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Abra-abra-cadabra. I want to reach out and grab ya! — Steve Miller

I frequently overhear people comment on what a notoriously edgy sort of bunch we estimators are. I’ve heard us being compared to everything from an over-wound watch to a hair-trigger on a double-cocked derringer. Maybe we are a rather tense lot, but not without good reason. A sputtering economy, looming deadlines and soaring expectations all contribute to a hand-wringing atmosphere of high anxiety peculiar only to us bidmeisters.

But nothing else sends the stress levels skyrocketing like the prospect of getting blind-sided by some partly concealed detail or some obscure note rendered in a tiny font size demanding the magnification of an electron microscope. They are the traps of our trade—the pitfalls of our profession, camouflaged by veiled clues and vague informational hints: GOTCHAs! That’s how they are referred to in the industry vernacular. Cute name, but their consequences can be deadly. They are enticements to error and omission, lying in wait, crouching like hungry tigers amid the plan pages, ready to pounce ….

I’ll Prove It

An exaggeration? Some say I indulge in an excess of melodrama in my prose. OK, maybe sometimes, but with regard to this issue, I’d say I am understated if anything. To support my contention, I’ve solicited GOTCHA examples from my bidmeister brothers nationwide. The enthusiastic response to my request clearly indicates a consensus in the ranks, and the items that they cite will be woefully familiar only to the close-knit family of drywall exactimators.

For instance, a colleague from Cleveland spewed a litany of the little document demons, including the following: shaftwall (especially the horizontal variety) that is shown on the mechanical drawings only; 33 mil stud thickness for 20 gauge framing (tiny note appearing on an unrelated page); multiple levels of abuse board appearing in the same spec (do you play it safe, or do you want the job?); rated assemblies shown on the life safety pages but not on the wall types; exterior details indicating a lighter gauge stud than required by the performance spec; treatment of sheathing joints “per manufacturers’ recommendations” (clearly a hole with sufficient driving clearance for an H-1).

A highly respected mentor hailing from the Raleigh-Durham area was similarly effusive. He contributed the subsequent points of complaint: erroneously stated scales (sometimes you catch it, sometimes you don’t) and differing scales for different details on the same page (drives us batty!); diagonal brace frames that interfere with framing but don’t appear to do so on the structural drawings (the only place they appear); a finish schedule that contradicts the reflected ceiling plan (all too common!); putty pads for receptacle and switch boxes (not in the electrician’s scope because, why?); one remote and unobtrusive cut on a stair section that vaguely shows drywall on the underside, while other more distinct details omit it.

A friendly competitor here in the Phoenix area was equally enthusiastic with his GOTCHA contributions: backing and blocking for owner-installed equipment (what, you’re not psychic?); draft stops (usually no clear attic plans to catch the eye, only murky notes); wall closures under access floors (okay, rated walls, it’s assumed, but acoustical walls could go either way); grease duct enclosures (of course, a drywall estimator could go blind perusing the mechanical plans for this sort of thing); and offsets or beam enclosures where rated walls interfere with overhead obstructions (even overlays don’t replicate the as-built locations).

Sweat the Details

Interestingly enough, some of my colleagues were so fixated on some particular GOTCHA in their history that they could only cite the one. A close friend in Denver lost many a night’s sleep over the old G90 sting (standard galvanized coating for structural studs is G60). And somewhere in the Mile-High City, there stands a hospital framed entirely with G60 studs, when the spec called for G90 (oh, the horror!). My “brothaman” in Fort Worth is obsessed with a very tiny ACT detail that vaguely shows a step wall mold instead of the standard wall angle, but does not specify it verbally. My Las Vegas friend’s tale of woe involves rated drywall closures at the top of CMU walls. He once did a takeoff on a prison job where an ambiguous detail of this sort caught his eye. The condition applied to 4,000 linear feet of wall! He included it and was the high bidder (we pity the guy who got the job). Another comrade in the Bay Area recalls a tenant improvement job, an office buildout set of plans that included distinct floor plans for three floors, and a tiny obscure note that read: fourth floor typical. Needless to say, the low bidder was 25 percent low.

The point of all this ranting is not to point a finger at the negligence of design professionals. Well, maybe it is to some degree, but for the most part it is a warning for fellow bidmeisters to retain that heightened awareness that outsiders call anxiety. Because every time we download a set of plans, we walk onto a potential mine field. Stay testy, my friends, and watch out for the GOTCHAs. Evidently, they’re out there.

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

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