Estimating: Past, Present, Future

Ulf Wolf / February 2018

As long as there have been buildings, there have been estimators, even if, initially, the craft consisted only of figuring how many trees to cut for logs or how many stones to gather. It is, in other words, a time-honored profession.

    
Although most estimators at AWCI member companies have not been around that long, they all have more than sufficient experience to offer an informed view of where estimating has been, where it is today and where it is heading.
    
So, we turned to them to find out.

Greatest Advancement
As we all know, the science and art of estimating has taken great steps over the past few decades. Which of these, we asked, was the most significant?
    
Gary Dillman, owner of Titan Walls in Florida, does not hesitate. “On-screen takeoff,” he says. “That, and all the information now instantly available at the click of the mouse.”
    
Quips James Keller, vice president at Valcom Enterprises, Inc. in Kentucky, “The measuring tape.”
    
Says Andy Boyd, vice president at Galindo & Boyd Wall Systems LLC in Texas, “For me, it’s estimating software for the computer. I started my estimating career using a notepad, calculator and an architectural scale. What took me a week back then now takes two days.”
    
As for Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, he chooses the Internet. “Cost and availability of special-order materials are now at your fingertips,” he says.
    
Pat Arrington at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico says, “It’s the computer that now tracks and stores all information exchanged among owner, architect, general contractor and subcontractor. It also shows precisely when information was sent or received, which now also serves as proof in the court systems.”
    
Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. in California, does not hesitate either. “Computer-generated take-off,” he says. “When I started in 1987, we measured everything with a scale tape and colored in the item as you went. Sometimes between measuring and coloring, you would be interrupted and lose your train of thought: ‘Did I write that measurement down or not?’ Nowadays, with electronic drawings, if it is not colored, it is not counted.
    
“Another benefit to electronic drawings is that you can send them to clients, project managers or superintendents, offering a great visual of how you approach the project. This is especially helpful with preliminary budgets, where all you have are lines on a drawing and you must use your past experience to put forth your best guestimate.”
    
Phil Ruffin, president of Pontiac Ceiling & Partition, LLC in Michigan, agrees: “When I started out, we did not have computers, so, computers is the obvious answer. Add to that, estimating software.”
    
As does Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi. “Computer estimating would have to be the most significant advancement,” he says. “And I think that with BIM (Building Information Modeling) growing more prevalent, there will soon be ways to automate estimating using the BIM platform.”
    
As for Robert Sutton, senior PM/estimator at Reitter Stucco and Supply in Ohio, says, “Electronic takeoff revolutionized estimating. It not only made estimating more efficient, but more reliable. Of course, this lead to other equally important advancements, such as project/field management modules that help manage project costs to prevent potential overruns.”
    
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, confirms the same: “Not only on-screen takeoff, but the Internet and online file transfers in general allow us to share plans and easily move information around.”
    
Richard Wagner, owner of Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina, picked a different significant advancement: the cellphone. “It’s a portable work center, a link to all your information, and FaceTime to every man and job in the field,” he says.
    
Jonathan Hughes, estimator at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, and Kevin Biddle, president of Mader Construction Co., Inc. in New York, come down on the side of on-screen takeoff, as does Mark Keith, director/BIM Services at Marek in Texas.
    
“The development of digital takeoff tied to estimating software,” Keith says. “Before that, physically scaling quantity surveys on spreadsheets and costing by hand consumed a large amount of time, sometimes several weeks for large projects. With the advent of digital estimating, scaling/mathematical errors have been close to eliminated.”
    
Hal Waldrop, senior estimator at Marek in Texas, also selected on-screen takeoff “combined with electronic availability of prints. When I started in 1983, acquiring prints and doing a takeoff was more time-consuming, and sometimes you would lose days just waiting for plans, not to mention the large annual cost of buying the prints.”
    
Computerized on-screen takeoff was seen as the most significant estimator development in recent history. Not really a surprise, perhaps.

Plan Accuracy
Is it true that the accuracy of plans and specs has dropped over the years? To verify, we wanted to know what percentage of the time estimators received accurate plans in the past compared to what is received today.
    
Says Dillman, “We saw accurate plans 30 to 40 percent of the time in the past. Now that has dropped to about 25 percent.”
    
Offers Keller, “In the past, the blueprints drawn by hand were much more accurate than today. The architects took the time to do them right.”
    
Says Boyd, “Plans are plans. People are people. Mistakes happen as often now as they did back then. The biggest difference today is the speed and convenience of how corrected plans, addenda and ASIs (Architect’s Supplemental Information) are distributed.”
    
Lawrie’s view on this is that it “seems like plans of the past were more palatable, though all plans have errors, but that is to be expected, especially if dealing with remodeling. Lately, the plans need more modifications.”
    
“In the past,” says Arrington, “90 percent of the plans we received were complete. This has dropped drastically in recent years.”
    
DeHorn concurs: “I think the plans in the past were a lot more accurate than those we see today. Today with computers, it’s too easy to simply copy and paste from one project to another. I have seen door jamb details that show a plaster finish when there is no plaster on the project.”
    
In Ruffin’s experience, “Plans in the past were not as much inaccurate as they were incomplete. I would peg the inaccuracy percentage at less than 3 percent. Incomplete plans, however, I would peg at 95 percent. We understand that it is difficult to produce drawings at 100 percent, and anything over 80-85 percent is fine with us. As it drops below that mark, the owner will end up paying more as we now have to protect ourselves and make educated guesses in the bidding process.”
    
Says Heering, “The plans that we worked from in the past were fairly accurate. I think architects had more time to produce the drawings and they were more complete when they went out to bid. I would guess that perhaps 80 percent were accurate. These days that number may be 60-70 percent.”
    
As for Sutton, “I may be showing my age, but I remember when plans were mostly hand-drawn and the accuracy was quite high. I believe this was due to more time spent by the architects and engineers, and better attention to detail. I would peg the percentage of accuracy at 80 percent or higher. Today, considering the pace at which the design phase happens, I would place the accuracy well below 50 percent.”
    
Biddle puts it succinctly: “80 percent yesterday, 30 percent today.
    
Waldrop’s view is that it was “80 percent in the past, about 70 percent today. Also, there is way more budgeting with 50 percent prints or design development drawings now than there was in the past.”
    
Hughes has a similar observation: “85 percent in the past and about 75 percent today. Plans have become less complete, resulting in an increased reliance on contractors to fill in the holes.”
    
It seems the time pressures on architects and engineers is creating a strange contradiction: computerized design, which by its nature should produce more accurate drawings, is in fact producing less accurate ones.

Incomplete Plans
So how do you deal with incomplete plans?
    
“Lots of RFIs,” says Dillman, “and lots of qualifications in your bid proposals.”
    
Says Keller, “Be very clear in your proposal about what you are bidding and what you are not.”
    
“The best advice I can give an estimator in dealing with incomplete plans,” says Boyd, “is to have a couple of conversations with the GC concerning the wants of the owner, the intent of the architect, the intended use of the building and the budget parameters of the project.”
    
Suggests Lawrie, “Bid as drawn and add alternates covering what is required. I will offer a budget based on incomplete plans and specs and advise that it is only a budget and not binding and that a firm bid will be submitted upon receipt of complete plans.”
    
As for Ruffin, “Unless we can get answers before bid time, we will qualify our bid as to what we provided.”
    
Says John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, “If it’s a competitive bid, I only bid per plans and specifications. That way it’s a level playing field between myself and my competitors. If it’s more of a negotiated bid, I’ll ask as many pre-bid RFIs that I believe I need answers to.”
    
Heering says, “We qualify our bid stating that it’s based on the drawings received, and we include the date of those drawings on our bid. This is always a battle since they want you to sign a contract that specifies no change orders.”
    
Quips Sutton, “I feel bad for upcoming estimators who do not know how pleasant it is to receive accurate plans and specifications. We often start the estimating phase by reviewing the documents for discrepancies and/or omissions. Once those items have been identified, the estimator submits information requests (RFIs) in hopes of receiving some form of a realistic and timely response.”
    
“It’s up to us,” says Zaretzky, “to ask good, smart questions to nail down the scope; we want to make sure everyone is bidding the same project with the same assumptions.”
    
Waldrop advises, “Clarify, clarify, clarify. Proposal writing is at the point where estimators have almost become lawyers trying to eliminate risk.’
    
Hughes’ concurs: “We try to ask questions in a timely manner so as to address issues before they become a big problem. Also, on our proposal we make sure to specify very clearly what is included and what is excluded.”

The Future
How do wall and ceiling contractors see the future of estimating?
    
“Hopefully,” says Dillman, “we’ll see more streamlined and better plans by holding architects more accountable. Now, BIM is a great tool; however, it is only as good as the person inputting data, and if you lose your data-input person, the BIM usually goes by the wayside. If kept up, it’s an excellent tool.”
    
“It will be all computers, eventually,” figures Keller. “Just scan a drawing and it will print your takeoff.”
    
“We can go from pen and paper to electronic,” says Boyd, “but at the end of the day, estimating still requires an experienced individual to sit down and peel the project apart, piece by piece, detail by detail and page by page to get a handle on what all will be required to build the project. Ultimately, estimations are just opinions. We all have the same set of drawings, so we should all come up with pretty much the same quantities. The opinion comes into play on how much time, equipment and manpower the project will require to be completed on time.”
    
Says Lawrie, “Unfortunately, I see estimating being automated, taking the knowledge and experience of the human factor out of the equation. But because something can be drawn does not mean it can be built as drawn.”
    
DeHorn’s vision is that the “architect is already creating an electronic model of the project through CADD and BIM. The model can tell you what type, size, spacing and quantity of various materials that are used in the model. Most architects do not populate the model with such detail yet. However, I can see a future where a material list is generated by the BIM model.”
    
Suggests Ruffin, “The next logical step would be to have an automatic estimating program that can read drawings, estimate automatically and provide a complete quote in a few minutes. This, of course, is pie in the sky and most likely won’t happen while I’m around; but with the way technology advances, I would not be surprised if this happens someday.”
    
“I think there will be a push to use the architect’s BIM model to generate the estimate,” says Heering. “But you can bet that the architect will have a disclaimer on the drawings saying ‘Not Responsible for Quantities.’”
    
Wagner concurs: “Well, we will be out of a job, because a mature BIM should have it all figured out at the touch of your mouse, or the wink of your eye.”
    
For Keith, the future is just around the corner, “Marek has made the commitment that BIM will become a mainstay in our industry. We have six full-time modelers and eight stations. We provide BIM services that include model design, development, clash detection, project management and project layout, and we are committed to research and development of virtual- and augmented-reality solutions for future construction innovations.”
    
Hughes has a similar vision: “I see model-based estimating becoming more prominent than it is currently, though I don’t believe this will ever replace the need for an actual person (estimator) evaluating and verifying take-offs.”
    
It seems it would not surprise anyone if a mature BIM would eventually become the virtual estimator, but good money is on the prediction that it will never replace the human factor.

Proverbs and Anecdotes
A piece of wisdom from Keller: “There’s an old estimator’s proverb: ‘If you didn’t draw it, I didn’t bid it. And if I didn’t bid it, I sure ain’t building it.’”
    
Boyd reminisces, “There was a pre-Internet living hell called ‘Plan Rooms.’ I can remember spending hours upon hours in there waiting my turn to take-off a set of drawings. You would sign in and then wait your turn if your plan set was in use. You might wait 30 minutes or three hours. Many times, you only had one shot at a decent takeoff before you sent in your quote, so you had to be quick and thorough.”
    
Arrington remembers, “In Albuquerque during the 1960s and 1970s, we did not have a hard material dealer in town; we had to order lath and framing material six to eight weeks in advance. And not all job sites had phone service; some reservation projects did not even have roads to the site; we had to follow tire ruts. Many did not have water or power so we had to provide our own water trucks and generators. Those were the exciting days.”
    
Kirk muses, “When I started out as a contractor, I asked an experienced estimator for advice on how best to price a set of plans. He advised me to price them by the pound.”
    
Wagner smiles, “In my early years of EIFS estimating, somehow I hit the cubic yard button instead of square yard and still won the job!”
    
“The greatest day in the history of our branch,” says Waldrop, “was when our owner allowed us to buy a fax machine. Before that, you had either to call in your bid to someone who didn’t even understand your trade, or get in your car and drive across town to deliver a written proposal.”
    
Ah, those were the days.

Final Thoughts
A good piece of advice from Sutton: “If I were to give a young estimator any advice, it would be to read the documents carefully and understand the expectations, otherwise the result can be losing the job or worse. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, document all correspondence, and as one gentleman I used to work with would say, ‘Make it lawyerproof.’”
    
And one from Boyd: “Check the scale on every single drawing. Whether a detail, a wall section, a building section, reflected ceiling plan or floor plan, I demand that my estimators show me where they checked the scale on every single page they have taken off. The few seconds it takes to verify the scale can save many months of heartache down the road.”
    
This is underscored by Zaretzky: “I bet you there’s been a million jobs underbid due to scale mess-up. Always check the scale. Today, it’s even easier to mess up on scale because a default scale comes up that might have to be changed before you do the take-off.”
    
And that said, perhaps you should check the scale again.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.