Estimating & Bidding: Is It Art or Science?

Ulf Wolf

July 2008

We are in very good company when it comes to this seemingly eternal question of "art or science.” It is often asked about such wide-ranging fields as bookkeeping, hair dressing, computer programming, teaching, photography, yes, even the medical sciences, just to name a few.

And for good reason: You can’t be faulted for wondering if the heart of these subjects is simply a matter of clinically isolating and adding up the bits in order to put them together in scientifically predetermined patterns, or do they call on imagination and creative—a word that takes on strained undertones when it comes to bookkeeping—thinking for their success?

When it comes to estimating and bidding, one wonders much the same thing: can estimating be approached, and executed successfully, purely as science, or does it involve creativity and imagination?

Speaking to estimators across the country shed some very informative light on the question.

Either/Or?
Not a chance.

As you may have guessed, and based on your own experience, few things are ever that cut and dry; estimating and bidding are no exceptions.

The verdict is virtually unanimous: it is a blend of art and science. It is the approach to this craft—and most agree, yes, it is certainly a craft—that determines the balance: how much art, how much science.

Oh, yes, another factor always seems to come into play, something we covered in our April 2008 issue: the drawing details, or lack thereof. Some are luckier than others in that respect.

A California contractor muses: "Complete drawings, yes, I’ve heard of them. I’ve never seen them.”

A Delaware contractor speaks of the other side of the coin: "It’s a real pleasure to work with a complete set of drawings. Then it becomes science.”

The Art Faction
The majority of the estimators surveyed leaned in the direction of Art. Here are their reasons:

Imagination
Jeff McFarren of Green Mountain Drywall in Vermont believes it is more an art than a science: "When you look at an incomplete print—as you often do—as you’re estimating it you must see in your mind, you must imagine how it should be built.”

"This takes past experience, taking into consideration how things may have changed since you last did it. You figure the new job based on that.

"Exterior walls are seldom engineered on the drawings, so you have to guess what they want. If you’re good at it, when engineering returns your shop drawings, you find you’ve hit everything pretty closely.”

"Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you aren’t. That’s pretty much how it works; but for the most part you just have to be creative in your mental thinking, you have to know what you’re doing.”

Approach
Gabriel Castillo of Pillar Construction in New Hampshire agrees: "It is an art, not an exact science. It’s not just coming up with the right square footage.”

"We have two estimators here in the office. If they price the same job, nine times out of 10, their numbers will be different. They’re looking at the same cost structure, at the same conditions, the same labor, using the same office tools—but they will not come up with the same numbers.”

"Why? It comes down to field experience; to approach, to use of equipment. It comes down to knowing that the window guy will not finish the flashing in the expected time, so that you’ll have to come back. You can’t put a number on that, or apply a scientific formula. You need experience.

"Another factor is: What is the market willing to pay, and how hungry are you right now? If you need more work, you’re willing to sacrifice your profit on a few jobs to keep the wheels turning, and you bid low.”

Details

Brian Anikstein of Cord Contracting Co., Inc. in New York City puts it quite emphatically: "Definitely an art.”

He explains, "No two drawings are alike. Every job is different. Every job stands on its own. Estimating is a science in that you take off linear footage and partitions, but when you hit the details it turns into an art. You have to figure out what the architect is trying to build. You’re trying to figure out how to build what the architect has drawn.

"That often takes an artist.”

Added Value
Greg Vangellow of R.W. Drake & Co. in New York agrees, "It’s an art—if you do it right.”

He elaborates: "Certainly, you could program people robotically to take off and bid the thing, but when you have a lot of renovation work—which we do—it turns into an art form in order to add value.”

"… How do you cut costs for a customer who needs to be back on budget? It’s not just spitting back the information you’re given. How do you add some value to the thing? That is what separates you from the guy who robotically pumps out hundreds of bids.

On the subject of experience, he adds, "My estimators are project managers as well. They are able to utilize their hard-won field experience when they take off a plan. I know a lot of people who lock their estimators up in an office or a cube and have them pump numbers all day.”

"My estimators are the ones who actually implement the job as well, so there is no finger-pointing at the end of the day. That experience is valuable, as generally they’ve run across any situation or a circumstance before.

"They know from experience that they can only put up two boards an hour, not four as the product literature states—or they know they can put up six an hour. Knowing this gives you a definite advantage.”

Three Dimensional Thought
Glenn Sieber of Easley & Rivers, Inc. in Pennsylvania offers this perspective: "I think the ability to bid is a three-dimensional thought process. I believe you need some level of creativity because the estimator has to be able to visualize the job.”

"I’d stay it’s probably 60 percent creativity and 40 percent nuts and bolts.”

On experience he says, "None of my estimators have hard field experience. They come from varied backgrounds. We look more for the right personality and outlook than experience.”

He elaborates: "You have estimators, and you have project managers. They are different skill sets. The estimator has to be able to look at something and figure it out three-dimensionally; the project manager has to see what’s in front of him in the real world.”

"I believe they need different outlooks. I know some of our competition uses the same people for both, but I don’t see it.”

What if the drawings are incomplete? "My concern with that is: It is not the estimator’s job to guess what the architect wants, because I could guess something completely different from another.”

"In fact, we recently had three people—one of my estimators, who is an estimator only; one of my competitor’s estimators, who is both an estimator and a project manager; as well as a general contractor with pretty extensive field experience—look over the very same incomplete drawing, scratching their heads. They each worked up a bid, based on what they thought was intended.

"True, all of them had a valid thread of reasoning why it should be built the way they bid it, but they all came up with different answers, and the cost spread was huge.

"The answer is to clarify the details with the architect. And if worse comes to worst—and we don’t have the time to clarify—they will check with me or one of my project managers.”

Marriage
Stephen Angell of Cape Cod Plastering, Inc. in Rhode Island quips, "I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and I’d say it’s a marriage of the two.”

"The calculation of the numbers is a science—adding things up—while picking what numbers to add is an art.

"But it’s never just a number; it’s an intuition to approach it one way instead of another. It’s never just an art or a science. It’s a little bit of both.”

On experience he offers, "Experience will help you visualize what the thing is going to look like. I guess that part of it is art.”

"There’s timing, too—knowing that there are desperate people bidding on it, or knowing you’re only one of two bidders. It’s having a feel for what the market is and what it can bear, a feeling for what’s realistic.”

Intricate Jobs
Andrew Bassista of A.B.I. Construction Corp. in New Jersey tells us, "I guess it’s a little of both, though mostly I’d say it’s an art.”

"We do mostly retail stores, and none is cut and dry. Each is a little more intricate than an office space. It takes some creativity to work it all out.”

Vision
Ray Racette of American Studs and Drywall, Inc. in Wisconsin says, "It’s both art and science. You have to envision things because the plans aren’t always very clear.”

Brian Jahn of Jahn & Sons, Inc., also in Wisconsin, concurs: "It’s a mixture of both. The art lies in being able to understand and envision how everything is going to come together. The science is knowing all the formulas and calculations.”

Something from Nothing
Daniel Corker Jr., of DACO Interiors, Inc. in Virginia says, "It’s a little bit of both, though mainly an art.”

He elaborates, "With the drawings we receive today we sometimes have to come up with something from nothing. The drawings just don’t tell you what exactly is called for, and your estimators have to be able to figure that out.”

On experience, he adds, "Most of our estimators, thankfully, have field experience; if they didn’t know how to build the stuff, we’d be in trouble.”

"One of my estimators tells me that he builds the building in his head first, before he ever takes the first thing off.

"He told me that he has to know how it all goes together and be able to see that building in his mind in order to take it off. You can’t just begin taking off walls; you have to be able to visualize how it goes together.”

Ability
Rocky Henricksen of D.L. Henricksen Company, Inc. in Washington says: "Probably both, but mostly art.”

"Also, there’s the ability to do it correctly. You need the patience to knuckle down and carefully take off each little thing.

"Then, of course, we run into architects who don’t want to spend the time to fully detail out the plans. That’s where your imagination comes in. There’s your art.”

Like an Artist
Says Gerald Roach of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota: "It’s an art and a science mixed together, and a talent.”

He elaborates, "When an estimator views a set of plans, he normally has to use a fair amount of imagination, especially in the bidding stages, to put it together.”

"He has to imagine the building like an artist; he has to see how everything will go together. The plans we receive always miss some detail, so he has to imagine what it should be. He brings these thoughts out of his head, just like an artist.”

A Murder Mystery
Charles Beatty III of Beatty Drywall Systems, Inc. in Delaware "I’d say it’s a little bit of both,” but then adds, with a laugh, "But to me it’s more like a murder mystery.”

"You’re trying to figure out, based on the documents you’re given—which are far from complete—what it is they want and how they want it done. It’s actually like a big puzzle.

"You try to put it all together; you ask the appropriate questions as needed, and in the end you submit your summary: The Professor did it in the library with a candle stick.

"That’s your bid. The plans are a mystery you’re trying to solve, and hopefully you have it right in the end.”

On experience, he adds, "Nowadays, the details are rarely part of the plans, so you have to imagine how this thing will be built. And to imagine things correctly you need both the experience of looking at drawings and seeing what they’re communicating—even though they don’t show it—and the hard field experience to know how things will pan out in real life—unlike many architects who have never been in the field.”

"You have to look out for those things which are not on the drawings, and that’s an art.”

"Also, the estimator has to be a very detail-oriented person. For the most part he’s very neat and very organized, that’s his personality type.”

Interpretation
Dave Stark of the Harver Company in Oregon thinks "It’s little bit of both. The blueprints have become so bad that most of them leave a lot to the imagination; you have to interpret the details they omit. It seems like nobody wants to pay the architect his exorbitant fees to complete the details. Nowadays, they leave that part of the design up to us. They throw together a conceptual then say: you know how to put it together. You build it.”

Style
Dave DeHorn of Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. in California tells us, "I always tell my estimators: It’s not a science, it’s estimating—although, it’s probably a combination of art and science.”

He elaborates, "There’s the style of how you do it. There’s your own style, and there’s the style the company wants you to use. If you have 5 or 6 estimators working for you, you don’t want each of them to use their own style, you want them to work the company style so that you as a manager can observe each estimator’s work and look at the same thing.”

"The style would consist of how you take off your various conditions; of how you organize your bid; of how you put certain production rates together for certain difficult parts of the project.”

On imagination, he adds, "We often do budgets for our clients when all we have to work with is a sketch on a napkin. And that’s certainly an art. That’s when you have to be very creative and draw from past experience and say: ‘I think the exterior wall will bypass the slab edge here, and we need to do something different there.’ Then you put it all together, price it out, and hope for the best.”

Incomplete Designs
Karl Pearson of Mader Southeast, Inc. in Florida laments, "To us down here, it’s more of an art than a science. The architects don’t know how to frame, so we end up having to figure out how we need to do things. The exterior framing, for example, is always incomplete, and we end up having to figure out how best to build the walls to meet the code criteria.”

The Science Faction
Several estimators surveyed did view the process as a science. Here are their reasons:

Competency
William McPherson III of Central Ceilings, Inc. in Massachusetts offers this view: "I think that a good estimate is probably 80 percent science and 20 percent art. It’s not one or the other. If I had to choose one over the other, I’d take the science.”

"The reason we see swings in pricing, given the same plans and the same marketplace, goes back to the word competency: Do we all see the same job? Do we all bid the same job? Do we all count the same amount of windows? Do we all count the same amount of door openings? And most likely, when you see these big spreads in bids, I think it goes back to ‘Oooops,’ or ‘Oh, my goodness.’ These are flaws in competence—mistakes.

"I am a firm believer in the word scope: Do we all arrive at the same scope? You’ll often find that both your mature estimators and your new estimators interpret the scope rather than establishing the scope based on exactly what the customer asked for.

"Scope is a huge deal to us. When prices differ wildly, I immediately ask myself: Did they get the right scope?”

Educated Guessing
Kelly Harris of Anning-Johnson Company in Washington says "it’s definitely more scientific than it is artistic.”

"I refer to estimating as ‘educated guessing.’ There’s math involved, which is science. But even if you sometimes need to envision the building because of incomplete drawings, I still don’t see it as art. When I think of art, I think of Picasso.

"It’s more like a craft.”

Accuracy
Jon Bryant of Innovative Interiors, Inc. in Washington concurs: "A little bit of both, but more science than art.”

"The art portion is the interpretation of the architect’s intent based on your experience.

"The science part, which hopefully happens more often than not, consists of accurately viewing the information, defining your work scope, and taking off the drawings as accurately as possible.”

History
Matt Van Hekken of the Bouma Corporation in Michigan offers this insight: "It’s a little bit of each, but I’d like to think of it as a science where we use past information and history to help us with the numbers. Still, there’s a bit of gut feel to it as well.”

"The art is the experience you feed into it. It’s knowing what you can do, where and when, knowing your options for putting things together and how to price them.

"It takes both art and science to build the project on paper before you actually go out and build it for real.”

Learned Skill
Pat Arrington of Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico says, "I would call it a science, because it’s a learned skill. I’m not sure you can learn an art. Art is mainly inspiration.”

"Estimation is not an inspired process, it’s a calculating process.

"I recently gave a talk on this at the American Society of Professional Estimators, and I said that if you don’t understand something, take it apart into the smallest possible components until you do understand it, then take these smallest components and put a labor or production rate on it. That’s how you bid your assemblies.

"That is a science; I don’t see it as an art.”

On the subject of imagination, he adds, "You’ll have to use your imagination if the plans are incomplete, but this is still a process of identification of items; so if a wall drawing is not complete, you know that a commercial interior wall is going to be built with metal studs; tracks will be anchored top and bottom; it may or may not have insulation for sound; and it’s going to have facing material and decoration of some type.

"But those are all definable components; anyone could learn them and develop this wall.”

Define Everything
Craig Daley of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California says, "It’s probably a combination of both, but we try to treat it more like a science; we try to define everything; we try to narrow everything down to a calculation.”

"The art side of that, of course, is that everything isn’t black and white, and here you need some interpretive ability. Being able to understand that your standard production rates don’t apply in every scenario.

"Given a complete set of plans and a perfect estimating system that has each wall type pre-defined for every variation—validated in real life as to proper production rates—the job becomes 80 percent science.”

Formulas and Benchmarks
Eric Boulanger of Boulanger Drywall Corp. in Florida offers this view: "I believe it’s more of a science because you follow certain formulas and benchmarks.”

"If the drawings are incomplete, you need to make assumptions, true, and that will involve your imagination. But as long as you document those assumptions in your bid, you’re still well within a science.”

In a Perfect World
If—and this is huge if—all drawings and all specs were always complete and free of ambiguities, the consensus is that estimating would in fact boil down to pure science, which could possibly even be performed by a moderately intelligent computer program.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch called reality, the drawings are not complete, details are missing, and you are under pressure to get the thing taken off and priced by 4 p.m. today. You had better let your imagination loose.

The Ratio
It is apparent that the completeness (or not) of the plans and specs to a large degree determines the ratio of art to science. The more complete the plans, the more this craft of estimating will lean toward science.

The less complete the plans, the more of an art it becomes.

Seems it takes an artist to win bids these days.

Los Angeles-based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images (www.words-images.com).