Estimating Under Pressure, Part 3

The simple days of “base bid only” are long gone. Today’s bid form is alive, changing on a moment’s notice and getting meaner every day. It doesn’t know who you are and it doesn’t care how you laid out your estimate. It doesn’t care about drawing numbers or how many levels and offices the building has. Face it: the bid form doesn’t care about you. Neither does the owner, architect or engineer. Of course, they do care about the costs of the various building elements, specific rooms, systems and getting as much free pricing as they can—they just don’t think to ask for it the first time around. Instead, they usually issue an addendum with an entirely new bid form, asking for a load of special breakouts.

How can you anticipate the changes that might come in order to beat the bid form, so to speak? You are not a mind reader. How can you possibly know what they are going to ask for? Well, you can’t. Still, that should not keep you from trying to anticipate what they will be asking for in Addendum 3, which is sure to be issued one day before the bid date.

One way to prepare yourself for possible changes to the bid form is to get creative with the structure of your take-off before you start it. Try to visualize the project beyond the bid form, and see the project from an owner’s or architect’s mindset.

What areas appear worthy of asking for a price breakout? Could any systems be left behind if the project goes over budget? Are there any installations that could be value engineered?

As you identify these various cost options, set up your take-off so you can easily accommodate several different pricing scenarios and alternate pricing requests.

This will take a bit of time, but the extra time you spend upfront can save you time at the end of your take-off. It could also save your bid from being late or incomplete and might become your edge in a close race for the contract.

For example, we recently worked on a project that had a very complicated bid form with more than 15 breakouts. Only two of the bid items involved electrical work. Instead of structuring our take-off to only accommodate the two electrical items, we focused on the summary of work specification and thoroughly studied all of the bid-form items. None of the other bid-form items specifically stated to include associated electrical costs, but many had the potential to affect the electrical scope.

We wrote a request for information asking for clarification on the electrical scope for each of bid item. While we were waiting for the RFI, we got creative and set up our take-off in order to accommodate a number of possible responses.

The architect responded with a new bid form that included six more electrical bid items. Our creativity paid off—we were able to easily accommodate all of them without having to rearrange or redo any of our take-off.

The additional two hours we spent creatively setting up our take-off saved us well over a day’s worth of take-off repair and rearrangement. Additionally, we have a take-off that will allow us to provide the owner with a variety of other prices that may be asked for in the future.

To do this, break the project down into specific areas, buildings, rooms, etc. Then, build a take-off matrix or label set that allows you to input your take-off data using combinations of area/system identifiers.

Begin with the bid form requirements: Base Bid, Alternate 1, 2, etc. Then add the primary elements of the project—buildings, areas, site and levels. Next could be the drawings, then the systems—lighting, branch, signal, fire alarm, HVAC equipment, feeders, etc.

Check out specific rooms such as offices, conference rooms, bathrooms, penthouses, etc. Are any of them typical? Do any of them look like they might need to be broken out? What could the owner want to know about the building?

Now that you have the project creatively segregated, the hard work begins. You must make sure you are diligent with your take-off and entry. Stay true to your envisioned outcome and anticipated changes. If you get lazy and forget to segregate your counts, you may find yourself unable to provide accurate extensions for additional breakouts.

One last thing: Do not just use your creative take-off to bid on the job. Use it as part of your sales pitch and as a way to help you win the contract.

While talking with the owner or general contractor, you can mention to them that you have the capacity to give them accurate and specific cost information about any areas of their project.

Think about the value that you would offer to a cost-conscious owner who is wondering whether or not to put in a solar array—and now he is talking to someone who is telling him he knows exactly how much every electrical system of his building will cost.

If the decision to award the contract comes down to a few dollars, who do you think the smart owner is going to pick? 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


About the Author

Stan Shook

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

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.