The Truth about Architectural Bid Packages

“Mommy? Why Does Daddy Cry on Mondays?”

S.S. Saucerman / May 2019

Construction estimating is a great career (OK, being Meagan Markle is better), but I’d be lacking if I didn’t confess a complaint or two. No, it’s not the relentless, unforgiving deadlines, nor the paralyzing stress of bid day, nor even that the cold fact that the position is inherently the go-to lightning rod for blame every time the owner can’t figure out why company money is evaporating at such an alarming rate (while that same owner is on the phone to …). Then there’s the local marine supplier, livid that his new personal jet ski delivered to the office warehouse is emerald green when he specifically told the salesman aquamarine!
    
This is just a typical construction office. Instead, I’m referring to an aspect of being an estimator that I found particularly vexing: the lack of information available to me to successfully perform my job. I’m not talking about the back-of-napkin and one-page, crayon client sketches that form the very foundation of conceptual budget estimating. That’s a whole different article and completely different meds than what I currently have stockpiled.

Bid Packages: A Primer
I’m referring to those architecturally stamped, paper behemoths stuffed to just short of “mineshaft explosion” with more working drawings, spec books, addenda, clarifications, geo reports and intern body parts than you can shake a stick at. These bulging and ink-reeking architectural bundles are known in the industry as “bid packages.” They’re commonly deployed in construction competitive-bid scenarios where competing prime contractors bid against one another in the hopes of being the low bid out of 28. Of course, this is like striving to be the fastest lemming in the group, but I’ve found it’s best not to think about it too long.
    
Bid packages are created by architecture/engineering firms (and Satan) who are often employed by the building client. The building client is a 32-year-old, white male named Scooter (or Skippy) whose dad left him everything to excel in life except common sense, human empathy and all semblance of transferrable skills.

Fun with Dates
The day the bid packages are released is called the actual date of distribution (ADOD). You’ll note that this date varies markedly from the advertised date of distribution (ADOD, er, the sequel) listed in the last construction activity report—the same report you used to base your decision on whether to bid this project or not. The official time difference between ADOD and ADOD-the-sequel is two weeks later. The bid date will always stay the same. This means the period for bidding the project has now shrunk from three weeks to one.
    
You might ask aloud, “How can this be?” Well, the answer is quite simple: A/Es are magic. Time, space and dimensionality don’t apply to architects or engineers. Besides, the bid date is the date the A/E promised to the client, and there’s no way the A/E is going to look bad, so it’s pretty much set in stone. If the package is released irresponsibly and outrageously late, it’s up to those unfortunates bidding the job to “create” enough time to properly bid the project.
    
This bending of space-time is an ability few estimators possess and of which only a handful have mastered. (Einstein took one look and said, “Oh, this is just nuts.”). But alas, this is also accepted architectural protocol. It should never be questioned and never, ever be pointed out to the A/E (or your own boss) that the practice is technically insane. Besides, it’s best you save your strength because it turns out that this administratively abbreviated bid period is but a mere warning shot of the unbridled carnage and chaos to ensue.
    
Special note—The A/E staff voted and decided “administratively abbreviated” was better than the original choice, which was this: “OMG! The package is late and unfinished and doomed and nothing’s been cross-checked or verified, and we admit it, we just gave up and threw together what we had and yeah, our client is totally screwed but he doesn’t seem to know any better so we may pull this off. Besides, we’re pretty sure we can bury it all in post-bid/post-award addenda and clarifications and—wait guys, I just thought of something. OMG! You’re gonna love this: Let’s charge the client for re-designing our own mistakes and then act like it’s normal protocol. Is this a great country or what?” Everyone present agreed this was a bit wordy.

“What Do You Call 1,000 Architects at the Bottom of the Ocean?”
So, bid it you will, and now the documents are scattered all asunder over plan table, desk and floor. You begin with the specification manual. As usual, the language is angry, partisan, threatening and strained through a thesaurus, but you’ve long grown accustom to it in a “Stockholm Syndrome-y” kind of way. You peruse the passages and marvel in their pristine incomprehensibility. You immerse yourself in deviously constructed clauses, lopsided phrasing and the perfectly twisted, sociopathic skirting of responsibility. Secretly, you wish you could live in their world.
    
This isn’t construction anymore; it’s art. You continue on, painfully (but the good kind) straining through legion after legion of frenzied indemnity clauses, sociopathic liquidated-damage scams, and masterfully crafted yet opulently evil language describing exactly why the A/E is not responsible for the design of this project and is also not responsible for mistakes, mis-information, mis-application, mis-sissippi or any letters and/or numbers of any kind contained in the bidding documents. The A/E is also not responsible for any of his poor life decisions and if anything should go wrong with this project, he doesn’t know you, he doesn’t know the client, he’s never been even been to that bar, and his real name may not even be Steve.
    
Hence, there’s little doubt that if anything goes wrong, from the coffee pot breaking down to something really absurd like, say, the most powerful nation on earth electing a morally vacant, intellectually invalid, Cheeto-colored, reality TV star as its leader (Wouldn’t that be crazy?), it is coming out of the contractor’s pay request.

Don’t Worry, There Is Help
There’s really no help. I just wanted attention.
    
With the spec book mercifully completed, you turn to the plan pages, but they’re not any better. Discrepancies and inconsistencies spring up like dandelions and you suddenly resist an overpowering urge to get in your car and drive over to the A/E office with the express purpose of introducing them to each other because, judging from the plan sheets, they clearly never talk to one another.
    
You may ask, “But Steve, surely there are procedures set up to answer questions you have during bid periods. Aren’t there?” First, when did we get on a first-name basis? Second, the answer to your question is, “well, sort of. “ There are generally two accepted ways for questions to be addressed during bid time. The first and far more sensible method of course is to simply call the A/E firm and speak to the person who created the plan/spec in question in order to discern their reasoning and motivation behind the detail in question. This never happens.

Do You Have Any Grey Poupon®?
You see, A/Es are very important people. Just ask them. They don’t like answering phones, and they didn’t spend four years (of daddy’s money) building cardboard Pizza Huts® to not lord their hallowed degrees and total mastery of all things architectural over lesser, unworthy souls such as mere [sniff, oh my] estimators. Besides, the A/E has learned from tragic past experience that:

  • Phone calls often have an actual live, breathing person on the other end of the line. They did not sign up for this.
  • It’s very hard to say you “never received the call” when you can actually hear the person breathing on the other end. This is why A/Es prefer email.
  • The person who is on the other end of the line and currently in need of assistance is about to expose some inaccuracy, mistake or fault in your documents and you just don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

Because of this, the A/E immediately resorts to the tried and true doctrine employed by all designers that “all questions must be in writing and must be submitted to the A/E office 10 days prior to bid.” You then calmly and rationally point out the glaring and obvious problem with this protocol is that this particular package came out only nine #$@&^ days before the bid date(!) and, of course, this obvious and easily realized reasoning opens the A/E’s eyes where he immediately sees the error of his ways and relinquishes. Just kidding!
    
Here’s what happens instead (this actually happened more than once to me): Instead of admitting to absurdity, the A/E will virtually always come back with something along the lines of, “Yeah. OK. Well,  let me talk to [insert name of office staffer suddenly crucial to the whole process but whom you’ve not heard of prior to this moment] and we’ll see if we can, ah, you know … [click].” The line goes dead. You call back, but the person has mysteriously fled the office and—surprise!—left no idea of when he’d be back. You’re not going to get your answer. So, like the many mighty estimators before you, you gather yourself, regroup, steel your senses … and play Scrabble® online for the rest of the afternoon. I mean, there’s no use being stupid about it.

Is This Article Still Going?
But how did such a crazy, partisan bidding environment come to be? Well, as with all things diabolical, there are a host of nefarious reasons, none of them good. First and without question the most vital is that the client and A/E got to the party first. There’s not much more to it. Working as a cohesive and concerted team (think “Boris and Natasha”), the client and A/E created this construction opportunity, and that alone means they can do, say and demand pretty much anything they please—no matter how impractical or outrageous. They know they can create a specification manual (and language contained therein) that’s laughably partisan and lopsided and, still, contractors will flock to bid and build their project.
    
Why? Because it’s the only game in town.
    
Yes, it’s depressing (if you’re a builder) but true. In most local/regional construction markets, building contractors are forced to bid less-than-quality bid packages in order to make ends meet. Competitive bid is for many the primary—if not only—avenue for work in their locale. This is especially true for contractors newer to the industry, those who haven’t had time or opportunity to establish a supporting client base and repeat business. But I apologize. This last bit was almost informative, and if you’ve made it this far in the article, you know that’s not what I’m going for here. Back to my rant.

Paper versus ’puter
Now, for all you young whipper-snappers out there who think you know everything yet are renting your appliances by the week, yes, I’m fully aware this piece makes me sound old and out of touch, and that  nowadays it’s rare to receive paper bid packages. Everything is cyber-this and cyber-that, and bid packages are distributed via online plan rooms in electronic format and—gosh, oh gosh—we just can’t believe how much easier everything got.
    
Well to this I say, “Pfffttttttt.” I’m not that old! I was there for that too—and I took notes. Here’s how electronic plan rooms and the internet improved the construction bidding experience: Remember those (formerly) pesky large and readable sheets that showed the whole picture of not only what you were bidding but also everything around it so you could better understand the complete context and surrounding influences on your bid item?
    
Well, thanks to cyber technology [new wave music plays; crowd of 30-somthings chant “Ooooooohhh” while never once breaking eye-contact with their phone], you can now calculate your impossibly intricate, million dollar cost estimates right from a computer screen 15 inches across on a good day of which a maximum of 3.28 square millimeters is actually available to you, allowing a total of 1/2264th of a plan page to remain visible at any one time.

No, It Doesn’t Get Better
It gets better. Do you also recall when you could use highlighters for clarity, scribble notes next to takeoffs for future reference, and lay out related sheets side by side to cross-check vital details? Well, forget that noise! If you’re truly a 21st century kind of estimator, you shouldn’t need those things. In today’s connected construction world, you’ll learn that it’s better to look good than be good at what you do. I mean, how do you think the Kardashians became the seventh rated commercial civil contractor in North America (look it up)?
    
But in the end, I too became an advocate of all things cyber. Come join us. You’ll like our world. The sky is paisley here and office chairs are made out of Bubble Wrap. Before long you’ll know the word and free yourself of old beliefs and antiquated crutches and bask in the newfound, life-altering assurance that there is genuinely no hope for your own future or that of mankind, so why even try?
    
There, now don’t you feel better?

Oh Look …
I know it seems like I’m been a little hard on the design community. Please understand, I’m only doing so because I embrace a sincere and studied belief that all architects and .99854 of engineers should be: 1) tarred, 2) feathered, 3) tarred again, 4) rolled in Italian breadcrumbs and 5) shot. I don’t think this is an unreasonable stance. I’m also 61 years old and wearing cow slippers that moo when I walk. So what do I know? Still, I’m sure there are some namby-pamby, anti-American wheat flakes out there who’ll insist I’ve been too extreme, too divisive. Well, to this I can only say, “Walk a mile in my shoes!!
    
Then bring my shoes back. Seriously. Besides, you should really get some work done now.

S.S. Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator and project manager for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years. In addition to construction and writing, Saucerman also taught building construction technology part-time for 11 years at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.