As the economy stands on firmer ground, privately funded buildings are coming back to life, bringing a surge of design-build projects with it. This is very good news for estimators, because more buildings mean more work to bid on and win for the company. The bad news is design-build projects typically aren’t complete designs. In fact, most have no design at all.

Estimating a nondesigned job can be a challenge, especially when the client wants an accurate and realistic price. In fact, they might award the contract on this price—no further negotiation. So you have to make sure you really cover your you-know-what.

What do you do when there isn’t a design? What do you count? How can you estimate something that isn’t shown? How do you estimate blind?

Remember, all jobs are basically the same. All buildings require some basic electrical systems and requirements. They all need lights, exit signs, branch devices and power. They all need a telecom infrastructure. They all need fire alarms, security and the rest. It is your job to find out exactly what the building in front of you has and what it needs.

Try to remember past designs you have worked on. Recall them in your mind, and apply the design elements to this project. Maybe you have recently worked on a similar building that was close in size. Was it fully designed? Compare the square footage, quantity of systems, equipment and distribution system. This could be a great template with which to price your design-build project.

Start by asking questions, and make a list. Immediately research, study and figure out exactly what the building’s use will be. What is its function? What will people be doing inside of it? What is the building’s layout? Where are the electrical rooms? What do the specifications tell us? Is there a scope-of-work document, and is it specific to the electrical contractor? Does it match the requirements of the bid form? Are the specs generic and boilerplate? Are they specific to the project? Do they include discussion on specific rooms and systems related to the building?

The list should have two columns: one for known elements this building has and one for unknown elements this building might have. The “knowns” are somewhat easy as they should be shown on the plans and discussed in the specs. Most of them are obvious: lighting, branch, fire alarm, exit signs, etc.

The “unknowns” list is tougher. This list needs to be everything you think this building might have or require, but isn’t shown. If you think it will have elevators, put it on the list and find out how many there are. If you think it is going to have rooftop air-conditioning units, put it on the list and find out how many. If you can imagine this building will get lightning protection, mark it down.

By the time you are done asking questions and creating your list, you should have a vast knowledge of the building, its design or lack thereof, and what you need to do to put together a complete price.

Create and send RFIs

Each item of design you list in the “unknowns” column could potentially be a question you may want to submit to the owner, architect, engineer and general contractor. There may also be many questions related to items in the “knowns” column.

Set a date by which to submit these questions (allowing for response time) and then set out to answer as many of them as you can before writing and sending a request for information (RFI). Start by eliminating the obvious. This will expose the remaining unresolved mysteries.

When writing an RFI, make sure you submit intelligent, useful questions that assist your client in designing their job. By submitting an RFI, you are exposing a bit of yourself to the client. Therefore, it is imperative that you write smart and ask smart questions.

Qualify and quantify

On design-build jobs, the lowest price doesn’t always win. Incomplete bids are often disregarded; and the more thorough and complete higher-priced bidders are often called in for an interview.

How you prepare your cost proposal to your client will be very important. In this proposal, you should qualify and quantify the many installations you included in your estimate. List the quantity and sizes of panel boards, transformers, feeders and other switchgear elements.

List any allowance cost amounts you included for lighting fixtures or other specialty systems. Use your list of knowns and unknowns, RFI questions, audit trail and any other notes you may have taken to further qualify your bid. Make sure you note any and all exclusions.

Design-build projects can be fun and profitable when estimated thoroughly. So, good luck, have fun and make sure you cover your you-know-what. EC

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or sfs@TakeOff16.com.