bidding because it’s unethical to have subcontractors pricing work without compensation or intent to award.

Plus it’s more constructive and honest to tell a client’s design team that you know the market price of similar work runs $X amount than it is to pretend their conceptual design is definitely  going to cost $Y amount.  The design team should adhere to market norms of their own accord rather than treating the pricing exercise as a budget maximization process.

Balancing point

When the right balance of detail has been achieved you’ll find you are able to compare notes with subcontractors on the scope of work without having to extensively refer back to the plans.  It should be obvious that anything you’ve missed previously should be a point of special focus on your future estimates.  So too, should be any detailed inclusions that make it to some but not all of your subcontractor bids.  If the subs are commenting on it, there’s a reason for it and you should be verifying that everyone’s apples to apples.  With practice and experience you’ll quickly learn what’s necessary.  Keep in mind that some subcontractors just love to send hoary tomes of boilerplate legalese.  That certainly doesn’t make them more qualified.  Maintain perspective and use your best judgment before assuming any given subcontractor’s view of bidding is industry standard.

Depending on how the estimate is configured, the estimator may be able to output checklists for subcontractors to individually verify that they have everything.  These can be of great help to the build team since subcontractor proposals are often so committed to listing exclusions that it can be hard to say for certain what they’re actually promising to do.

Checkmate the dodgy bidder

Be advised that any error in the estimators checklists can be exploited so it’s often better to be more general with skilled trades, and more specific with unskilled trades.  Savvy estimators with time to spare scope the subcontractor bids first to tweak their checklists before sending them out.  The time saved by avoiding phone tag and laundry list scope readings with all the bidders can be impressive .  However this is not a recommended methodology for a highly competitive hard-bid situation.  The subcontractor bids often won’t come in early enough to allow time for that process before the deadline.

Some firms will send their checklists after the bid deadline when they have reason to believe they will be awarded the work.  Getting the subcontractors to answer “on the record” in simple, easy to read terms helps the PM to get subcontracts written without a lot of “gotcha” nonsense.  Bidders are a LOT more amicable about scope inclusions  before the contract is written than after.

Getting the show started

Circling back to some of the other objectives of an estimate we should touch on the subcontractor coverage.  Unless you’re bidding nearly identical projects, each project will have a unique subcontractor list.

The goal of an estimate at this point is to ensure there are no bid-day shortfalls in coverage.  This starts by defining who’s going to be involved.  Scaling the scope of work to the subcontractor is a good move because some projects will have a very minor amount of work for a subcontractor and it’s not always cost-effective to mobilize the “big dog’s” to take care of it.  Plus it keeps a more diverse subcontractor roster allowing your firm greater flexibility in terms of what you can bid profitably at market level pricing.

Softly spoken danger

If there are MEP drawings, chances are excellent that you’ll need an HVAC (Mechanical), Plumbing and Electrical sub.  Be advised that on plans lacking these sections, they may be necessary to “safe off” areas of demolition.  These hidden requirements fall to the bidders to figure out.  Interior design plans are often studded with key notes that require specialty materials in odd installations.  Catching these items early is critical to give yourself enough time to track down the correct supplier and/or installer.

For example; “artisanal glass”.  I’ve encountered some examples that were hundreds of dollars per square foot and the only indication on the plans was a single key-note on an elevation drawing of a doorway transom. Nearly $2,000 of material hung on that solitary key-note.  Keep in mind that “per typ.” means everything in that detail, note, or icon is a typical installation multiplied by however many locations the architect considers “typical”.  Designs with extensive shorthand can compound the effect of anything you missed.  Lazy notation should signal a need to slow down and be very detailed about what’s going on.

Disorganized design calls for detailed exclusions

Don’t forget the specifications.  I’ve written about FF&E packets before.  If your project has one, there’s a strong probability of design conflicts.  It’s really critical to be precise about what you are and are not including in your bid because these problems are never resolved prior to bid day.

With the possible exception of the door  hardware schedule, any time you see fixture or equipment schedules listed in the specifications, you should announce their existence to the bidders.

Speaking of specifications, lots of projects use “canned” spec’s which means that the design team is re-using a very long and extensive specification manual.  They  include sections for materials, processes, and installations that aren’t part of the project.  Some estimators make the mistake of using the specification sections to determine their subcontractor list.  Canned specs end up as “false alarm” bid invitations and subcontractors get tired of following up with the GC to see if they missed something.  Learning that you didn’t bother to check the plans to see if there was anything for them to bid tells them you’re not checking facts.

Relative Detail

Not a good look.

Big money on little notes

While reviewing the specifications, take note of any material or vendor suppliers that are mandatory.  National accounts are fairly common on chain restaurants, stores, hotels, etc.  These stringent requirements are often thoughtfully buried in an easily overlooked note or midway through a lengthy specification section.  The cost implications can be huge and can greatly influence who will be bidding your work.

Sole specified vendors can become prima-donnas who expect the work to come to them.  You can’t expect these folks to announce themselves before the bid.  But rest assured, if you try to build without them they will spring from the sidelines to demand their contract.  They are never cheap because they don’t compete.

With the answer in hand, the perspective changes

Understand that no matter how difficult it is to determine that some specialized material, vendor, or subcontractor relationship exists, the build team will assume the perspective that you should have caught it.  Design teams often give a lot of thought to specialty materials so they’ll be quick to identify where they were shown on the CD’s. Asking why important details are so poorly conveyed is better muttered to yourself.  But I digress…

National accounts or sole specified vendors are typically more important to the client than the design team which may explain why these requirements lack prominence on the plans.  Maybe some day professionals will realize that C.Y.A. is a policy that ensures you’re always sitting on your hands when things go wrong for predictable reasons.  If you find this nonsense, make a point of calling everyone’s attention to it with Request For Information (RFI’s).

The sooner and more accurately you pull these specialized items to the forefront, the more likely you are to get complete and correct bids from your subs.  The build team will be spared unpleasant surprises as well.

Time is a finite resource

Astute readers will note that I’ve focused more on finding  hidden requirements than painstaking measurements.  Estimators for GC’s are looking to reduce the risk of a project by ensuring that the scope of work they’re planning to subcontract is complete.  Obsessively measuring obvious stuff that every bidder will include consumes a great deal of time that isn’t going towards discovering the little details that make one bidder more complete than another.  Just because you can do takeoffs at an impressive level of detail doesn’t mean that you should.  The goal is to profitably win work at an acceptable level of risk.  Risk isn’t controlled by pedantry, it’s controlled by thoughtful analysis of contributing factors.  If some factor doesn’t contribute, it’s not relevant.  It’s hard for some folks to accept but you don’t actually need to know everything to make the right calls.  You need the right information and enough time to act on it.  Prioritize your work accordingly and you’ll be successful.


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© Anton Takken 2014 all rights reserved