Old Buildings Rule: Bidding Historical Buildings

By Stephen Carr | May 15, 2018
South Pasadena Public Library




Of all the types of projects I have bid, old and historical building upgrades easily are my favorite. My first one was a remodel of the South Pasadena (Calif.) Library around 1982. During the job walk, I remember thinking, “This place is beautiful; why are they remodeling?” However, upon closer inspection, it was obvious that the building’s infrastructure—including the electrical systems—was in severe need of updates. One part of the job that stood out was the main library floor lighting fixtures. There were four of them, and they were humongous; the fixtures were primarily made of huge wooden beams weighing several hundred pounds. We had to remove the light fixtures, take them to a shop for repair, return them to the library and reinstall them.

On a side note, my employer’s purchasing agent returned from lunch with a salesman and claimed he knocked $10,000 off the cost of the lighting fixtures! Unfortunately, after going over the purchase order, I found he had left out the refurbishing of those four big fixtures, which coincidentally was worth $10,000.

A few years later, I worked for a company that specialized in historical building remodels, which was a dream job for me because I had become very bored with tilt-ups and small office cores. It was here I learned about the many “gotchas” involved in estimating these types of jobs. We developed these projects on a design/build basis, using an off-site engineer we had a good relationship with. One of the cool parts of the process was that we worked as a team, coming up with concepts on how to modernize the buildings. This was also the dangerous part. Crystal-clear communication is an absolute must for this process to work, as is the ability to analyze if an idea is practical, buildable and cost-effective.

Of course, as an estimator, cost is where I come in. One of the things I loved about this process was it got me out of the office. I needed to put my eyes on these old buildings to see if we could actually implement the ideas. I often had other team members with me, such as an engineer, a general foreman, a manufacturer’s representative and sometimes my boss. We tossed ideas back and forth until something buildable came from the discussion. Then, the engineer put it on paper, and I priced it. If the price was not acceptable, we reworked the idea until we accomplished a cost-effective building method.

I also worked on restoration projects that someone else designed and put out to bid. The Pasadena Playhouse is an example of this. This awesome old theater was not really suited to the designers’ goals, so they left it up to the bidders to make it work. The job walk turned out to be one of the most interesting I had ever been on. Many of the spaces were insufficient for the proposed installations. For instance, the sub-levels had low ceilings to begin with, and the engineer had routed 4-inch feeders through them. Unfortunately, I was not the low bidder, so I never had the opportunity to implement my ideas.

What qualities do you need to estimate this kind of work? First is imagination. This goes hand in hand with problem solving. One of my first bosses told me, “Don’t just come to me with a problem. Come to me with a problem and a solution.” This is certainly true when working on old buildings, which often present problem after problem. The solutions require a lot of imagination and creativity.

Next, you need people skills. You will be dealing with a wide variety of people on these projects, including owners, designers, general contractors and everyone else who thinks they should have input on how the project should be done. Diplomacy is often the order of the day and is a skill I wish I had learned earlier. Being right is not always the way to negotiate.

Another important quality is the ability to leverage not only your experience but also the experience of those around you. It was in this way I first learned about the problems related to the presence of asbestos, a substance found in almost every old building. Early in my career, a colleague mentioned the problem and saved me from missing a significant cost on an old building bid. Because of situations like this, I have added to my “old buildings rule” saying. I also now say “old people rule.” Oops; that was not diplomatic. I should say “experienced people rule.”

About The Author

CARR has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or [email protected], and read his blog at

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