Three-pronged Approach

Vince Bailey / February 2017

Been dazed and confused for so long it’s not true...—from “Dazed and Confused” Jake Holmes/Jimmy Page

I think by now my affection for “design professionals” has been pretty well documented. Past rants notwithstanding, let me briefly restate here that the plan sets coming out of the pipeline these days are still seriously flawed and getting worse by the year. The pathetic documents emerging at present are, almost without exception, riddled with ambiguities, omissions and misleading implications that sometimes seem downright deliberate in their deception. Then, just to compound the incoherence, plans are often issued in a series of evolving sets due to the owners’ impatience to get the process started. The consequent imposition of unreasonable deadlines paired with the informational gap leaves me dazed. Thus we are presented with a developing series consisting of budget drawings, design development drawings, permit sets and construction sets, all the while adding questionable detail (and cost) but never coming close to the full fruition of a document that is internally coherent in the preconstruction phase. The
confusion that these design shortfalls generate makes it nearly impossible to arrive at a reasonable guesstimate without the aid of a Ouija board or a set of tarot cards.
Questions? Obviously they vary with each project, ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred. On my first review of any significant project, I’ll typically fill up at least a couple of legal pad pages with questions in a mostly futile attempt to clear the fog created by the numerous omissions and glaring ambiguities. The gaps and inaccuracies can vary with each architect, but for the most part they are suspiciously similar and predictable: missing wall type designations are common; the reflected ceiling plan contradicts the room finish schedule; wall or soffit-drop section cuts lead to the wrong detail; assemblies that are indicated are not constructible; plan notes conflict with the specification manual. We’ve all been there.
All of this begs the question: How does a crafty bidmeister deal with all of these design deficiencies without going postal? The answer is there are three distinct tactics.
The most straightforward approach consists of generating a precisely worded set of questions that address the gaps and submitting them to the general contractor you are working with as far in advance of the bid deadline as possible. Of course, this depends on having sufficient time to generate all questions against the architect’s deadline for submitting them, which is rarely the case. And even if you are able to leap this hurdle, the forthcoming answers are typically evasive and even non-sequitur. I once asked for a choice between abuse board and high-impact board, which both appeared in the specs, and “hardened drywall” was the brilliant response, further muddying the water. You get the picture.
The safest approach would be to assume the worst-case scenario (i.e., most expensive) for each ambiguity or omission to make certain that you’re covered. This CYA tactic has one big drawback. Your bid won’t be competitive and you can point to your thoroughness all day long, but if your number is high, the GC’s eyes won’t even make it to the clarification portion of your bid abstract.
Then, too, you could take the opposite tack and assume the best-case (least costly) resolution to each gap. This is bound to keep you in the hunt but also vulnerable to an unpleasant post-award state of affairs, as nearly all document sets tie you to the most stringent answer to any perceived ambiguities. You could easily be riding a loser right out of the gate.
After years of wrestling with myself over which tactic to employ in my estimating efforts, it finally dawned on me to incorporate all three into a comprehensive strategy. Allow me to share my advice: Point out the ambiguous item, incorporate the least costly option in the base bid, and price the worst-case as an alternate. It is the perfect way to turn ambiguity into advantage on bid day. By minimizing the impact of each neglected or ambiguous item, you reduce your base-bid number to its most competitive level. Then, in lieu of submitting a list of pre-bid questions, you cite the omissions in the “exclusions” portion of your scope letter and cite the ambiguities in the “clarifications” section. Finally, you attach a premium value to the most costly interpretation of the design team’s nebulous intent.
The benefits of this strategy are threefold. First, it brings the architect’s deficiencies to the fore at bid time, not beforehand when your competition can avail himself of the answers to your thorough vetting. Second, it gives you the competitive edge. Finally, and most gratifying, it puts the real cost of ambiguities and omissions back in the design team’s court.
OK, so this sort of degenerated into yet another rant on design deficiencies. But in all fairness, it is difficult to restrain from restating what is probably every quantifier’s number-one complaint. And, for bidmeisters who haven’t already adopted the above-described three-pronged approach to this travesty on their own, my treble strategy may save some young guesstimator from being unduly dazed and confused by typical errors and omissions. And that, after all, is what we call the “estimator’s edge.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.