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Some Old School Advice on Renovations

One of the various developments that have cropped up in our industry in response to the dearth of financial resources is a dramatic rise in the number of remodel jobs flooding the construction marketplace. It’s to be expected. If current funding is insufficient to generate new facilities, then aging (a euphemism for run-down, dilapidated or crumbling) ones will have to undergo restoration just to maintain the status quo.

Remodels, restorations, renovations, retrofits—call them what you will, that which is not a rose by any other name still smells … bad. Not that I would prefer the obvious alternative—i.e., no work at all—but let’s be real; the level of ambiguity associated with renovations makes estimating new construction seem like a midday stroll through the park by comparison. It’s been more times than I wish to recall that I’ve been presented with a set of remodel documents that tempted me to shut off the computer screen and haul out the Ouija board.

Having now purged some of the toxin that the mere mention of the word remodel injects into my bloodstream, let’s all hold our collective noses and deal with the objectionable reality. Ambiguity notwithstanding, remodel jobs do offer latent opportunities for commercial drywall estimators who know how to approach them, as they seem to separate the men from the boys in terms of experience. I offer a few gems of sage advice in avoiding the potential pitfalls inherent in pricing and performing on retreads.

Do a site visit. One of the few advantages that a renovation has over new construction is that it already physically exists. If it’s at all possible, invest the time in doing an onsite inspection, preferably after demolition has occurred. Many paper-based ambiguities can be eliminated or at least minimized by simply walking the job and making some basic assessments. If your visit is well-timed, the extent of demolition can be determined, and thereby fixed in your proposal. Other conditions such as the interface between existing conditions/materials against new work and the consequences thereof can best be assessed from firsthand observation. If you are a field-seasoned estimator (as opposed to a young, tech-savvy upstart), you’ll be able to predict the widely varied degrees of difficulty associated with the impact of site conditions on labor. If you lack the kind of insight that hands-on experience affords, take a field supervisor with you to advise. Site visits may seem time-consuming, but they can give you the clarifying edge over your competitor, who stayed within the comfortable confines of his office, is now applying “the great unknown” factor to his proposal, and consequently has to cover his assets.

Adjust labor productions to match realities. Ask anyone who’s ever worked on a remodel, and they’ll run through a lengthy list of likely encumbrances associated with restorations that will slow your top production crews to a crawl. Difficulties establishing an efficient flow of work, lack of repetition in assemblies, trade-stacking and ongoing occupation of the facility are just a few of the obstacles that your work force will encounter. On a typical remodel, your guys will literally spend more time “jumping around” than installing product.

Utilize allowances. When and where precise quantification is difficult or impossible, a best-guess allowance gives you a safety net but may still get you within striking distance of picking up the work. This approach is best used for patch-and-repair conditions that give your client a ballpark estimate of costs but also allow for potential overruns beyond anticipated scope. A word to the wise: An allowance agreement works well in these circumstances if your field supervisors are effective in tracking hours/materials spent. If not, you’re probably flirting with disaster here, and the aforementioned Ouija board might be a better alternative.

Qualify your proposal with precision and clarity. Eliminate gray area by clearly stating your take on the scope of work in very specific terms. Some critical items that are typical with renovation work include the following:

• Extent of demolition/replacement. Use specific gridlines, floor designations, room numbers, compass points (i.e., entire north wall at room 116), etc. or cite plan pages to designate what you have covered in your estimate. Demolition beyond the anticipated scope due to unforeseen circumstances or excessive zeal leads to the most common misunderstanding in performing remodel work. Vague or sketchy references to the limits of work can vaporize your markup before you hit the job.

• Ongoing facility functions. Verify what the allowable hours of operation are to be when working in buildings that are occupied. Adjust for shift work.

• Specific materials intended for use to “match existing.” Many materials and methods used in old construction are obsolete. Secure approval for your submitted products, and clarify that any deviation may result in increased cost.

Of course, performing remodel work is not all gloom and doom. The award of a small or mid-size renovation can often open the door to extensive unanticipated extra work that emerges during performance—work that can be priced with the comfort of knowing there is no competition. And armed with some of the weapons of defense named above, restorations can provide an astute estimator with a profitable path to sustenance in a time of famine.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at Darrell Julian Construction, a commercial drywall/framing contractor based in Albuquerque.

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