Many of us bring our work home. One weekend, my young daughter was watching me do a takeoff; I was counting, measuring and highlighting the plans as I went. She got very excited and, with big, round eyes, asked me, “Daddy, is that what you do at work? Can I help?” At that moment, I had an epiphany: I color for a living.

My employer gave me big pieces of paper with pictures on them that I had to color. Then, of course, I had to start bringing home extra drawings so my helper could work with me. As a teenager, she started assisting me in earnest but eventually decided that coloring for a living was not what she wanted to do. (Instead, she became a crime analyst, and now she analyzes those who color outside the lines.)

Estimating art 101

The first time she observed me working, my daughter noticed my extensive use of highlighter pens. The first two employers I worked for required me to highlight everything I counted and measured. I also color-coded the takeoff: yellow for fixtures, green for outlets, blue for connections and pink for everything else, since those were the only highlighter colors available at that time.

I used an orange pencil for marking off conduit. As more colors became available, I added them to my scheme. During one particularly large branch project, when I was suffering major hand fatigue from coloring conduit runs, I switched from orange pencils to pen-style highlighters because they required less pressure to make a mark. Eventually, I got to a point where everything was marked off, including notes.  When I adopted paperless estimating, my color scheme evolved again, since these applications have large pallets of colors for highlighting.

Why do I mark off everything? It is the simplest way to prevent errors of omission. When you mark off everything, anything that is not marked off becomes very obvious. Some estimators say this practice takes too much time. Since one missed note can be worth thousands of dollars, I find that it's time well spent.

Eventually, I came to call this the “If It’s Not Marked Off, You Missed It” method, and it became rule No. 2 in my estimating classes.

Rule No. 1

Rule No. 1 is “Do Everything the Same Way Every Time.” If you are consistent, you will make fewer mistakes. It does not matter if the project is big, small, simple or complex. Everything still breaks down the same.

Start with a checklist showing the order in which you want to do your takeoff. We usually get the fixture counts out first and then scan the plans and specifications for other quotable items. After notifying the vendors about our quote requirements, we create the bid notes. Our bid notes document includes sections for bid date, specification sections included in the estimate, plan pages included in the estimate, addenda, schedule, bid items, general notes, questions, requests for information, unusual scope, exclusions, qualifications, quotations and a specification outline. The outline includes requirements for materials that affect the estimate, such as the type of wire, conduit, boxes and devices required. We also include an area for scope that is shown in the specifications, which may not be shown on the drawings.

After the bid notes are complete, proceed with the takeoff in the order that makes sense to you.

Some estimators like to finish all the takeoff on a page before moving on to the next page, believing it is quicker because they spend less time flipping plan sheets. Others like to complete the takeoff by system, such as switchgear, feeders, outlets, branch and so on. Whichever method you choose, do it the same way for every estimate. Use your checklist until your takeoff order becomes second nature.

The final pass

I use the final pass to prevent omissions. Start with the first page of the plan set, and ensure everything is marked off. Check that all the notes have been fully analyzed before highlighting them. I know it can be tempting to rush through the notes when it is close to bid time, but it is not a good idea. I just recently saw a note that called for about 1,000 feet of two 4-inch conduits for the incoming communication service. After you complete the final pass, remember to check your bid notes for scope shown in the specifications, and ensure the work is included in your takeoff.

While nothing is impossible, it is unlikely that you will make an error of omission using these methods. However, interpretation and typographical errors still are possible.