Circumstances beyond Our Control
Vince Bailey / December 2015
When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.—Stevie Wonder
It was about eight years ago that I penned a piece for this column sardonically entitled “Luck Be a Lady.” The heading was proposed tongue-in-cheek because I have little use for notions of fortune or fate, especially in association with the art/science of estimating. I do my utmost to be more of a quantifier than a guesstimator, as I’m sure all principled bidmeisters do as well. Nevertheless, I do understand that there are frequently a number of unknown factors—circumstances beyond our knowledge or control—that are brought to bear on nearly every bid scenario that we enter into. In other words, at the risk of plagiarizing, I believe in things that I don’t understand, and sometimes I suffer (thanks, Stevie). For example …
There are those instances in which you slog for days through a ponderous set of bid docs and offer a proposal that you feel is accurate, thorough and reasonably priced. The general contractor is fair and friendly, and he has, in good faith, solicited bids from a few solid subs for this negotiated project. But what we don’t know, and what we can’t know, is what the owner/developer (O/D) has in mind. While we watch for price escalations in drywall and rolled steel, O/D watches the economic indicators that come from a loftier level. O/D (we can call him “Odie”) is completely transfixed by Keynesian things like the Phillips curve (whatever that is?). He’s convinced the economy is toeing the brink and interest rates could go up any day—or not.
So in spite of all your hours of hard work and estimating prowess, ultimate funding of the project that you proposed on may hinge on some notion as capricious as Janet Yellen wearing something other than black to work on any given day (check out her photo display—you’d think she’s in perpetual mourning).
Then again, Odie may have no intention of funding the project on this go-round. He may just be testing the waters to see what his pet project might really cost if he ever decides to fund it. Of course, he has worked out a budget with his design team (DT), so he thinks he has a ballpark figure. But Odie’s pretty savvy, and he knows that DT gets pretty intoxicated on aesthetics, and rarely if ever really knows (or cares) what the cost is of what he is specifying (think: acoustical plaster systems, specialty ceilings, exotic wall coverings, freestyle EIFS). Odie needs to send up a weather balloon because DT has loaded the project up with enough fluff to keep a value-engineering team working overtime for a week. Of course, DT is only keeping Odie’s best interests at heart. After all, how would it look if Odie were somehow perceived by the construction community to be some sort of penny-pincher? Indeed, he is not that sort at all and would be appalled if regarded in that light.
Unreasonable as it may seem, this may well be the undisclosed scenario at work when your GC has told you that you are “in line for an award as soon as the owner releases the project.” Then six months later you are still waiting and wondering.
But probably the most common unknown factor when bidding work resides with one of your competitors. You know—that “other joker” (OJ). Sure, it’s an accepted tenet of the bidding process that you are kept in the dark regarding OJ’s bid. Regardless, we all know that OJ’s lack of proficiency, his clouded judgment or his greed may have rendered him low bidder and likely winner in this round, which makes him another one of those circumstances beyond your control.
Then there’s the most nefarious unknown of all: the general contractor uses your low bid to coach OJ to a lower number. You know it happens, but you can never be sure—although it’s a dead giveaway when an unsuccessful GC lets you know you were low with him, but the awarded GC has given the job to OJ. Sucks to be you.
All things considered, an estimator’s lot in life is an odd one, to say the least. We’re damned if we can’t sell work, and we’re suspected of error and omission when we do. It’s difficult to explain to those who judge us how these unknown factors are working against us—especially since we’re not certain that they are!
Circumstances beyond our control—it’s enough to make the most stalwart skeptic, like me, lean toward superstition.
Still, what could it hurt to keep a rabbit’s foot in the drawer, right? Just don’t anyone tell PETA.
Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.