How to Streamline Today’s Estimating Process

This post was published in the January/February edition of DCD Magazine.

The current generation of estimators is not looking for a “bits and pieces” solution for construction estimating. When estimators use many different programs at the same time, they have a greater likelihood of losing vital information during data transfer between applications.

The ideal estimating solution integrates quantity takeoff into the estimate, whether it is 2D or 3D. This provides a visual path that enables information verification, as well as streamlined comparisons between different versions of estimates and takeoffs. Some of the areas that a solution should have are ease in organizing and managing information, generating estimates, comprehending assemblies and data flow, and updating the database.

Building a construction estimate is not a straightforward or simple exercise. The process is often long and drawn out. Several steps during the estimate include:

  • Takeoff – whether it’s a conceptual estimate or a detailed estimate, we extract quantities from the deliverables we are giving. Over the past 10-15 years we have been using digital takeoff as a way of building a list of quantities based on the document set provided. More often, we are starting to see and receive up to three models from which we extract quantities we can condition and use.
  • Interpret the project – the earlier we are in the project, the more likely it is that we won’t have quantities to extract. As estimators, we have to interpret means, methods, and quantities based on past experiences, conversations with the architect and owner, and knowledge of the project location. This is often referred to as the “art of estimating.”
  • Building direct costs – building the estimate involves defining a list of items required to construct the project. This does not only include the final, in-place construction, but also temporary construction, special equipment associated with the construction, and safety related items. After defining the list of items, we apply the quantities we have extracted from the deliverables we were given and/or the interpreted quantities we assume will be in the project. We then need to think about how that item will be manufactured and constructed, and establish unit prices based on our history, crew and equipment rates, and crew productivity.
  • Building indirect costs – building indirects is not simple either. We can start with a list of typical indirects, such as general conditions, subguard, indemnification, etc. However, building an accurate and complete set of fees is a complicated, research-driven process. Owner requirements often call for general requirements to be included in the scope of work versus general conditions for staff, which are usually included below the line. In effect, we produce a resource-loaded schedule that includes city bonds, taxes, etc. No two projects are the same – contingency and escalation and risk profile being different for each.
  • Quality control – after assembling a complete estimate (direct and indirect costs), we look for gaps in the estimate and what we may have overlooked. Whether we have little or no information, or if the information is not coordinated, we need the estimate to be right. The old saying, “You’re doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t” often comes to mind. Given the reality that nearly every project is one-of-a-kind, with prototypes having the wild card of variability – specifically, the site – we still compare the estimate against similar projects and check our work for a level of comfort before submitting an estimate. Finally, we are often not creating a new estimate, but refining the estimate from a prior phase. Because of this, we are able to determine what changed and speak intelligently about the project estimate with the owner and answer any of their questions.

Most of today’s estimating technologies are not new. When you review the preconstruction landscape, you see products like the 1960’s MC2, the late 1970’s Sage Timberline, and the early 1990’s WinEst. Newer 2D takeoff tools such as OST, PlanSwift, and ETakeoff have entered into our technology vocabulary. Most recently, model-based tools such Vico, Innovaya, and Assemble have been implemented by many in the market. Every single one of these technologies is great within its own right. However, none of these technologies enables an estimator to do all the steps in the above process in a single application; rather, these applications are point solutions addressing one or two of the steps in the process.

To make matters worse, despite the point solutions being solid and well-loved tools, the way we are forced to move data from one tool to the next introduces more challenges. For example, following the process above with a 2D deliverable of plans, elevations, and sections is tedious and difficult at best. In this case, we would use our 2D takeoff tool of choice to build a list of quantities and then copy and paste these into Excel so that we can both condition and manipulate the quantity to create additional quantities (e.g. use the area of slab multiplied by an assumed pounds of steel per square foot to create tons of rebar).

We would then copy this resulting quantity and paste it into the quantity field of a line item in our estimating solution. At each copy and paste, we run the risk of introducing an error. Further, six months from now, when we are in an estimate review meeting with the owner, how do we communicate where the quantity we are comparing the current estimate came from? How do we build that trust with the owner and the project team that we have our arms around the project when we cannot communicate the answer to a seemingly simple question?

I have used all of the major estimating software such as Sage Timberline, MC2, and WinEst. They serve the same purpose, but with a few different menus and options. For the past 10 years of using estimating tools, I have not really noticed any evolution in any of the major estimating software. As an estimator, I have always wanted a solution that is more user friendly (e.g. less menus), intelligent, integrated, and visual. Last, but not least, this solution would have a well-organized database backup system.

Over the last two years Beck Technology has developed a new detailed estimating product called DESTINI Estimator. DESTINI Estimator was developed in partnership with Sundt Construction in Tempe, Arizona. Their software encompasses the entire construction estimating process: takeoff, interpreting the project, building direct costs, building indirect costs, and quality control. Since the entire process is contained in a single software application, there is no lost data, less copy and paste errors, and project owner conversations are clear with intelligent explanations of their project estimate details.

The next generation of estimators is entering the workforce and building its experience with software. I am excited for these estimators—they will not have to “walk uphill, in the snow, both ways,” as I had to do throughout my career. Using DESTINI Estimator, they will discover not only estimating software, but truly, a support system throughout their estimating process.

About the Author: Taimoor Khan is the Preconstruction Manager at Tonn and Blank Construction in Indiana. He has a natural skill in problem solving with the ability to view a problem or issue from multiple perspectives, evaluate options with limited information, and make effective decisions. Khan leads the preconstruction/estimating department for the Midwest design-build general contractor. Tonn and Blank Construction is a user of DESTINI Profiler and DESTINI Estimator.