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It’s Just a Budget!

No good deed goes unpunished.—Mark Twain

I can almost hear a collective groan go up from the readership at the mere mention of a budget proposal—a groan and a reiteration of the oft-quoted estimator’s lament: We don’t need the practice, we just need a job! I can’t really say I blame you for the consternation for, as you know, much of the work done on budgets goes unrewarded, at least on the surface. So why is it that we even bother with these elusive mirages when there are any number of invitations to bid jobs that are funded and will be performed? As usual, the reasons are several, including the goodwill generated with the general contractor and the prospect that we will enjoy some preferential treatment when the job comes out for bid. Then there’s always the advantage over others of having prior familiarity, but also, there’s the opportunity for being creative with a set of plans that is schematic at best.

Yes, it’s true: There are some aspects of working up a budget that are inherently pleasurable, and one of them is having a set of plans that is lacking in information. Oh, I know I seem to contradict the many words of complaint I’ve committed to ink over plans that are lacking, but on budget drawings, the maxim is reversed and less is more. With a conceptual plan set, I get to build the job the way I know it should be built. In other words, I get to be the design team.

For example, I know an estimator who recently did a budget for a six-story hotel. The structure was poured-in-place concrete, and each of the floors was 10 feet in height. The architectural plans lacked any detailed exterior wall sections, and the structural plans did not address the metal framing scope at all. This gave my colleague the latitude to opt for infill framing, slab-to-slab, over balloon framing over the entire 60 feet. This, in turn, would allow a framing crew to do all of their exterior work from inside off of the poured decks as opposed to off of manlifts, and would allow for lighter gauge material. From his own experience, he was able to offer the GC an economical assembly that saved significant costs in labor and material, and eliminated the cost of scaffold or manlift rental to boot.

Such creativity should never be lost among a parade of vaguely defined numbers. A bidmeister’s best interpretation of a conceptual set of plans presents a serious opportunity to buddy up with the GC and show off his chops. After all, he’s earned some bragging rights. But better still, if he’s wise enough, he’ll engage his counterpart in a dialogue that makes the GC think that all of these proposed assemblies came out of his own head. He’ll present a set of assumptions deriving from his best take on the work and ask the GC if what he’s got is something that he (the GC) had in mind (that is, unless the general has already laid down some guidelines, in which case the approach is a little different). Either way, the best way to arrive at set of suitable assemblies that are constructible, economical, and conform to the general intent of the plans, is to arrive at that goal in a close collaboration with the GC. In this way, he is not only presented with a solid set of numbers, but he’s participated in the means and methods that got him there. And the knowledge that he’s gained from that exercise will be invaluable to him in terms of confidence when it’s time to explain his concepts to the owner and design team.

This sort of collaborative spirit will, more often than not, convince the general contractor that the cooperative sub, who has demonstrated a commanding knowledge of the project, will be a contributing member of the performance team, if and when the job enters the final preconstruction phases.

Granted, the rewards for such gratuitous efforts are nebulous at best. I have seen fast-track jobs awarded on the basis of the budget alone, with post-award details change-ordered. I’ve seen budget drawings converted to bid docs over the course of two weeks or ranging up to a year later. Then there’s that too-often encountered project that takes up a week of your life, then fades into oblivion, never to be heard or spoken of again. It’s these phantom jobs that make us want to repeat the familiar quote above through grinding teeth.

However, I prefer to think that the goodwill I generate by providing this service to our clients will pay off in the long run, if not as an immediate consequence, then in less direct but equally tangible rewards. At least, I hope so because I really don’t need the practice.

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

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