Estimating Under Pressure

By Stan Shook | Jun 15, 2005
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In today's fast-paced and highly competitive industry, estimators are often asked to achieve the impossible: estimate numerous projects, both large and small, and in a very short amount of time. The pressure placed on an estimating team can be intense, to say the least. Estimators are a key factor in a contractor's success.

The designs are detailed, deadlines are brutal and it is not uncommon to have two or more bids due the same day. Enter the addendums--pesky little changes issued the day before the bid is due, sometimes with a whole new set of drawings, or worse, an entirely different bid form with a completely different schedule of items to be priced.

The estimator can only hope the engineer clouded all of his changes and what was taken off so far will not have to be redone. Adding to the mayhem is an incessantly ringing phone, vendors who need more information, a general contractor asking unrelated questions, the job-walk that swallows up half the day and a computer that was working just fine a few minutes ago.

Then there is the risk of forgetting something big or misreading a quote and doubling the labor cost on a fire alarm system. One major mistake can win or lose the bid-either result can cost thousands of dollars. Even worse, an incorrectly priced or missed bid can cause a prospective client to lose faith in the contractor's ability.

I recently heard about a contractor who was low bidder on a $250,000 project by only a few thousand dollars. The No. 2 bidder won the job. He was listed low by the winning general contractor because the low contractor had not removed the exclusion of trenching from his standard bid proposal. The general contractor was in a hurry and guessed the trenching was worth $10,000 and added it to the bid.

Thus, No. 2 was listed because he included trenching and was now $8,000 lower. The real frustration for the low contractor was not the lost bid, but that he was actually carrying the trenching costs in his bid. He failed to remove the exclusion from his standard proposal form. Assuming he was going to make 10 percent profit or more, this simple mistake cost him more than $25,000.

How could this have been prevented? What could the contractor and estimators do to prevent it from happening again? How can they produce multiple, complete, accurate and thoroughly reviewed estimates at the same time? One way is to get creative.

Getting creative means tossing aside old ways and imagining new ones. Different ways for doing take-offs. Trying new time-saving ideas. Experimenting and concisely documenting results.

During take-offs, visualize the various installations as complete assemblies, not individual device installations. Look for similarities in designs, quantities and elements. Some areas may contain the exact amount of work as others. If so, take off one area and then copy it into the others.

Most of today's estimating software allows the estimator to enter data using either items, assemblies or both. Too many times estimators do not take advantage of this critical option. They peck away at the database, looking for item after item, counting one after another, often counting the same items they counted for the same installation hours earlier.

Building assemblies may take time up-front but can save hours of take-off time and provide continuity in the estimate and a higher degree of accuracy. This method can also lead to a higher degree of inaccuracy if assemblies are built incorrectly. Estimators must be 100 percent accurate on the multipliers when extending the project. In a large school-modernization project, for example, it would be a sad day when only one classroom was extended and there should have been 24. Mistakes like these can be easily caught by having an educated expectation of how far the project should be extended.

A large school project, by the way, is an excellent way to test creativity. The site and building work are separate entities. The site will require a different approach than the building and vice versa. Inside the building, you have many different types of rooms and in different quantities.

Typically, classrooms are similar in size and makeup. They are also typically multiplied throughout the project. Instead of taking off each classroom individually, only take off one. Then multiply it into the rest of the job. You may spend an hour analyzing the school layout and counting classrooms, but you will save more time by not having to count and roll off the other classrooms. You will be more consistent and more accurate.

In the future, I will try to provide more insight into the wacky and wild world of estimating, how to become the best and reveal more ways to be creative. In the meantime, try to find more ways to use ingenuity in your estimating and bidding. You just might find yourself having fun, relaxing, making fewer mistakes and winning more bids. 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 [email protected].


About The Author

Stan Shook was ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR's estimating columnist from 2005 to 2012. He works as an electrical estimator in California. Read his blog at or contact him directly [email protected]


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