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Field Trip

Hand me down my walkin’ shoes, hand me down my hat… —from “The Rubber Band Man,” Bell & Creed

Colleagues have often commented on my melodramatic facial transformations, as infrequent and short-lived as they might be. They’ve watched me scan my email inbox and seen how on a precious few mornings my usual dour countenance brightens with a luminosity that could light up the darkness at the hubs of hell. That flowering grin might be attributed to an unexpected letter of intent to contract, or notification of some windfall rebate that was not anticipated. But it might just as likely be an invitation to a jobsite walk on a current project.

I always look forward to the blessed little sojourns, not only for the occasion to drag myself away from the gloom of my cube and the multi-colored drudgery projected on dual screens, but also for the prospect of resolving some maddening vagaries or information gaps that have no-doubt emerged in my early perusal of the plans. Besides, it’s been ingrained since grade school: Who doesn’t love a good field trip?

Site visit invitations seem to be more numerous these days, due in part to a marked expansion in the renovation segment of our industry and to a similarly welcome increase in tenant buildouts of overbuilt office space shells left vacant by the economic downturn. Typically these projects are replete with site conditions that are peculiar to each particular job—conditions that often cannot (or will not) be communicated in the bid documents, hence the very necessary function of the site visit. In fact, many general contractors consider a job walk on an existing building to be an absolutely essential prerequisite to bidding a renovation or TI, and carry a “mandatory” declaration in the announcement (why any interested bidder would pass on the opportunity anyway is beyond me).

Mission: Gather Information

Anyway, when I escape my office trappings and arrive at the site, I don my hardhat, reflective vest, steel-toed boots and strike out on an investigative mission in search of insights that will hopefully give me an edge over my less perceptive competitors. And that is the first nugget of information that I aim to avail myself of here: exactly who the competition is on the project. This might actually be the most valuable tidbit of knowledge that I’ll gain on this visit. I’ll spot the usual suspects, the ones I know and recognize by sight. But I make it a point to be the last visitor to add my name and contact info to the sign-in sheet so I can scan the list and flush out any unfamiliar drywallers who might be present. Of course, we all know how crucial it is to keep a watchful eye on the competition. I devoted my entire February 2014 column to that very issue.

Next on my list of the jewels of enlightenment that I need to ferret out involves dimension and volume of work. Tenant interior and renovation drawings typically lack section views and building elevations, and so some very critical information can only be gained by a site walk. Deck heights, for instance, are almost never disclosed anywhere in the bid documents, but are obviously quite critical to a precise framing/drywall takeoff. The extent of MEP obstructions above the ceiling also needs to be recorded for future review with the production department, and I whisper a fervent thanks to whoever invented the cell phone camera.

Perimeter treatment seems to be another little mystery that the design team tends to keep concealed. The interior side of a new shell can range from framing only to a Level 5 finish, or anything in between. Typically a shell wall will be insulated, drywalled and taped (Level 1), but one can’t be sure of that without actually seeing it. I dutifully note the heights of sills and heads along with the level of interior wall treatment at the shell.

Then Gather Even More Information

Renovation drawings often include keynotes to perform various special activities, such as skimming existing walls to match new work, stripping existing wall coverings or utilizing existing ceiling tile, where possible. Apparently, nothing short of a personal inspection of the extent and condition of the existing walls and ceilings will suffice for an accurate projection of the extent of work on such items.

Other important items that I make note of on my walk include extent of demolition (if ongoing or completed), access for material stocking and scrapping, facilities, ongoing operations and site-specific safety concerns.

Before I leave the site, I check in with the GC’s rep and raise any questions that surfaced from my walk. There are usually several. I like to think that this has the added benefit of giving him the right impression that I have a solid understanding of the scope of the project. I like to think that he will consider this if someone turns in a bid that is considerably lower than mine—maybe someone who doesn’t believe that a site visit is a vital part of estimating work in existing buildings. Sometimes I’m right.

In any case, it’s always nice to take a walk.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at E&K of Phoenix.

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