Learning a Thing or Two: Bidding different types of projects

My estimating career started with small commercial projects, such as bank branches, tilt-up warehouses and small stores. I was content with this for a while but eventually became interested in bigger and more complex projects. When it came to actually bidding those projects, I eventually realized I had a lot to learn.

There are many subtleties to electrical estimating. Although I did not know it, during my initial training, my first estimating boss was applying factors to the small commercial estimates I worked on, particularly to the labor hours. I learned that our standard labor may not be enough for small projects. All projects have a learning curve to get over before high labor production can begin. Small projects are often completed before the good labor production can start.

My next example actually hurt a bit. As a junior estimator, my next employer asked me to bid a fast-track, tenant-improvement project. The scope included three floors in a mid-rise building.

My first mistake was not knowing that labor needs to be increased about 1% for every level above the third floor. This is due to the time it takes to get workers and material to and from the higher floors. Often, only one elevator is allowed to be used for construction, which creates a huge bottleneck.

The second problem was that I did not know just how bad production can be with an accelerated schedule requiring overtime or shift work. The third problem I was initially unaware of was the unknown production impact of the new hires needed to complete this project on time.

We were the low bidder on this project and received a notice to proceed rapidly. We were quickly schooled on just how bad production can get. Project management problems started right away as the schedule was almost immediately broken. The start of our work was delayed by other trades, and we were required to accelerate our schedule. We responded to the general contractor’s demands for more electricians and ended up with too many people on the job for the work area. The experience shook my confidence as an estimator.

That project really opened my eyes. I was determined this kind of thing would never happen again. Before estimating any kind of project new to me, I would do extensive research. I started by reading everything I could about labor. Because of the project mentioned above, the first two articles I read were about the impact of overtime and shift work on labor and the impact of schedule acceleration and compression on labor. Also, my boss signed me up for several courses, including advanced estimating, change orders and claims management. I learned a lot in these very enlightening classes.

Labor needs to be increased about 1% for every level above the third floor, due to the time it takes to get workers and material to and from the higher floors.

Armed with this knowledge, I felt much better prepared to estimate new types of work. Opportunities soon came, including high-rise, remodeling, transportation, institutional and industrial work. I researched any unfamiliar type of work thoroughly. The best source of information turned out to be our more experienced foreman electricians.

I also benefited from talking to our senior project managers. The most important part of estimating these more complex projects was a new attitude.

I now approach every project with suspicion about the schedule, working conditions and the completeness of the work shown on the drawings. I also insist on understanding the electrical work and sequence of construction. In other words, how will this work get done? The following is one example.

I recently bid on a pump plant replacement with a phased construction plan. After studying the plans for a while, I found that the duct bank between the main switchboard and the new pump station had a note referring to a detail on the civil plans. The old me may have ignored that note. It’s a good thing that I checked because the detail showed the duct bank dove down to 10 feet deep to get under the outfall pipes from the new pump station.

I was puzzled, as there was plenty of room over the pipes. I then went over the schedule, and found that the duct bank had to be installed before the new outfall pipes to keep the existing pump station operational during construction. The existing main switchboard and utility transformer had to be demolished before the new pump station could be built.

I apply the lessons I learned the hard way to every project I estimate. I hope that as you grow into estimating new types of work, you do the same.

About the Author

Stephen Carr

Estimating Columnist

Stephen 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 steve@electrical-estimating.com, and...

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