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On Spreadsheets and Spec Books

A Construction Estimator’s Tale

I am a commercial construction estimator. Each workday my worth rests in my ability to decipher and deliver costs on building construction projects. I spend my days toiling away in my (12' 6 1/2" x 9' 3/8") office churning out take-offs and entering costs into spreadsheets, pausing only occasionally to gaze out my (north-facing, aluminum-clad, low-e glazed Andersen® casement – TerraTone) window or stare up at the dozens of hand-made missiles—fashioned from push-pins, clear tape and Post-it® notes for the tail—firmly embedded in the (USG® 2' x 2' revealed-edge, Fissuretone) ceiling tiles above. They pay me to do this.

I work away awash in faded triangular scales, blueprints of varying comprehensibility and strict deadlines based on poor planning and false hope. It’s Friday and it’s 5 p.m. Toby (my boss—the founder’s eldest son and 21 years my junior) has been gone since noon. He’s probably halfway to Green Bay by now. I, on the other hand, have spent the last nine hours and 12 minutes compiling, computing and SWAGging (Silly Wild A** Guessing) my way through yet another bid package. Finally and familiarly, I reach the point where the muscles at the back of my neck constrict to the point where electrical pulse no longer flows from my aching fingers to my battered brain. It’s time to go home.


I lock up (Becky, our receptionist, goes home at 4 p.m.) and make my way out to my (1999 Ford Taurus, 166,000 miles, no a/c, great stereo) car. Leaving work is mostly a good thing but being that it’s Friday, the normal Monday–Thursday drive home will be different in two significant ways. Tonight the trek home will include (1) a welcome, once-weekly, relief-filled, unbridled spasm of glorious exhale accompanied by (2) an involuntary, uninvited and pain-staking mental post-mortem of the work week.


I’m thinking most of you can relate to the former. It’s the latter where things grow sinister. The Friday evening “recap” is a weekly replay of the myriad, sordid events from the past five days. These thoughts seem to form in congregation to gleefully and recklessly bounce and bank unfettered off the inside walls of my (now) tired, vulnerable brain. Their membership is composed of unwelcome and chaotic shards of transient and random data—hearth width, gas piping, water table, addenda three, liquidated damages, bid bond—that collect and coalesce into a sort of synaptic angry mob, pummeling and over-powering any gentler weekend thoughts to which I’ve now granted access to my psyche. I try to nudge the good stuff along but the more I press, the more unrelenting and unruly the mob becomes. Finally, just before all is lost, the intervention of pure and unadulterated exhaustion (who has heard quite enough, thank you) mercifully steps in to quell the uproar. Ahhh, numbness.


Well, it’s kind of like calm.

Home, Sweet Home

I pull into my (1/12 slope, 3,500 PSI air-entrained concrete) driveway, hit the garage door button (1/3 horsepower auger-drive operator with dual digital operators) and navigate my way through the (Clopay® 16’ x 7’ flush steel insulated) overhead door. I line my car up perfectly with the mark I chalked on the back wall during my vacation. Wife and kids are at Hattie’s tonight so the coast is clear. I pace off the 13 steps to my back door, fumble for my house key and stick it into the (Weiser® bright brass Troy-style entry) knob.


Entering the kitchen, I make a beeline for the (Frigidaire 21 cubic foot, frost-free w/icemaker, white) refrigerator and grab a cold beverage (Budwesiser®). Shoes go flying and I plop down dormant on the sofa where I sit motionless for 15 minutes. Mind and body are in complete shutdown. A shot of Korbel® would go great with the beer but there is no way I’m walking the seven-and-a-half feet to the liquor cabinet. The remote is on top of the cabinet, so it looks like TV’s out too. I allow the mob—a bit more civilized now—to convene again.


The week started out OK. I nailed a little one on Monday, an office buildout—by just $4,000. I was $190,000 and second-place came in at $194,000. That was sweet. It’s always nice to have second-place so close. It saves all the second-guessing and brow-beating from the boss. You see, in the life of a construction estimator, most of the time there are only two certain but diametrically opposed outcomes to every bid we create: (1) We come in high and the boss harangues us for not “being competitive enough,” (2) We come in low and the boss spends the next week asking you what you missed.


I’m pretty sure this is why you never seem to meet older estimators—they’re all dead, committed or in jail for killing the founder’s son (“Oh, believe me, your Honor. He reeeaaaally had it coming!”) But this one turned out OK.


Tuesday was unremarkable, and most of Wednesday was spent gearing up for Thursday’s bid—phoning subs and suppliers to make sure they were still bidding. The bid was due at 2 p.m. on Thursday but (as always) with so many bids to get out, I only really got into the plans on Monday. Before that it was just bid invites, a few in-house takeoffs and troubleshooting the website and downloading issues. But now I was deep into it. And as is too often the case anymore, the architectural plans were an absolute mess. The specs were boilerplate, the addenda late getting out, and the architect snotty and defensive when you questioned anything. Well OK, I guess I can relate to that last one. Andy wasn’t any help either. He’s the city engineer—typical government employee with unnaturally red hair, way too much tenure and nothing between his ears except a vacuous grin. Alice, his secretary, spends the afternoons asleep at her desk.


Addenda number four was 133 pages long and arrived early Wednesday morning, a day before the bid. The bid date and time remained unchanged. But this wasn’t a surprise. We knew they weren’t going to extend it because the plans were three months late hitting the streets and the city wasn’t about to move the advertised ground-breaking back. They’d already given the caterer a down-payment. Also, we heard the mayor told engineering that it would “look bad” to postpone things—especially after the last fiasco. You see, this wasn’t the first go-round for the fire station project. I’d bid it about a year ago (along with 14 other GCs) and the low bid (it wasn’t me) was $420,000 over the architect’s projected $700,000 budget. But the architect had a solid excuse: “Well, the contractors obviously didn’t understand the intent of the plans.” Don’t try to figure out. It will only bring you heartache. Given the cost overage was more than 10 percent, the city couldn’t—by ordinance—negotiate with the low-bidder. So it ended back on the drawing board where the architect charged the city for the additional revisions (good gig, huh?).

The Moment of Truth

Bid day came and I spent it all on the phone and at the computer switching back and forth between my inbox and spreadsheet. The fax streamed in the background (yes, even with email there are still a lot of faxers). Of course, Toby frantically and pointlessly streaked in and out of my office all day long to assure me at regular intervals that I was missing something. I finally got Becky to draw him away with some bogus copier malfunction. Now I owe Becky. It was worth it though; he was out of my hair. There must have been a lot of GC’s bidding the job (even more than I saw on the plan-holder’s list) because we were getting really good coverage on all the line items. We even got a ton of unsolicited proposals. This can be a curse and a blessing. It’s always great to have coverage, but it can be dangerous when the low bid is from someone you’ve never heard of. It can mean a lot of time for me on the phone with that bidder.


By 1:15 p.m. we had 11 plumbing bids and 21 electrical. Sparkland Electric was low the entire day but pulled his bid at 1:47 p.m. There ought to be a law. As we often do, I stayed behind receiving bids while Toby ran the bid over for to letting. He said everyone was packed into the city clerk’s office and the place smelled like a locker room. It was affecting his delicate sensibilities. We’d filled out the bid forms earlier, enclosed our license and bid bond and entered the alternate numbers and unit prices as best we could. Now all that was left was for me to relay the base bid and balance of empty lines to Toby via cellphone. This happened at about 5 minutes to 2 p.m. Toby then quickly sealed the bid envelope, tossed it on top of the stack and braced for the results. As always, I was still getting bids after the deadline. The toilet accessory guy called me at 2:08 to “see how his number looked.” I love those guys.


We ended up fifth out of 12 bidders, pretty good. Toby told me I wasn’t aggressive enough. I was $28,000 over Hammertack Construction’s low bid of $756,900 and all the bids were bunched together pretty good for a change—no silly highs or lows. Since it’s only $56,900 over budget, they’ll likely make it go this time. Well, onto the next one. After Toby phoned in the results, I started cleaning up the mess. Immediately all of the pent-up stress from the day started to slowly dissipate. Chaos to calm in a half-hour. Maybe it is true. Maybe everything in nature really does achieve equilibrium eventually. Who knows? But I was getting philosophical now. I always got that way after a bid. I finished up the day cramming bids into folders and fielding phone calls, assured with the knowledge that I’d not be accomplishing a whole lot more that day. Toby had a 2:48 p.m. tee time and Becky left at 3:30 p.m. because she was ferrying bids to me over lunch, so I was by myself now.


The calls were the same as usual, subs and suppliers wanting to know how their numbers fared. I wanted to explain to each and every one of them that even if I did have time during a typical bid day to properly analyze and adequately assign the necessary due diligence to the dozens of bids that come screaming into the office during bid day, it can often still take weeks to sort out the “real” numbers and compare the apples-and-oranges scopes. But they don’t want to hear that, and I had nowhere near the energy to explain it. So I took a more (self) entertaining route. I was still coming down from the post-bid euphoria (and feeling a little playful) so I started telling every caller they were low with me. I’m sure Hammertack (since they use the same subs and suppliers I do) would appreciate the humor later on during buyout. I betcha they’ll laugh and laugh and laugh.


So in the end, not a bad week at all. Now, about that brandy.

When he is not writing or cartooning, S.S. Sauceman is a construction estimator in Minot, N.D.

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