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Digital Decision: Choosing a Program That Works


Ask any commercial drywall executive what his role consists of and he will undoubtedly tell you that it’s all about making decisions—little ones and big ones—all by degrees of importance and frequency. But of all the critical judgments an owner must confront, none surpass the pivotal choice one makes in purchasing (or renewing) a software program (or programs) that satisfy the ever-evolving requirements of a thriving firm.



“Requirements” is the appropriate term, because in this digital age, implementation and maintenance of the proper program(s) has become an existential issue for a construction firm of any competitive significance. The selection of estimating and/or project management programs on the market these days includes all shapes, sizes and colors, but construction execs face their first decision with a simple two-way fork in the road—that is, a choice between a program that integrates several modules into one, or multiple stand-alone estimating, project management and accounting programs. And as a famous 20th century poet once observed, the road taken has made all the difference.



As most execs will attest, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each of the two approaches, and identifiable strengths and weaknesses in the features of each individual program. But these same owners will come from differing perspectives with regard to their unique set of needs and circumstances, and therefore, preferences will vary.



All-in-One Platforms

On the surface, the apparent favorite, especially among first-time buyers of operating software, would be the combined-modules, all-in-one platform. The advantages are obvious, beginning with the inherent claim to fame: integrated management of all project phases. A truly integrated platform is one in which the modules are created simultaneously—designed from infancy to interface with each other via a single, mutually shared cloud-based “stacked” database. Ideally, the platform would engender team cohesion by uniting all phases of a project, such as estimating/precon with project management, field operations and accounting. This unification would be cemented through immediate feedback as an awarded job evolves and costs are incurred. More particularly, each module would perform its task while sharing incoming data across the board in real time.



It should be underscored here that availability of truly integrated platforms is a relatively recent development, emerging as a welcome answer to the prayers of thousands of wall and ceiling subcontractors who previously had to struggle to cobble some sort of job-costing program onto their stand-alone estimating programs. Some stand-alone drywall estimating programs, however, became entrenched as the “industry standard” through sheer longevity and a focus on providing user improvements through annual updates. The product of this focus provided a logical user-friendly service that was tough to compete with.



Consequently, from a seller’s standpoint, the estimating module of an integrated platform would have to perform at least as well as or even outperform the tried-and-true stand-alone program. In general, it would have to offer the basics for effective takeoff and pricing exercises, and utilize innovative features while offering an operating process that is intuitive and user-friendly—this in addition to the advantages of the sharing feature.



Some of the attractive features offered via estimating programs associated with current integrated models might include the following:



Bid sharing with other estimators. The “stacked database” feature, which allows project managers and accountants to interact with the estimate also allows for multiple estimators to work on the same project simultaneously. In addition to enabling delegation of certain segments of a bid (for example, an acoustical specialist might be called upon to assume only the ACT portion of the estimate), a bid reviewer might be able to correct any errors or omissions “on the fly” rather than referring them back to the original estimator. As a side note, an adjunct function to this sharing feature might include a “permissions” component, which would allow the original estimator to give access to teammates or superiors for active collaboration or “read only” status.



Easy downloading of bid documents. Any estimator will tell you that the biggest waste of time he can experience comes with downloading plan sets. Plan pages invariably come in some format that must be converted for many estimating programs to function properly. Recent developments have made it possible for some programs to read and manipulate drawings in their written formats—PDF, PNG or TIFF—without time-consuming conversion. Along these same lines, a truly progressive program might incorporate innovative technological elements, such as optical character recognition. OCR eliminates the mind-numbing chore of manually renaming plan pages with their identifiable designation, another menial task that makes estimators want to scream.



Can be used from remote locations. A truly advanced program will incorporate a remote takeoff feature that allows working the development of an estimate from distant locations. This access component is especially valuable in an era in which many estimators and managers prefer to work away from the office.



Template building. With an ideal estimating program, development of bid data—assemblies, material pricing, labor rates—might be saved as templates for reuse or for reference by other estimators, company-wide.



Preconstruction tracking. The near-perfect program will incorporate a function for marking and tracking revisions as they occur, such as addenda, alternates and other changes to the original bid. This function is critical when converting an awarded estimate to an operable budget.



Bid logging. The exemplary program will include a component that tracks bid volume, wins, losses and pending projects for analysis—company-wide or broken down by estimator. This enables company execs to view the overall record at a glance for proper steerage of the estimating ship.



These and other related features could ideally make a modular estimating program as attractive as an established stand-alone product, but its main draw is still the way it interfaces with project management and accounting modules. A well-oiled all-in-one platform will enable an estimator (or project manager, at this point) to take an awarded job, make any preconstruction adjustments (addenda, additive or deductive alternates) for options, and convert it to a “live” job with a single click of the mouse—a working budget complete with cost codes for labor and material items, i.e., coded incoming data from field operations and project management to be shared in real time with accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll and administration. It’s no wonder that a platform that offers this degree of integration can boast a side benefit of team-building through the cohesion it engenders.



Stand-Alone Platforms

Given such a glowing review, how, one might ask, can a stand-alone estimating program stand up against one that interfaces so well with the other functions of a progressive drywall firm? “Quite remarkably well” is the short answer. But then there’s the next logical question: How is that? Well, as is often the case, the strong qualities of a concept can latently encompass its inherent weaknesses as well (intuitively, the converse may also adhere: The weaknesses of one may reflect the strength of its alternative). That paradox seems to apply here.



While the designers of an innovative modular platform may have focused on how well the different modules interfaced with each other, the stand-alone developers focused like a laser beam on how to constantly improve their product through research and by polling users—sometimes over the course of decades—resulting in a near-perfect, user-friendly program that a good many drywall estimators prefer. Some of the enhancements that stand-alone programmers have developed have become standards for the industry.



Shareable, customizable databases. Many programs include default databases that are tailored for a particular phase of construction (walls and ceilings, for instance). Some are pre-loaded with material components of known industry manufacturers. Some also allow for multiple databases, including those created in house by the users themselves—i.e., customized, editable databases.



Overlay feature. Users clamored for years for a program that would offer the ability to overlay two takeoffs on the same view, thus allowing comparisons of old and revised takeoffs or to view possible spatial conflicts (for instance, ductwork clashes with full-height walls).



Takeoff roping. This function allows the estimator to segregate and analyze the components of a selected area.



Useful reports. Users asked for a streamlined variety of reports—only the ones that are commonly used, such as bid summaries, markups, material purchasing and labor reports.



Digitization of material RFPs. Finally, a component that allows for emailing of a list of quantified items for pricing by material suppliers. This feature is especially handy for eliminating pricing delays.



These are just a few of the many features that the stand-alone programmers have come up with over the years that enhance their inherent usefulness. But one of the most valuable qualities of many of the stand-alone programs lies with their ease of use. Most of these programs are more or less intuitive (again, owing to many years of user feedback), utilizing a navigating logic that makes them truly user-friendly. This is a subtle, built-in quality that is hard to isolate but one that a majority of users attest to. This intuitive feature is a quality that may be lacking with the recently developed modular platforms, a deficiency that keeps programmers constantly making upgrades “on the fly,” creating excessive downtime for estimators—a condition that only makes them less user-friendly.



The Bottom Line

This brings us to the subtopic of implementation or, more to the point, the cost thereof. As we mentioned before, owners who are contemplating the purchase of an estimating program or a suite of modular programs may be attracted to either model due to their own unique circumstances. For instance, the exec of a firm that is experiencing rapid growth and is relatively new to job-costing may be more interested in an “across the board” approach that entails training (or retraining) a number of team members. Conversely, an exec who is anticipating an annual renewal of an existing estimating program might be perfectly happy with his stand-alone program, having already gone through the struggle of “bolting on” his job-costing and accounting programs, and after training his entire office on the programs they are now accustomed to.



Just an additional side note advantage of stand-alone program X that has become an industry standard: When an exec is looking to recruit a new estimator, the field is generally rife with those who already have experience on program X, whereas most integrated platforms are fairly new to the market, and familiarity with them is currently uncommon.



This overview comparison between types of estimating programs is by its condensed nature limited in scope. However, its presentation illustrates a dynamic effort to constantly improve construction software through vigorous competition and creative innovation—a benefit to all involved.



Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager in the Phoenix area.

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