Tag Archives: Strategy

The market changed, what do I do?

The daily tasks of an estimator involve a lot of repetitive measurements, processes, and conversations.  For some, the estimators job is almost a ritual, complete with the enduring faith that “this time it’ll work”.  A losing streak  sends estimators in search of answers.  The most common conclusion is that the market has changed.  Ok, now what?  Sadly, many estimators figure they should do whatever they usually do just faster and cheaper.  If that sounds familiar, you probably know what comes next.

The Bid mill

Bidding more leads to winning less because there’s never any time to focus on the opportunities you could actually win.  High-speed cost-cutting generally comes down to lowering your personal, professional, ethical and moral standards.  Many of the most significant problems in our industry have roots in this practice.

Advancements in estimating technology are still in testing… 

Obviously this approach isn’t a solution to the problem.  Now what if I told you that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

Estimators have an image problem

On the surface, it seems pretty simple.  Estimators are supposed to win work.  When they don’t, it seems reasonable to focus on production.  After all, what else can you measure?

This is where estimating bites itself.  Everyone outside of estimating figures that the estimator should be able to “count stuff” and report back with a semi-obvious answer.  Another way to phrase this would be to say that an estimators credibility is directly tied to the generation of “charts and graphs”.

Summing up, estimators are perceived as process drones whose credibility is directly proportional to how much they prove their faith in the aforementioned processes.

Did you ever get the feeling that people just weren’t listening to you?  This is probably why.

OK, so everyone thinks we’re drones. What can I do about it?

Well, for starters we could consider the credibility of the information we are working with.  I typically check in with the trade publications for RealtorsArchitects and Contractors to see what’s going on at least once a month.  In my experience, the most accurate information is bad news which is typically reported in retrospect.  Construction trends track over time from Realtors to Architects to Contractors as clients move from speculation to occupancy.

The American Institute of Architecture’s past reports have suggested that an average commercial project takes a design firm six months to get to construction documents.  This is a particularly important factor to the construction estimator because downturns are bad news which aren’t prominently reported when they happen.  What I have found, are articles published months after the downturn began, predicting growth in comparison to the first month(s) of said downturn.  By the time an estimator is reading actual figures on the downturn, they have effectively lost six to nine months of prospects.  I’ve read Realtor reports indicating several months of stagnation on the very same day that contractor publications were predicting a boom.

From the estimators desk, none of these problematic trends will be visible until there’s suddenly a whole lot more competition for whatever is bidding.

We’ve got competition coming in HOT!

People in hard times tend to present their favorite excuses to explain what’s going on.  False conclusions will limit your options.

Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible that the aforementioned Realtor’s report and the contractor publications prediction will prove to be true.  That’s difficult to act upon without context which is why it’s important to track the trends from Real Estate, to Architecture, to Contractors over time.

You can’t plan without strategy

So everybody’s got a plan to trade work for money.  We like consistency so we tend to repeat whatever worked last time.  No matter what the break-room poster says, in most companies the “plan” is one part repetition, and several parts reaction.  The success of the plan is dutifully tracked in accounting, scheduling, signed change orders, etc.  Process is built around those metrics, bureaucracy happens, next thing you know, everyone is in meetings reporting on the metrics of the processes.

With thinking like this, it’s inevitable that market shifts will be a huge problem.

Priorities are the foundation of strategy

Estimators often overlook one of their most significant skills; prioritizing information.   Measuring stuff generates a lot of data points.  Some of it is really important, some isn’t.  There are often relationships between data points that pull out a unique circumstance that influences everything that follows.

For example, open to structure ceilings.  When the Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc. trades are all exposed to view, the installation will be more expensive.  HVAC return-air lines have to be ducted with attractive material, exposed electrical is generally required to be in costly conduit compared to inexpensive cable.  Structural supports for these systems have to be better-looking which takes more time and material.  In some cases, the total cost impact would exceed the price of a ceiling.

A savvy estimator anticipating a budget blowout might suggest adding an acoustical ceiling to save money.  This naturally leads to bargaining against the design intent.  “How much (or little) ceiling would it take to save money?”  That’s a tough question to answer for your competitors.  In this example, prioritizing cost-effective options gave the estimator a viable strategy to succeed.

Priorities should be defined, ranked, and consistent.  

I’ve encountered a lot of construction marketing that placed three words below the logo suggestive of priorities such as “Integrity, Excellence, Vision”.

Nobody working for such a business could prioritize integrity over excellence without guidance from whoever picked those words.

The estimator trying to fill in these gaps should start by doing something uncommon.  The estimator should determine what the company is actually good at.   In most of the companies I’ve worked for, the leadership overlooked the successful nature of boring, difficult, or small jobs.  Next, determine what makes them good at that work.

“Chris is a snazzy dresser but that’s not what makes him a good boy”

It may sound counter-intuitive but working from successful outcome to requisite priorities is a more productive approach.  If so, consider what you’re likely to get by asking why pure intentions and brute force were unsuccessful!

With clear priorities, the next step is ranking.  If every priority has equal standing, there’s no strategy beyond placation to whoever set the priorities. Consistent priorities encourage accountability because everyone is working with the same standards.  Inconsistent priorities are a major source of conflict between marketing and estimating.  Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.

Growing pains

In many companies, growth is a major priority.  A lot of contractors in a boom figure they can pay today’s bills with tomorrows growth.  When times get harder, there’s a huge push on estimating to “grow” into new markets as the old ones falter.

Much harm can be done in blind pursuit of a single priority.  It doesn’t get mentioned very often but the majority of contractors fail because of contract work they wonbut couldn’t complete. This happens in good times and bad.

Many firms find it’s relatively easy to land work in a boom so they simply add staff to pursue more contract work.  Every addition increases the overhead.  Most construction contracts include a retainage provision which withholds 10% of the contract total until the project is completely finished.  In most cases the contractors profit margin is below 10% which means that every active job is contributing to an overhead deficit for your firm.  An average commercial ground-up construction project has a six month duration. Which means…

We need more work to pay for all this overhead!

Now the firm will have to fund the retained portion of their overhead out of their earnings to date for the duration of each job.   Every job added to the ongoing work queue has the potential to magnify a cash-flow problem.  The smart way to proceed, is to increase the overhead on all bids going out during a boom, before additional staff are hired.

That includes interns

This leads to a lot more work for fewer people.  Growth is slower but it’s “paid for”.  So when the market changes (as it always does), the firm isn’t running a line of credit to fund cash-flow issues with overhead.  I’ve witnessed market downturn situations where firms that grew exponentially during a boom laid off entire estimating departments without notice.  One week they were hiring new people, the next they laid off 30 percent of the firm.  “Growth” is not a sustainable plan.

Strategy is neither a task, nor a goal.

Earlier I outlined how an estimator could determine the priorities that guided their firms through and to their most successful projects.  Seasoned estimators with a lot of successful bids would call this “good judgment” or “wisdom”.  These estimators have incredibly valuable insights to share but as I mentioned before, their credibility is often tied to a pile of charts and graphs.  In many firms, wisdom and judgment are downgraded to opinion which is dismissed when some shiny thing captures leaderships attention.

I thought I had a lot of things worked out until I actually did the priority development for the companies I worked for.  I made a lot of surprising discoveries.  For example, the single most definitive feature of a successful project that was visible from the estimators position was client honesty.  The second was client competence. Opportunities that resembled our bread and butter work came in third.

I suspect a lot of estimators reading this figured an honest or competent client would go into the nice to have category, well behind important stuff like contract value, duration, or proximity.

This is where we unlock the real value of strategy.  Mindlessly chasing whatever is worth the right amount, at a convenient time, within range of your business isn’t a strategy, it’s a  reactionary plan that’s very likely shared among all of your competitors.  That means that every ideal job will have increased competition pushing profitability down.  We don’t have equal odds of winning bids.  That’s a loathsome myth ranking up there with “free estimates“.  There is no sense in shooting at stuff you can’t hit.  There’s even less sense in winning work that threatens your company’s survival.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake ”

Napoleon Bonaparte

With the right priorities, the real opportunities become clear.  Chasing the ugly little project that’s out-of-town might well be the very best strategy for your firm.  The goal is to be successful.  Estimators need to link their credibility to results rather than reports.

So what do you do when the market has changed?

The plan starts with credibility.  No amount of busy-work will offset a plan built on misinformation.  Estimators need to see market trends before they arrive.  Major trends should chart through related industry publications over time.  Think about what these trends will mean to each industry.  Follow up to see what actually happens in your market.  How these trends actually affect your situation is what matters.

Figure out the priorities that lead to successful work.  Make sure the priorities are visible from the estimators position during the bid.  Work out the ranking, and lock them in so everyone involved is pulling in the same direction.

Apply these priorities to what’s available on the market in the context of oncoming trends.  This is where strategies form.  Patience, courage, credibility and commitment will be tested. If this was easy, someone else would be in charge.  Learn from mistakes and do the best you can with what’s available right now.

“I’m just not sure the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence”

Above all, stay informed of oncoming trends.  Unpleasant (but critical) information is often delayed or downplayed which can leave little time for reaction.  Conversely, good news is reported immediately.  Keep in mind that positive changes in the market can take a long time to materialize at your level.

 

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© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Finding Mistakes

In a lot of businesses, estimating is a bothersome hang-up standing between an opportunity and a contract.  It can be painstaking and detailed work that has little resemblance to whatever the business actually does.  Making a mistake in the bid can have devastating consequences so it’s a pretty big deal to get things right.  The main problem is that there typically won’t be anything you can compare your bid against to spot if something went wrong.  For little stuff, it’s pretty easy to “see” the whole picture as a list of stuff adding to the total.

When things get more complex, the estimate can be several pages of fine print.

The bigger an estimate is, the more opportunities there are to make a mistake.  So how do we spot them?  Well a whole lot of estimators would tell you to just go looking for them.  That sounds good, but unless the mistake is fairly obvious, it won’t stand out as one entry in a list of hundreds (or thousands).  So now you’re combing through the spreadsheet looking for small deviations.  Maybe you’ll catch a few, maybe you’ll miss a few.  This is where estimators will tell you to do another review, in hopes the second dragnet will catch whatever you overlooked.  So, you start again with the fine-toothed comb, going over every entry.

By this point, you’ve probably seen everything in that estimate several times.  Anything you really analyzed has become familiar to the point where you’re memorizing figures. When people play a matching game, things only “look right” when the relationship they remember stays the same.  It’s happened to me, and I’ve basically gone “blind” to mistakes I was actually looking at.

Artistic rendering of an estimate under review.

 

If we checked in with estimators again, they’d probably tell you that they factor in a contingency to pay for mistakes they couldn’t find.  How much?  Well that really depends on how badly you intend to screw up doesn’t it?  With all that said, it’s probably not too surprising that there’s a lot of turnover in the estimating profession.

However, all is not lost.  For starters, I think it’s important to point out that wherever (mostly) normal people are working, emotions will factor into their behavior.  On the surface, estimating seems to be a strictly facts and figures profession.  People take the job and eventually the facts don’t meet the figures.  Then the estimator succumbs to the stress and seeks alternate employment.  That approach has some obvious problems.  Instead, what if we emotionally connect with the risks and the rewards?  See making a mistake is a risk, catching it is a reward.  That emotional and mental balance promotes agility, creativity, and confidence.

So how does that apply to finding a screw-up on page 6?

Well for starters, you have to connect with all the little things you’ve caught along the way.  Most of the time a little mistake gets swept aside as quickly as possible.  Maybe it seemed embarrassing, or trifling.  Take a second to consider what would have happened if you hadn’t caught it.  Chances are good that some of them would have been pretty serious.  The key here is to take this as a rallying point.

You just caught a costly mistake.  Maybe it was a decimal point, or a typo, or some other subtle detail that would have had big consequences.

Now you’re connecting an emotional reward with spotting subtle details.

Enjoy the moment.

You’re also learning to spot patterns in your work.  Consistently making a mistake you can correct is the long way around.  There’s no point in “rough drafts” that include pointless errors, so you’ll stop making most of them.  By being emotionally connected to your process, you’ll start looking where these errors are likely to hide.

Circling back to finding that mistake on page 6, we must understand that we’re not the sum of our mistakes.  Going looking for every mistake you’ve ever caught is going to doom you by experience.  I’ve been doing this for ten years.  I’ve caught thousands of mistakes in my estimates.  I once had a boss who wanted me to compose a binder listing every single mistake I’d ever found which was to be used as a “checklist” against all future work.  If every job was consistent enough that an item specific checklist was worthwhile, there would be no “estimating” involved.

Instead, I go through the estimate and I allow myself to reminisce about the processes that put each figure on that spreadsheet.  That keeps things familiar without mindlessly memorizing everything I see.  If you’ve ever reminisced about an experience, you’ve doubtlessly recalled thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes you’ll remember a thought, or a feeling that you hadn’t had in years.  As often as not, you’ll remember something tangential to the topic, like the scent of your favorite food when you reminisce about your childhood home.

It works the same way in estimating.  All those little successes in catching an error will suggest themselves as you’re reminiscing your way through today’s spreadsheet.

Bonus points if you look cool doing it!

Bystanders might see what I’ve done and attribute it to experience or painstaking diligence.  I can tell you that I’ve worked with some seriously intense people who had more experience than I do.  They work awfully hard to catch stuff that just pops out for me.

There are some downsides to my approach.  Perhaps the worst of which is that my approach requires sincerity.  You must genuinely feel a reward for finding a mistake.   People in general, and your employer in specific may tend to focus on mistakes as the source of all problems.  Tell your boss that you caught a huge mistake, and they’re likely to only hear that you’re a danger to the business.  It’s difficult to keep your chin up in these situations so you often must keep your own council.  That’s a whole lot harder than it sounds, especially when you’re working with/for insincere people.

Another downside is that it’s easy to get infatuated with your own inventions.  If any part of your process is faulty, no amount of massaging will offset that fact.  I’ve sunk lots of time into constructing elaborate error catching shortcuts that overlooked something critical.  Sometimes these shortcuts would work, other times they wouldn’t.  It was like an ambulance with a dodgy starter.

Every little thought that pops up as your reminiscing won’t be relevant.  People are capable of spotting patterns that don’t really exist.  Unless you’ve arrived at the cause of your mistake, you can’t celebrate catching it.  Playing it fast and loose with what you actually know is guessing, which is worse than being wrong because it’s irresponsible.  Again, everything here depends on sincerity.

It occurs to me that I know a lot of people I know might have read to this point and come up with an equivalency without realizing it.  See it’s super-common for people to think in terms of the proverbial carrot and stick.  Whatever incentive is proposed may be equally substituted with a sufficient punishment without affecting the desired outcome.  This may explain why so many employers cling to the notion that all estimating mistakes are perfectly obvious oversights.  To this way of thinking, an estimator should be motivated by fear of missing stuff.  There’s a huge, gaping hole in this logic.  They’re basing this assessment on omissions found in winning bids.   It’s anywhere from possible to probable that the entire reason you won the job was because of an “omission”.  Nobody (but the estimator) cares about the absolutely perfect estimate that lost the job.  This point of view encourages big contingency funds (sandbagging) which won’t win work in a tight market.

Finally, my approach has a fatal flaw for anyone who started out in a boom.  When it’s easy to win work, there’s less risk in being wrong so standards slip.  Everyone has to start somewhere, so if you’re starting in a boom, seek out an estimator who was successful during a down market.  If they’ll review your work, acknowledge each mistake as a discovery.  Challenge yourself to find them on your own and give yourself credit for improving when you find them.

Hopefully this approach will be as helpful to you as it has been for me.

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© Anton Takken 2018 all rights reserved


Power tool safety for estimators Part 2 : Headaches and Hard hats

In part 1, I touched on some of the dangers presented by estimating software along with some advice on how to work and bid safely.  In part 2, I will be looking into estimating hazards that are uniquely human.  A lot of frustrated and unsuccessful estimators get that way by overlooking human nature.  While estimating involves lots of facts and figures, we must keep in mind that we are working with, and working for, people.

Submitted without comment…

In my experience, people define organizational policies according to their outcome.  Bureaucracy generates lots of work that is peripheral to the task at hand.  In contrast, Leadership aligns people and resources with the task at hand.  Within the context of competitive bidding, effective leadership involves communicating expectations that are aligned with the interests of everyone involved.  This starts with considering the interests of parties outside of the estimators office.

The four P recipe

  • Perspective What do people expect to see? How does that compare with what they actually see?
  • Predict How could people do things differently than you might have planned?
  • Prepare What can you do to accommodate the inconsistencies, differences, and individual choices of others?
  • Perform How can you coordinate the interests of everyone involved to maximize your odds of delivering a successful outcome?

Schools, academies, and trade associations promoting “best practices” in estimating tend to put great emphasis on process uniformity, deference to design professionals and obsequious devotion to every client request.  While tidy spreadsheets and good manners are part of being a professional, they hardly define the estimators purpose.

Losing estimators are often telling me how they were “just doing their job” because “their hands were tied“.   While some contractors do micro-manage their estimators, this mindset is more common among estimators who prefer to believe their job security is a function of avoiding accountability. If they were making and communicating the right decisions, they’d win more profitable work which is why the job exists in the first place.  When a process interferes with your purpose, it won’t be the best practice to follow.

There is no more important safety rule than to wear your reading glasses

Estimates are used to compile and condense a great deal of information into a single number.  Even the spreadsheets illustrating what’s going into the single number can be densely packed with information.  Since everything must balance utility against clarity, the location of the information in an estimate is almost as important as the quality of the information.

Estimators working by hand are used to categorizing the information according to Construction Specification Institute (CSI) Masterformat guidelines.  The Masterformat assigns a unique serial number to commonly encountered building materials arranged so that the materials generally align with similar materials that broadly align with trades.  As anyone with experience in actual general contracting could tell you, the CSI divisions aren’t a good indicator of how the work is actually divided among contractors.   For example, division 9, finishes may involve a dozen or more trade-level subcontractors, whereas division 14 Conveying systems will ordinarily involve only one.

There are a lot of estimating programs which are configured to organize the Quantity Take Off (QTO) according to CSI divisions.  While this is great in terms of adhering to a standard, it doesn’t lend itself to compiling the relevant information to scope subcontractor bids.  For example, there are a lot of “flooring” subcontractors (subs) that will install vinyl flooring as well as carpet, but they won’t do any ceramic tile or wood flooring.

The CSI codes place vinyl flooring and carpet in separate areas of the estimate that are often surrounded by completely unrelated trades.  This means that on bid-day, the estimator is figuring out how to make one bid apply to two scopes of work which might be separated by hundreds of lines of information.  When the deadline is fast approaching and low bids trickle through the door, this creates an arbitrary obstacle that can trip the estimator when they least expect it.

 

Lizzy was following the instructions perfectly, but then everything went sideways

 

If you’re using a spreadsheet program to compile your estimate, it’s possible to temporarily move relevant divisions to conform with the sub proposals that are coming in the door.  Time invested in building a “working” worksheet that is linked to a “formal” estimate worksheet can make it possible for the estimator to have a streamlined layout for bid-day revisions, without sacrificing the uniformity of a formal layout.

Make sure it works seamlessly because spreadsheet errors on bid-day are serious problems.  The “old school” approach to this problem was to print separate pages for every CSI division including a row for bidders and columns to verify, add, or subtract relevant scope items.  Each of these sheets were put into binders with tabbed dividers.  “Bid tabs” is industry slang for these comparison sheets which “show the math” for how the estimator scoped the bids of every relevant subcontractor on bid day.

Combo bids: Two for one, or double the trouble?

Subcontractors rarely specify which CSI divisions they’re bidding which means the estimator must not only sort the CSI divisions being bid, but must attribute them separately to their estimate.  Despite all the heated rhetoric, the subcontractor (sub) is not an employee of the General Contractor (GC).  GC’s can “demand” pricing breakouts from subs in direct proportion to the goodwill they’ve cultivated from fair dealing.  GC’s cannot afford to ignore competitive bids from subs who are reluctant to provide breakouts that may be used to help a competitor win the job.

This means that GC estimators must be prepared to take the best subcontractor number they can get, even if it combines several “separate” scopes of work.  Estimating programs will often generate error messages for any CSI Division that is left empty.  If one bid applies to multiple divisions, most programs won’t allow the estimator to group them together.  Instead, estimators are forced to use workarounds.

Let’s say a flooring sub’s bid for carpet and vinyl flooring is cheaper than any combination of independent carpet and vinyl flooring bids.  They didn’t provide separate prices for vinyl or carpet because they want an “all or nothing” award.

The GC Estimator needs to enter the “combo” bid into the estimate but this raises several issues.  Everything they enter in as a quoted value will be documented which means the Project Manager (PM) running the job will expect to find a subcontractor bid for the exact same amount in the bid file.  If the estimator arbitrarily divides the quoted amount into plausible-looking amounts for carpet and vinyl respectively, there’s no bid in the file that actually matches either number.  Now the estimator could put the entire bid amount into just one of the CSI divisions.  That solves the problem of quoted numbers matching bids in the file.  However, this causes two new problems.  First, the default of most estimating programs is to “select” the lowest available bid in each entered quote.  If the combo bid was entered into the carpet division, it would likely be higher than the carpet-only bidders because it’s also including vinyl flooring.  This means the default setting for that division must be overridden in order for the estimate to select the combo bid.  The second problem is that the vinyl flooring division needs to have a quote entered and most programs will not accept zero as a valid bid.  Some estimators enter $0.01 for the quote as a workaround because no PM would go looking for a one penny quote for the vinyl flooring.

CSI Masterformat is tremendously helpful for design and management professionals who want a uniform system for coding information.  Many Project Management programs include estimating functionality which not only imposes the CSI structure, but also includes the accounting structure for the job that follows.  The estimating program’s lack of flexibility means that on bid-day an estimator might enter a one penny bid for a subcontract amount which later causes administrative issues in accounting and project management.

Breakouts are the leading cause of breakdowns

Alternates can multiply the estimators labor to an incredible degree.  In their simplest form, Alternates are a request to add or subtract something to the project.  In their most complex form, they’re a multi-dimensional problem that generates its own risk for the bidder.

For simple additions or subtractions, the alternate needs its own mini-estimate to address what’s going on.  When the changes become more convoluted, the Alternate essentially replaces the original bid.  Estimating programs may feature user-defined breakout tags which allow the estimator to sort, group, and compile the different breakouts into different schemes that reflect the alternate.  Unfortunately, many estimating programs with breakout functionality are unable to compile multiple breakdowns into a cohesive estimate.  This is very common for trade-specific estimating programs.

For example, let’s say there is an alternate which substantially changes the vinyl flooring scope.  Some areas grew, other areas got smaller. As there are several alternates pertaining to the vinyl flooring, the estimator would have breakouts defined by the rooms involved.

Rather than a single line item for all the vinyl tile in that alternate, the program would output each room’s vinyl flooring separately.  As silly as it sounds, some estimating programs will not compile the breakdown information into a cohesive estimate the way it does for an ordinary bid.

“With our new mirror technology you can double your horsepower!”

 

When GC estimators call the subcontractor wanting to make changes to the Alternates, the Subcontractor ends up going into intense “manual override” to answer relatively simple questions.  The sub is usually under incredible pressure to answer quickly because the deadline is rapidly approaching.   It’s much worse when the GC calls the sub whenever they are away from their desk, and unable to wrangle a simple answer from an obstinate program.  I know of at least one competitor who guessed at a breakout price on bid-day that dramatically under-bid one portion of a project.  That mistake was the first of many cascading events that ended in bankruptcy.  Learn from their mistake, professional estimators do not guess!  It’s much better to replace a lost opportunity than it is to “win” a project that imperils your company’s survival.

Bigger blocks, fewer breakdowns

One successful strategy to counteract an estimating programs clunky breakdown system is to use the definable breakdowns for complete alternates.  Picking up on the earlier tile example, the estimator would conduct separate breakdown-level QTO’s for each alternate separately.

Let’s say there were four rooms pertaining to the base bid and two alternates.

In the base bid, rooms one, two, and four get vinyl flooring.

In Alternate #1, rooms two, three, and four get vinyl flooring

In Alternate #2 rooms one, three, and four get vinyl flooring.

This means that one definable breakdown would be named “base bid” and the estimator would conduct their QTO for the rooms as normal.  Then the estimator would name a definable breakdown “Alternate #1” and would do a QTO for rooms one, three, and four.  Note that this repeats the QTO of room four.  Finally, the estimator would name a definable breakdown “Alternate #2” and would do a QTO for rooms one, three, and four.  At this point, every room has been measured twice, and the vinyl flooring has arguably been estimated three times.

However, the estimator can now output their reports by the individual breakdown with all the pertinent information correlated normally.  This means that the Alternates will display the total vinyl flooring as a single line item, tremendously simplifying the information you’re reading at Mach 6 when the GC calls.  Only in estimating do we have situations where taking the long way around gets us to our destination faster than a direct path.

Quoth the vendor: “It costs more”

Quoted goods pertain to items with requirements that influence the price such as custom-built equipment.  Some quoted goods are unique materials represented by an agent or a firm that promotes the material to design professionals to secure exclusive sales rights.  Wherever competition and transparency are discouraged, artificial pricing hikes are sure to follow.   As a result, the quoted goods can constitute an out sized proportion of the total estimate.

Quoted goods can be material exclusively, or they can be materials plus some labor or service.  “Parts and Smarts” is industry parlance for a proprietary system of components that the contractor must install themselves, according to the design and programming requirements of the quoting firm.  This is most common in fire-alarm and HVAC controls systems.  “Turnkey” proposals are generally understood to be standalone quotes to deliver a completely built system.  At the trade-level estimators desk, it’s critical to correctly attribute labor hours to the quotes you expect to receive.

Trade-level estimating program defaults can be very complex.  For example, a fire alarm vendor supplying a “parts and smarts” quote will provide the fire alarm devices which the electrical contractor must install on a dedicated system.  The electrical contractor is expected to furnish the junction boxes, conduit, and wire, for a fire alarm system that has not been designed yet.  Estimating programs might have a “helpful” default for fire alarm takeoffs however they will only quantify the quoted goods.  This means the estimator must carefully supplement the “fire alarm” takeoffs with all the parts and pieces that the fire alarm vendor omitted.  Unless the whole system is attributed to a dedicated breakout, the quoted aspects of the fire alarm will be separated from the costs to furnish and install all the stuff needed to make the vendor’s quote work.

It’s good practice to conduct separate breakout estimates for any quoted goods that involve bidder groups with inconsistent levels of scope delivery.  For example, the breakout combined with parts and smarts quotes can be directly compared to turnkey proposals.

Getting more information out of less data

Reading along, it would be easy to conclude that the best approach is “more breakouts”.  Being better informed certainly helps when making decisions.  To serve its purpose, the estimate must be a condensed explanation of what a project entails.  Specifically, the estimate should reveal what is driving the cost, duration, and risk, of the project.  I’ve encountered plenty of estimates that were so detailed that they buried the meaningful project attributes.  This can be described as the “noise to signal ratio”.  If you’ve ever been listening to a radio station when an adjacent station intruded, you can appreciate how difficult it is to understand what’s being said.

The Request For Proposal (RFP) may list alternates the owner requested alongside breakdowns the Architect wants to see.  The intention and implication of each may serve different purposes which occasionally makes them difficult to understand.

I’ve seen projects with twenty or more breakout requests on the RFP get whittled down to three alternates in the course of a single exchange with the client at the job walk.  Clients and Architects aren’t always considering the quality or the context of the information they’re requesting in the RFP.  It’s often easier to generate a long list of things they might want, than it is to consider which things they would actually be willing to combine.  There’s also a tendency to be additive rather than reductive when tasked with writing a wish list.

For example, lets imagine a project which is comprised of three connected buildings named A, B, and C.  The client asks that all buildings be included in the base bid.  They then ask for an alternate to move building B to the other side of building A, and to omit building C altogether.

Their second alternate request is to build only building’s A and B as originally aligned, omitting C altogether.

At this point, we’re up to three prices due on bid day.  To bid them separately, all the estimating for buildings A and B would be repeated for all three prices.

In contrast, we could arrive at the same answers by answering two questions.  What does building C cost? and “What cost difference is there in moving building B’s alignment with Building A?

That’s one breakout, and one alternate which is never repeated elsewhere in the estimate.  More importantly, the estimate for building C generates 100% of the accuracy with 50% of the data compared to estimating A and B together.  It’s probably a whole lot easier to review an estimate for building C against the drawings than it is to check a “combo bid” against multiple buildings.  If your process is the same for all the buildings, the check on building C will be instructive towards determining if there are issues with your estimate for buildings A and B.

It’s also very significant to note that the building alignment question is pulled out as a line item cost.  This allows careful consideration of what the result implies without the “noise” of building A and B’s total factoring in.  I really can’t stress this enough because alternates are often sparsely documented by the design team.  It’s fairly common for a complex alternate to be completely and exclusively defined in a few sentences on the RFP.  What may sound like a simple “add this” or “take away that” alternate request can generate a long list of subtle consequences to the project.  The knock-on effect for the client is sticker shock.  Estimators who’ve carefully constructed their approach to reveal the subtleties are better equipped to present a solid explanation.

Savvy estimators will have already noticed that this advice could lead to a situation where you win the job and the client selects one of the alternates.  Now when you go to hand off the estimate to a Project Manager (PM), you don’t have a single estimate which perfectly reflects the contract scope of work.

Your options will depend heavily on your software.  In some cases, an estimator can copy the Building C breakout into the base bid and “multiply” the new version by -1 thereby generating a subtraction amount in all takeoffs.  When grouped with the original total, and the relocation alternate, the output would be reconciled to the actual quantities needed.

Without question, this will require additional work, however it’s important to note that most estimators don’t win every bid.  Spending a bit of extra time on those you win is an easy trade to make when you’re sinking less time into the losing bids.  Negotiated agreement or “sure shot” bids should be done so that the estimates can be handed to a PM without confusion, rework, corrections, or delay.

Estimating is about controlling risk to secure profitable work.  We can worry about risk created by the limitations of people and machines, or we can build our operations to accommodate them.  I’ve provided a few examples to show how applying the four P’s can lead to opportunities that competitors only saw as obstacles.

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© Anton Takken 2017 all rights reserved

 

 


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


Seven new estimating ideas to try

We’re all looking for an edge to win a bid or make a project more profitable.  Estimating is a profession with deep roots going back through history.  It stands to reason that many of our current problems were familiar to our ancestors.  As with all human endeavors, we’re trying to improve on old problems, and sometimes a “new” idea is really just a rediscovery of a forgotten gem.  With that in mind, I hope the following seven ideas are at least new to most contemporary estimators.

#1 Provide constructability review for fee instead of conceptual competition for free

Conceptual estimating provides financial feedback on incomplete designs.  Since the complete design-development process can take months or even years, it’s important for clients to have a way to maintain alignment between their design and their budget.  There are many situations where a conceptual estimate can help the client to make an informed design decision.  General Contractors (GC’s) have traditionally extended this professional courtesy to assist and encourage upcoming projects.

Some GC’s believe they can make themselves indispensable to a project by providing extensive conceptual estimating.   They hope to secure a contract award before the design is completed.  This is commonly known as “client capture” and it’s the reason some firms will spend a considerable amount of time on conceptual bidding.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“Scott does a lot of conceptual estimating and it’s starting to show.”

Since neither the Architect nor the Client pays for these conceptual estimates, they are naturally enthusiastic about soliciting bids from GC’s.  In some markets, it has become common to solicit competitive conceptual estimates from several GC’s without any intention or obligation to work with the “winning” GC on the final project.  The request for proposal (RFP) on such projects  encourage GC’s to provide design solutions, while studiously avoiding any reference to contract award.

GC’s with more optimism than caution end up as unpaid design consultants.  Some truly callous Clients will  “refine by bid” which is where all the estimators best ideas from one round of bidding are incorporated into the plans before they’re put back out to bid with their competitors.  This process is repeated until the client is satisfied that they’ve got the cheapest contractors building the best ideas.    I encourage estimators to find less frustrating ways to help their competition!

Clients may be unwilling (or unable) to award a contract to a GC on the basis of the conceptual estimate.  Nevertheless, these clients need budgetary feedback on their designs.  An unspoken detail of complimentary budgeting services, is that you can’t hold anyone responsible for bad information.  Clients who solicit several bidders are hoping to work around this problem by putting their trust in a budgetary consensus.  This encourages bidders to game the uncertainty to their advantage.  The bidders goal shifts from providing insightful conceptual estimates worthy of contract award, to landing an invitation to the final round of bidding.

Since Architects act as gatekeepers to new project opportunities, the GC’s will favor the Architects interests wherever they can.  This means that GC’s aren’t as interested in finding budget-blowing design choices as they are in delivering a plausible-sounding number.  GC’s who mostly chase conceptual work won’t attract market-leading subcontractors (subs) who have real opportunities to pursue.  Firms that cannot attract market-leading subs must often cut corners to be competitive.   All of these conflicting motivations serve to move the outcome of a conceptual estimate further from its purpose.   Many clients end up blind-sided by a budget blowout on their final bid as a result.

Estimates are not free.  Competitive bidders submit their estimates in a good faith exchange for either contract award, or bid results which help them to win their next bid.  Competitive conceptual bidding with no obligation to award or even select a contractor is a terrible practice that’s harmful to all parties excepting the Architect.

GC’s should offer clients an alternative.  A constructability review would furnish the client with not only the conceptual estimate, but a comprehensive report on the constructability of the plans.  Furnishing the client with a list of outstanding budgetary issues provides a way to track changes and guide progress.   The fee for these services should be commensurate with the labor involved in meeting the client’s needs, including recompense to any subcontractor consultants involved.

#2 Include sample subcontracts with every invitation to bid

It’s impressive that with the incredible amount of information that’s being effortlessly transmitted via email, and bid-letting software that one crucial document is virtually never shared before the bid deadline; the subcontract.   Many GC’s provide the sample contract under Division 1: General Conditions in the project specifications.  However that sample contract is only between the Client and the GC.  Most GC’s include subcontract terms that are much more stringent than those in the General Contract.  The most common are the “pay when paid” provisions which allow a GC to deny or delay payment to a sub because the client hasn’t paid them.  Some GC’s restrict the allowable percentages of overhead and profit on change orders on subcontractor’s change orders as well.  Other GC’s require every subcontractor to provide several hours of daily cleanup.  These are just a few of the many contractual requirements that Subs are expected to agree to after they’ve bid the job.  GC’s factor the general contract terms into their estimates as part of the project risk.  Providing a sample subcontract with every invitation to bid (ITB) shows the subs what the GC is expecting of them.  This avoids unnecessary arguments and negotiations for the Project Manager trying to get the project started.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“Here we see a project manager fixing problems with the estimate… “

#3 Provide bidder responsibility matrix to delegate trade overlaps and identify sole-sourced vendors

Building on the concept of telling Bidders what you want from them, it’s a good idea to provide a bidder responsibility matrix.  There are tons of situations where several trades will overlap, yet nobody knows which trade the GC expects to do the work.  Rather than leaving these things to chance, it’s far better to actually provide direction so there won’t be any bid-day surprises.

Sole-sourced vendors are companies that must be hired for the project.  Sometimes they sell an exclusive material, other times there are proprietary systems that require specialist training.  The most common sole-sourced vendors will pertain to systems like; Security, Access control, HVAC Control, Fire Alarm, Elevators, Point of Sale (POS) systems, and Telecom.  Many of these vendors are “ghost trades” who only operate in a sub-tier-sub relationship.  If the affected trades don’t know who to call, they’ll just exclude the work entirely.   It’s absolutely incredible how much time gets wasted by all the subs trying to figure out who these sole-sourced vendors are.  GC estimators that provide leadership and information will quickly earn the loyalty of their subs.

#4 Provide “sellable” target budgets for individual trade solicitations on design-build estimates

GC’s who pursue competitive design-build bids rely on subcontractors to fill in a great deal of information.  These projects typically provide a narrative along with a rudimentary sketch of the work.  Lacking a target budget, the subcontractors have no context to interpret the design intent of the project narrative.  As a result, a lot of work is wasted in developing proposals that don’t meet the client’s needs.  Getting the subs dialed in to the GC’s expectations gives the whole team a cohesive plan of action.  Providing leadership and perspective is vital to successful bidding in a competitive market.

It’s worth pointing out that GC’s who have a Project Manager (PM) “bidding their own work” should make sure they adhere to estimating best practices .  Lots of PM’s “estimate” by collecting subcontractor bids and tallying the total of the lowest bids in each trade.  These PM’s have no idea what things should cost because they’re not actually estimating their projects.  GC estimators looking for an edge against their competitors can set themselves apart from the “bid collectors” by proving they are the firm that knows what a winning number should be.

In tight markets, this knowledge can undermine the hack GC bidders by giving the sub market a way to know when a GC hasn’t shared all the project requirements.  Transparency leads to trust and trust leads to cooperation .  The subcontractor market’s frustration with bidding practices that obscure, delay, and misrepresent what’s really going on shouldn’t be underestimated.  Being timely, honest, and forthright with important information will provide a sustained competitive advantage in most markets.

#5 Improve in-house estimating by hosting “lunch and learn” sessions with a market-leading subcontractor

Good leadership is difficult without good information.  Market-leading subcontractors can be a great source of trade-specific information for a GC estimator.  Understanding what drives the costs in complex system can open up options that would be overlooked.  GC estimators should strive to improve their knowledge by inviting a market-leading sub to a lunch hour session where they can present on some specific area of their trade and answer estimators questions.  These meetings can explore new materials, techniques, and technologies that estimators could potentially use for value engineering exercises.  Don’t forget that subs have extensive market knowledge about Architects, clients and competitors.

Reciprocity is a vital component of fair-dealing so GC estimators should share whatever they can that would help the sub to win more work.  Feedback on how proposals are scoped on bid-day can greatly improve a sub’s understanding of how their bids look through the GC’s eyes.  Poorly written proposals may end up on the “war room” floor when time is short, and the prices are close.   GC’s may lose the bid by these small differences so it’s very important for subs to have well-written proposals.

#6 Provide a team strategy that goes beyond simple pursuit.

The very nature of competitive bidding means that the majority of bidders will lose.  Many professionals assume that bidding is like a lottery, where your odds may improve in proportion to the amount you participate.  Their favorite slogan is “you can’t win if you don’t bid“.  If clients merely picked the winning GC out of a hat, this reasoning would have merit.  The reality is that the market-leading price for the proposed work isn’t generated by random chance.  Market leaders will consistently deliver higher value at lower cost than their competitors.  It therefore follows that any GC capable of attracting the best subs on the market will have a profound advantage in quality, pricing and profitability over their competitors.  When these firms pursue an opportunity, it’s incredibly hard to beat them without an excellent plan

Eagles and moths share the gift of flight, but moths squander their gift by banging against windows.

GC estimators should sincerely develop a strategy that plays to not only the GC’s strengths, but to their best subs’ strengths.  Winning  a bid has more to do with targeting the right opportunity than anything else.  Blindly pursuing every opportunity leads to consistent losing.  This tells market-leading subs that the GC is a participant rather than a contender.  GC’s that can’t attract market-leading subs won’t be competitive on dearly needed projects without sacrificing profitability.  Eventually this spirals to the point where every bid is a last-minute, underfunded, and poorly managed effort to keep the doors open.  The ever-present urgency to pursue every project is the most visible indicator that an estimator is adrift.

Seven new estimating ideas to tryEven the best teams get tired of running around

Estimating is a deadline-driven enterprise, and everyone participating knows this.  Invitations to bid that offer nothing but a strategy of pursuit aren’t capitalizing on the opportunity to communicate a viable strategy to win a profitable job.

ITB’s with statements like ;”we’re really going after this job” are presenting  their enthusiasm for the pursuit as a reason for subs to team up with them.  When these ITB’s are followed up with interns or secretaries nagging subs to bid, the tone shifts from enthusiasm to desperation.  Excellent GC’s don’t nag subs for bids.

GC’s who carefully select project opportunities based on their best allies in the subcontractor market aren’t doing themselves any favors by writing an ITB that implies the GC is desperate for company on their mindless pursuit.    If the GC’s best subs are market leaders, nothing is gained by soliciting every company in the book (or the database).  ITB’s can and should indicate when subs are short-listed for a targeted opportunity.  If it’s a great opportunity because the GC’s got a great team of subs, then the GC should clearly commit to their team. 

It’s worth mentioning that scoundrels who think “blind copy” gives them the power to misrepresent their commitments are mistaken.  Dishonesty is revealed in the supply chain just before the subs bids are due.  This is because the sales reps at distributors who sell to all the subs in a given trade have a vested interest in helping their customers to win.  Since everyone has the same deadline, the vendors can see who’s requested pricing.  Subs may have a lot of opportunities vying for their attention.  Sinking a few weeks of effort into bidding on one project may require turning down a lot of great opportunities.  Competitive bidding operates on principles of good-faith.  Once a sub knows the GC is willing to lie or cheat, there’s no reason to believe in fair competition.  Honest subs will choose to either withdraw from bidding or intentionally lose the bid so they can escape dealing with the dishonest GC.

In the decade that I’ve been an estimator, every profitless, contentious, mismanaged, and unpaid project started with some form of dishonesty.  It’s never the bid you lose that puts your business under, it’s the terrible job you won.

#7 Replace boilerplate bureaucracy with clarity of purpose

Modern construction is very litigious which is why companies call themselves “General Contractors” instead of “Builders”.   This is why GC estimators often think in terms of contractual liability.  Estimating is about controlling risk so it follows that many estimators would seek to reduce their risk by using standardized forms covered in catch-all provisions, clarifications, and exclusions.  This “boilerplate” can get so extensive that very little on the form is actually pertinent to the project at hand.

I’ve encountered proposals that were so riddled with boilerplate that they barely outlined the work to be done for the proposed amount.  Some GC estimators try to circumvent this practice by requiring their subs to use a “bid template” to standardize the format for the bid.  This is predictably unpopular with the subs because the GC’s formatting  limits the risky exclusions, clarifications, and notes.

Both of these examples illustrate how boilerplate bureaucracy swaps risk for cooperation.  The best cooperation is achieved when the risk is assigned to the parties who can best control the factors driving the risk.  Subcontractor proposals with boilerplate meant to replace a contract are false economy.  The GC’s ITB is a solicitation to bid on work under the terms of the GC’s subcontract.  While the GC’s get to set the terms of the contract, the subs are independent firms who must strike a balance between protecting their interests, and offering a useful proposal to the GC.  If the subs knew what the GC’s subcontract would require, they would have less risk to control.

Subs who don’t include the complete scope of work for their trade are generating liabilities for the GC.  The GC’s patience with those liabilities grows in proportion to their ability to find someone else to address them.  The more skilled the trade, the fewer options there will be.  This is why some “concrete” firms can get away with excluding rebar and/or concrete.  In contrast,  Electrical contractors are expected to include all wiring for the building, even when that requires a sub-tier contract for proprietary systems such as Fire Alarm, Communications, Building Management Systems, or Point Of Sale (POS).

Inexperienced GC estimator’s sometimes try to counterbalance their lack of knowledge with additional bureaucracy.  This translates to numerous and tedious bid revisions that steadily move away from a collaborative effort to win a job.  These revisions generate additional risk to the subs because risk-averse GC estimators are prone to losing bids.

Clarity of purpose is what’s needed here.  The GC estimator must understand it’s their purpose to profitably win work by controlling risk.  This is best accomplished by working collaboratively with market-leading subcontractors.  Demanding protection from all risk isn’t estimating, it’s one-sided policy that leads to profitless work.

Seven new estimating ideas to try

“I don’t know… something about light and heat, I handed it off to the estimator…”

In competitive bidding, profit may be considered to be a function of risk versus reward.  Making projects rewarding for subs increases the GC’s ability to attract top talent.  It therefore follows that reducing the risk for bidding subs will correspondingly increase the GC’s profitability.

It’s here that an engaged GC estimator can provide committed leadership to direct the best course of action.  The most common problems will pertain to what gets included, or excluded from the scope of work.  The design teams believes their primary function is to provide design intent, which the General Contractor  uses to develop a cohesive scope of work.  Design teams can successfully argue that even incomplete plans, convey the design intent.  As a result, the GC may find they’re facing a choice between losing the bid by including something or winning the bid by excluding something the design team expects you to have.

Many GC estimators are reluctant to carry subcontractor exclusions into the proposals they send to their clients. This creates a situation where the GC estimator must force their subs to remove the exclusions (pushing the risk onto the subs), or take the risk that they can be negotiated during the contract buyout (pushing the risk onto the build team).  Risk is always expensive, but problems get more difficult when there’s less time to solve them.

When a specific risk is dependent on the actions of the client or their design-team, it’s wise to clarify what’s included in the proposal based on your understanding of the design intent.  Giving the client insight into how you’ve managed the uncertainty clarifies your position in terms they can understand.  On bid day clients may interpret exclusions presented without context as inconsequential.  Yet when these selfsame issues cause a change order later on, they’ll feel cheated.  Empower the client to make informed choices by connecting their choices to project outcomes.

I hope these ideas push estimators to think beyond statistics, measurements and spreadsheets.  It’s easy to become confident in a process that has become complacent through repetition.  Estimators looking for an edge can set themselves apart by exceeding the standards of their competitors.  As Thomas Edison once said ; ” Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work“.

 

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 


The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

One of the greatest misconceptions about construction estimating is that it’s a solitary profession.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an estimator for a General Contractor (GC) or a subcontractor (sub), there’s always someone calling, emailing, or popping into your office to discuss something.  I’ve written before about reliable estimating practices that improve the coordination, clarity, and timeliness of communication between the GC and the subs.  I focused on practices that reduce the need for estimators to interrupt one another to get or give pertinent information.

I’ve worked in offices where the incessant phone calls consumed far more time than any other aspect of the job.  The constant interruptions dramatically increase the chances of making a quantity take off (QTO) error, or a transcription mistake in your estimate.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Mistakes are often easier for others to see

It’s been my experience that there are five personality types that tend to work against an estimator who’s trying to work efficiently.  The companies these people represent can be market leaders which means the competitive estimator has to find ways to deal with difficult personalities.  Everyone is coming from somewhere, which is to say that sometimes a difficult personality is a product of their environment.   I strive to be thankful for difficult people, as they remind me of what I don’t want to be.

Obsessive

We’ll start with the most common personality type in estimating, the obsessive.  Estimating offers the detail-oriented person a lot of information to focus on.  Lots of companies focus on best practices  in estimating which are often simplified to only detailed estimates are accurate.  Their intense desire to quantify and categorize every detail is continually thwarted by missing, incomplete, or confusing information inherent to construction documents (CD’s).

If all the needed information was presented in the CD’s, there would be no need for estimators.  Detailed estimates may indeed reduce the uncertainty of an estimate, but it’s entirely possible to have an accurate estimate using other methods.

Obsessive’s are rarely able to cope with uncertainty, to the extent that many of them feel it’s wrong to make any kind of assumption.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Steve likes to be sure nothing changes

In extreme cases, these folks won’t bid at all if they don’t have an “official” direction in the form of an answered Request For Information (RFI), an addendum,  or a bid directive.

It’s important to understand that a lot of obsessive estimators work for companies that see estimators as cashiers ringing up a long list of very obvious stuff.  Most projects are bid before the building department has completed their review of the CD’s so it’s very common for Architects to add a great deal of information to the construction set.  Many people see a bid-day uncertainty as an obvious decision when they’re holding the Architects revised plan.

This extends to bid results as well.  If the estimator bids a job, they’re expected to get bid results to show their boss how they did.  Bidding the worst-case scenario can lead to losing by large amounts.  The consensus view of competitor bids will be seen as the obvious judgment call.  This fundamental ignorance of the estimators role leads to negative performance reviews.  Estimators in these companies learn to see uncertainty as future punishment.  This is why they’d rather withdraw from competition, than bid on incomplete information.

Advice for GC estimators working with an obsessive sub

GC estimators working with obsessive subs need to understand that the driving issue is one of accountability.  GC estimators cannot expect these subs to exercise good judgment if it means the sub estimator will face accountability for their actions.  The GC estimator must be willing to provide accountable direction to the sub.  I encourage GC estimators to seek these subs insights into the issue because they may be highly skilled and experienced estimators in their field.

Advice for sub estimators working with an obsessive GC.

Obsessive GC’s tend to go looking for any uncertainty in the sub’s proposal.  They’re driven to distraction by exclusions, clarifications, and exceptions.  If they direct the subs to bid a certain way, they will badger anyone who doesn’t conform.  Subs must understand that the obsessive GC is focused on avoiding any potential judgment call.  They want to know that the subs are taking full responsibility for everything whether it’s perfectly clear or not.  Obsessive GC’s are virtually never competitive bidders so unless they’re bidding a negotiated project, subs should expect their bids to be fruitless and time-consuming.  These GC’s rarely attract market-leading subs, even when they have negotiated work out to bid.  Patient subcontractors may find they can win highly profitable work with obsessive GC’s on negotiated projects.

Insecure

The next most common personality type is the insecure estimator.  New and inexperienced estimators fall into this group, however they’re only half the population.  Construction estimating is a unique vocation that relatively few people seek out.  An awful lot of estimators came from the field following a significant injury that would have otherwise ended their careers.  Knowing how things go together is certainly a critical skill set, however estimators draw confident conclusions based on analytical techniques, market observations, computational skills, and management fundamentals.  I started this blog because the majority of construction estimators I encounter lack most of these skills.

Insecure estimators are constantly paralyzed by mundane issues because they don’t understand how estimating fits into the larger picture.  These estimators rarely see a lack of detail as an opportunity to present a uniquely advantageous solution.  To many insecure GC estimators, the bid is simply a process of collecting sub pricing, toting it up, and adding profit.  I call it bid collecting because they’re not actually estimating anything.  This is terrifically common among companies who have their PM’s bidding their own work.

Insecure sub estimators are often convinced that a proposal with several pages of boilerplate exclusions will protect them from the outcome of their mistakes.  Their bids emphatically exclude so much that it’s genuinely difficult to tell what you’d be paying them to do.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

“Dave’s a snappy dresser but nobody’s sure what he does all day”

In many ways, the insecure estimators are the opposite of the obsessive estimators.  Insecure estimators won’t communicate during the bid.  GC estimators who won’t answer their phones or email can’t be expected to draft RFI’s to the design team, or publish bid directives to clarify the intent to the subs.

Everything is reversed on bid-day as these insecure GC estimators often resort to begging subs for last-minute bids.  Conversely, the responsible GC is forced to play phone tag on bid day with the insecure sub in an effort to decipher all the exclusions.

Advice for GC estimators working with an insecure sub

Reliable estimating practices must be built around the value of time spent being inversely proportional to the time remaining.  The shorter version; an early hour is worth less than the last-minute.  With the majority of the sub proposals coming in an hour or two ahead of your deadline, the GC must be able to quickly scope the proposals looking for bids that could make or break the GC’s odds of winning the bid.

Time sunk in a promising proposal that turned out to be a dead-end, might have been invested in more fruitful considerations.  Insecure subs proposals are incredible time-sinks.  Their proposals are riddled with boilerplate exclusions, with the proposed amount inevitably buried in fine print, and there’s typically an innocuous-looking exclusion for some obviously costly and necessary part of the scope.

Rather than play on the insecure sub’s terms, the GC estimator should provide bid clarifications that stipulate the inclusions for all trades.  Requiring that the sub’s acknowledge the bid directives on their proposal allows a useful means to circumvent their chicanery.

Following up all proposals with a bid-checklist forces the subs to agree they’ve included, or modify their proposed amount to include the pertinent scope items.  This frees the estimator to consider the sub proposals in a consistent format designed to facilitate a clear definition of the agreed upon scope.

Advice for sub estimators working with an insecure GC.

Insecure GC’s can’t be counted upon to know what is, and what isn’t in the subs scope of work.  Efforts to request direction will be either ignored, or the GC estimator will demand the sub bid “per the plans and specs”, with the occasional request to “price it both ways”.

Ineffective GC estimators are the leading reason why people don’t follow instructions on bid day.  Giving an inexperienced or irresponsible GC estimator the means to lose the bid works against the entire market’s interests.  Subs working with these GC’s should strive to keep all communications on company email accounts that provide time-stamped evidence of who said (or did) what, and when.

It’s often necessary for subs to gently teach a new GC estimator how things typically work.  Leading the inexperienced  GC estimator to a fruitful and logical conclusion builds trust and rapport for both parties.

There’s less a sub can do with a seasoned, yet insecure GC estimator.  The lack of communication isn’t a bug, it’s a feature intended to maximize plausible deny ability.   Working for these GC’s is often a greater risk than the project itself because there’s nobody protecting the build team’s interest.  These GC estimators are rarely competitive bidders, without exposing their subs to considerable risk.

GC estimators who complain about the scores of “whiny subs” they’re dealing with probably have reason to reevaluate their estimating program to attract (and retain) market-leading subs.

Doubter

One of the most difficult estimating  personalities is the doubter.  These are the estimators who tenaciously ignore the obvious design intent whenever they find a discrepancy.  Efforts to answer their questions will exercise your patience because these folks are always in doubt and never in a hurry.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Rick’s commitment to interrupting your work is impressive.

Doubter estimators typically come from the field where they had extensive experience in a wider variety of work than their current employer typically builds.  They’re often intelligent people who didn’t fit in with field crews that emphasized production over planning.

Advice for GC estimators working with a doubter sub

GC estimators should look beyond the immediate project and the doubters questions to establish a precedent for future interaction.  Pretending that it’s reasonable to indulge every imagined concern will only encourage them on every subsequent bid.  Approach the situation as a teachable moment to lay down default assumptions you’d like them to work within.  Up to and including how you’d like them to ask questions.  Doubters tend to favor whatever is the least efficient means of resolving a problem.  Tell them that their questions are important to you and that you want to quickly resolve them by using your preferred medium.  Be advised that you’ll almost certainly have to enforce your boundaries.

Advice for sub estimators working with a doubter GC

Subs will know they’re dealing with a doubter GC estimator when they receive an invitation to bid (ITB) that’s absolutely riddled with alternate and breakout pricing requests that work against a cohesive scope of work.  The doubter GC estimator doesn’t understand the project in the client’s terms, so they bombard them with options “just in case” the client would like an a la carte menu of confusing prices.

Subs need to be very careful about what they tell the doubter GC because there’s little assurance that what they’ve asked for, will be presented appropriately to the client.  Doubter GC’s tend to misinform the client which typically leads to scope changes and a pricing revision that turns out differently than the client expected.  Subs should ask the doubter GC to walk them through their proposed breakouts with a special focus on how things might be combined disadvantageously to the subs.  Often the list of what the doubter GC thinks they need, will be shortened when they’re faced with explaining how they will protect their own teams interests.  It’s critical to understand that doubter GC’s love to pretend that their long list of alternates was a client request.  They quickly become sanctimonious about honoring their esteemed clients request if you simply object to the amount of information being requested.  Give your client what they ask for, provided you’ve controlled your risk first.

Hot Air Balloonists

Whenever projects cross over into markets where work is bid informally, there will be estimators involved who will cause delays, confusion, and a whole lot of waiting for them to get back to you.  I call them hot air balloonists (HAB for short) because they’re often unavoidable, slow, and colorful characters that you’ll need to tie down before they drift past your deadline.

Often these estimators are either “mom or pop” at their firm which generally means they’re spending most of their time doing something other than estimating.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

Artistic rendering of whatever Melinda’s doing whenever you call her for a bid…

 These professionals often have a competitive edge on their markets because they maintain a lean operation.  In most cases, these folks view estimating as a necessary evil, rather than a vital phase of the construction project.

Advice for GC estimators working with a HAB sub

HAB subs aren’t going to respond to an ITB that looks like it came from a faceless computer.  These folks get most of their work through personal networking.  They don’t chase every hard-bid opportunity that comes along, and they’re often reserved about bidding to an unfamiliar GC.  It may take several tries to get them on the phone, but making a personal connection with them is vital to getting them to bid on your project.  Since they wear a lot of hats, they don’t have a lot of time to chase jobs that are a poor fit for their company.  GC’s should be prepared to answer a lot of in-depth questions about the project on that initial call.  If the GC doesn’t convince them it’s a standout opportunity, they won’t make it a priority.  It’s a fatal mistake to tell them the answers to their questions are in the files you sent them.  They need to see you’re on top of the information because you’re determined to win.  It’s a good idea to check in with them between your first call and bid day.  Lots of HAB estimators will stall out on a bid when they think they’ve got plenty of time.   Absolutely all communication should reiterate the deadline.

Advice for subs working with a HAB GC

HAB GC’s tend to focus on smaller projects that have little in the way of formal drawings, specifications, or even narratives of what the project is about.  Most of what the subcontractor needs to bid the job will be covered at the job walk.  It’s fairly common for HAB GC’s to walk  a group of subs through a space waving their hands in the air like an orchestra conductor.  Subs need to prepare proposals that carefully itemize the work to be done because HAB GC’s aren’t known for their contractual finesse.  Subs looking for HAB direction, should approach the question by presenting the subs preferred solution.  Chances are excellent the HAB GC won’t answer their phone on bid day, so be sure to put clarifications in bold on your proposal.  Emphasize clarity, by keeping the descriptions in simple terms.  Exclusions are vitally important to protecting your interests.  HAB GC’s love to assume that everything they overlooked was implied at the job walk.

Corrupt

Corruption takes many forms in the construction industry but it’s always found in practices that discourage transparency, accountability, and competition.    Estimators must tread a fine line because they must maintain confidentiality in order to conduct a fair bid.  Providing a bidder with their competitors prices in order to solicit lower prices prior to award is known as bid shopping.  This practice is absolutely unethical, and is in some cases illegal.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

The reciprocal of bid shopping is bid peddling, which is where a bidder offers to submit a lower price than the winning bid to secure the award.

A less extreme version of this practice is for a GC to continually bid a job they’ve already won in an effort to “beat the bushes” for a lower subcontractor bid.  Their original ITB promised to fairly award the contract to the winning bidder on bid day.  Any GC who feels it’s their right or privilege to renege on their promises whenever it’s convenient to them is a cheater.  Be advised that pretending  to be “not sure who won” their original bid is an old scoundrels trick.

There’s no good reason to do business with corrupt people.  Whatever you stand to gain in contract award, you can expect to fight over in unpaid invoices.  Con artists only solicit dupes that they can control and later contain.    I have an entire article on warning signs that will help estimators steer clear of trouble.

The five estimating personalities that make or break your bid.

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved

 

 


A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

I’ve written before about conceptual estimating and some of the challenges that it presents.  We conceptually estimate whenever the plans and specifications are too incomplete to facilitate a normal contract.  This means that conceptual estimates do not constitute a binding contractual obligation the way they do on a “real” or “hard-bid” situation.  Correspondingly, the client is typically under no obligation to award a contract, or even select a contractor for future award based on a conceptual bid.  It’s supposedly mutually understood that conceptual bidding is a courtesy that contractors extend to clients and their design teams to facilitate future work.  Many General Contractors (GC’s) see conceptual bidding as an opportunity to get in front of the client.  They hope that their investment in conceptual bidding will lead to contract before all the drawing stages are completed.  This is known as client capture.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

You’ve got to enjoy those victories

The Architect knows more than they’re letting on

Before we go much further we need to address some of the misconceptions about what’s really going on.  First and foremost, we need to understand that the professional with the most information, and the most authority to make informed decisions to align the design with the budget is the Architect.  The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has recommended policies and procedures for the project process.  These policies aren’t shy about demanding not only budgetary information, but insight into how the budget gets approved, who might be opposed, and what can be done to ensure the job moves forward.  The Architect knows what features must be included and they know the budget they’ve got to hit in order to get the job approved.

Further, any Architecture firm with sufficient experience has an impressive backlog of information for the costs of past projects.  This information is far, far, superior to what any individual GC might have because they have access to not only the awarded bidder’s proposal, but the losing GC’s bids as well.  This is profound feedback on their design that they can collect every single time their plans are bid.

Not only are the Architects sitting on competitive bids for their plans, they’ve also seen the change order costs for all the projects they’ve built.  They have a uniquely accurate insight into how costly missing, incomplete, or changing information can be on an issue, by issue basis.

Inflection point

This brings me to one of the most canny contractual moves I’ve ever seen.  The AIA writes the vast majority of construction contract templates.  It’s therefore not surprising that these contracts absolve the Architect of any responsibility for the financial outcome of their work. So when the lowest bid they received blows the client’s budget, the Architect isn’t responsible.

This makes a certain degree of sense because the Architect is independent of the GC’s bidding the job.  They can’t be held responsible for market conditions, or contractor business decisions that are outside of their control.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

However, this absolution of responsibility has opened the door to corruption.  Architects and their design teams can, and do, sole specify vendors who inflate their prices because they’re protected from competition and transparency.  Everyone in the distribution chain realizes that exposing the corruption to win a single job, may cost them competitive pricing on everything else they’re bidding.

Playing dumb is a costly game

It’s obvious that an Architect can’t do their job without knowing the clients budget as well as their project expectations.  It’s also obvious that an Architect couldn’t be expected to balance the project expectations with the clients budget, unless they had a sense of how much their design would cost.  This working knowledge is a function of the Architects experience.  Taking this one step further, it’s therefore obvious than an experienced Architect has very little excuse for blowing a clients budget.

GC estimators receive Request For Proposals (RFP’s) from the client or their architect which outline the expectations and obligations for the bid.  These vary in formality, however the basics of the bid and subsequent project are provided to all invited bidders.  Some government projects are required to show the estimated project cost on every RFP.  It’s very rare to see this information provided anywhere else.

Conceptual estimating requires the bidders to fill in the gaps in the documents.  This means that a conscientious bidder is forced to make design decisions and price them in a competitive setting.  While there may not be a contractually binding obligation to honor their conceptual price, a bidder is aware that it is unprofessional to provide erroneous or misleading information  Experienced bidders know that clients and design teams virtually never remember the qualifiers, clarifications, or exclusions.  The lowest number they got is what they’ll remember.   In tight markets, clients may have several GC’s bidding each stage of plan development.  This can mean three or more rounds of competitive bidding before the final contract award.  Every GC may have two dozen trades, with three or more subs per trade.  The collaborative cost of all these estimators pricing a project through its document development is staggering.

A modest solution

The entire point of a budget check is to verify that the design cost won’t progress outside of the clients ability to pay.  If things aren’t adding up right, it’s easier to scale back earlier in the process so the final Construction Documents (CD’s) attract acceptable bid amounts.  The budget checks are tied to plan development stages which are known to the design team and the client.

For example, a 50% design set may only have the major  Heating Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) equipment located on the plans.  The Mechanical Engineering consultant may need to run some calculations to make their final specification selections, but they know the magnitude of the final system and how it will correlate to the mechanical portion of the project budget.

If the 50% drawings don’t provide the estimated magnitude of the system so the HVAC bidders are forced to fill in those blanks to conceptually bid the job.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

Efforts to improve engineering transparency are ongoing…

Basically the conceptual bidders are pricing their vision of the project rather than the design teams vision of the job.  Design changes implemented on the conceptual pricing feedback aren’t actually based on universal comprehension of the original plan.  If the HVAC bidders filled in the gaps with unnecessary or inefficient selections, they’re pricing a completely different design than the design team had in mind.  Since conceptual estimators are wary of angering clients when the low-cost assumption is shot down, they may skew to higher cost answers to guard against the unknown.

We have a situation where Clients are asking if the design is on track, and the bidders are playing guessing games with the designers intent.  None of the answers are meaningful because the most insightful information isn’t provided.

I propose that RFP’s for budget checks include a design-team estimate breaking down the clients budget into Construction Specification Institute (CSI) Masterformat divisions.  The Mechanical Engineering consultant in the above example would provide rough magnitude descriptions of their planned equipment along with budget allowances for each component.

The context of the RFP completely changes because the design teams budgetary assumptions become the baseline of conceptual estimating.  Instead of asking what some poorly rendered thing costs, the RFP asks if their plan is on track.

The GC’s responding have a uniform means of quantifying the scope, and they can identify budgetary inaccuracies on a line-item basis.  This not only improves the design teams understanding of what’s driving their budgets, it also reduces the GC’s risk in answering conceptual questions.

This also resolves the ticking time-bomb of last round changes to the plans that suddenly reveal costly items that were always expected but never communicated during earlier budget checks.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

“We found a few concerns in the Landscaping budget…”

What would need to change

For starters, Architects would need to become more transparent and accountable for the impact of their decisions.  Currently, budget checks are like a theatrical production intended to feign concern for staying on budget, while collecting the means to blame GC’s when the job comes in over budget.  Budget checking doesn’t need to be a charity effort in an Architects theatrical production of “The budget is blown” starring “The angry client”!

Budget checks are not offering a fair contract award to the lowest bidder in exchange for a free bid.  Since there is no legitimacy without reciprocity, the bids shouldn’t be free.  If we can agree that it’s a professional courtesy that’s necessary to foster market growth, we should be able to agree that Design teams need to be more respectful of the markets time.  Basically, if the design team knew what they were doing, checking their budget should be a simple process.

There is an obvious need for Architects to have their own in-house estimating, scheduling, and management professionals.

Likely resistance

The fundamental link between design intent and cost outcome cannot be waived aside in the context of a budget check.  Either the Architect is a responsible and capable professional, or they’re just hoping whatever they draw will pass budgetary muster.   Architects may feel they have little to gain by transparency in inverse proportion to their professionalism.

Admitting that to their cost knowledge may lead to clients demanding that they pay for design errors and omissions.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

Even when they’re spiraling out of control, Architects will color coordinate!

Of course, there would be fewer change orders if the budget-check process was actually grounded in a meaningful process to correct the Architect’s course via contractor feedback.  Also, the budget-checking may provide sufficient pricing information to later argue that change orders are overpriced.

Incompetent design-teams won’t likely be any better at estimating than they are at Architecture.  Budget checking an obviously flawed estimate isn’t going to be fun for GC’s looking to impress the client.  However GC’s will benefit from having a real black-and-white illustration of the Design teams competence to refer to on bid day.  Clients may fail to recognize the nuance of a complex architectural depiction, but they’ll be able to see how their Architects work fell short of what they promised.  It’s politically difficult to tell a Client they’ve hired the wrong team, but a red-lined estimate showing where and why things were wrong may send the same message.

Adding estimating and management staff to a design firm may be seen as an onerous obligation. Many design teams have been able to operate on fuzzy program designs that fall well-short of being an accountable estimate.  Plausible deny-ability is built-in via sloppy and opaque documentation.  Nevertheless, design firms are selling their clients a promise to responsibly translate their clients vision and budget into a successful project.  Clients looking for a qualified architect should focus less on computer-aided design innovation, and more on sound business practices.

Likely blow-back

The entire concept of client capture via conceptual estimating would be effectively turned on its ear.  Rather than telling the most compelling story of how the job might be done, conceptual bidders would be editors to the Architects narrative.  For firms that have been successful with client capture, the budget check as I’ve proposed would offer much less latitude to sell the client on your companies abilities.

There’s nothing about my proposal that addresses the possibility that the final round of bidding could still exceed the clients budget.  Market factors like seasonal rushes or shortages can have profound impacts on the bid-day amount.  We all have to cope with factors that are outside of our control.  However, it’s worth pointing out that GC’s could inform their potential clients of changing market conditions that would affect their budgets.  Additionally, the Architects estimate defines the limits of the scope intent which reduces risk, which in turn lowers pricing from the GC’s.

By a wide margin, the group most likely to oppose my proposal are the cabal of corrupt professionals who would find it harder to maintain their business practices.

A Modest Suggestion to Improve Budget Checks

Derek is just trying to build the only way he knows how…

If Architects were to reveal the actual cost of corrupt vendor material, it would immediately attract the clients attention.  Even having a placeholder for a future sole-specified product would attract the bidders attention leading them to offer more cost-effective options.  If the Architect attempted to add the sole-specified vendor in the final round of bidding, the budgetary impact would be easily audited. GC’s who participated in earlier rounds of budget-checks would be quick to identify the chicanery to the client to explain why the budget jumped.

Some GC’s may be opposed to my proposal because it indirectly illustrates their faults.  If the architects estimate is based on contracted amounts of similar work, they’re providing accurate information about what market value pricing is supposed to look like.  There are some GC’s who’ve never actually seen a market-value subcontractor bid because their approved subcontractor roster is so limited.  These GC’s will initially inform the Architect that their budget for that scope is too low.  Architects with several GC’s checking their budget may find that they can tell when a GC has an overpriced sub on their roster.

The next round of budget checking would tell all the bidders how they compared to the winning team.  This neatly side-steps the insidious nature of GC’s who withhold bid results from their subs.  It won’t help the GC’s who prefer to avoid transparency, but it will help the industry to be better informed about the going rate for work.

Final thoughts

If the market is helping the client to achieve their goals, it’s only fair that the process should help the market to be more successful. Estimating should never be free.  If you’re not winning a contract award, you should receive feedback on how to win the next time.

Lots of subs would be far better off by bidding to a more competitive GC.  GC’s need to know when they’re failing to attract market leaders so they can correct course.  Bureaucratic inertia and dysfunctional relationships lead to lots of wasted opportunities.

Architecture firms seeking to market their abilities to potential clients would have a market-proven means to show that they can design within the clients budget.  Undermining this fundamental concept is where our industries contractual adversity takes root.  True professionals must raise the industries standards to shed daylight on the scoundrels operating in their shadow.

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© Anton Takken 2016 all rights reserved