By Alex Gregory, Ex CM-Lean Senior Estimator, GH Phipps Construction Companies
Throughout my career as a cost analyst and estimator in the construction industry, I’ve found that my job essentially consists of two equally valuable sets of skills: how to actually build your estimate and how to communicate and message what your estimate consists of. During my years in this role, I’ve seen technology’s ability to enhance those skills, especially that second set of more technical job skills, exponentially. On my first day at work, I was presented with a digitizer and hard copies of bid tabulation sheets and contracts. Thank goodness that’s not what I’m still doing today.
Before you can even learn how to message your estimate to a client, it’s critical to learn how to build your estimate. How do you account for items not shown yet, how do you know what items to even start looking for, how do you quantify building elements, lines of trade scopes of work, etc. This is where I’ve seen the biggest benefits of technology. On my current project, an 180,000 SF hospital expansion, I’ve been able to fully realize the benefits of model-based material takeoffs. In coordination with the architecture firm, one of my company’s VDC employees was able to go into the model, identify standard wall types the architect utilized in their Revit models as various material types, apply the required properties to them, and instantly print out a report to show me how the building skin had changed since the previous week.
To have that ability to save myself the time of dissecting the drawing updates each week searching for the missing system pieces and building faces I’m not seeing at any angle and instantly have this accurate report to discuss with the design team was invaluable. On the same project, we were also able to utilize model-based takeoffs to identify early interior glazing concepts and review those with architects. We were able to pull out the interior glazing pieces in the model within an hour and take that to the design team to discuss scope. Prior to using the model for that, even with the latest takeoff software, manually searching the schematic drawings for that would have taken me hours, and I would have missed a significant amount of the half wall glass not yet shown to even bring up to the architect. It is important during this process, though, to review everything you get from the model in these scenarios. I would always review the output, including a visual output, to make sure all items necessary were covered. This can be incredibly accurate or just a starting point for a conversation based on the quality of the model.
Not only has material takeoff improved with technology, but the actual estimate itself has, as well. I see these benefits most strongly in two ways: cost models and estimating software. Early on in the digitizer days, I would have to take off individual, related building elements by themselves. There was no economy of scale of sorts for those items. Now with electronic cost models, I can get all that information instantly. Whether built in a specific cost estimating software or just Excel with links to cost databases, that goes away. A structural slab is a perfect example of this. Instead of taking off the area of the slab, then figuring out the vapor barrier quantity, void forms, edge forms, and reinforcing, a few button clicks to put in properties, and you have all the quantities you need. These models can do everything from just provide you with a cost per square foot to actually transferring the quantity and cost to your estimate itself, depending on the software. And speaking of software, that’s probably been the largest area of rapid change I’ve experienced.
I could discuss that topic for days, but whether Timberline, MC2, WinEst, or, like my own company, a proprietary software developed just for us, or any of the multitude of others, cost estimating software has developed by leaps and bounds over the years. With a limited word count on this article, it’s difficult for me to get into the details of this, but I can certainly vouch for the incredible efficiencies this has brought our industry.
Not only has technology improved that side of my job, but it’s also significantly improved our ability to communicate and collaborate. Though admittedly, an in-person meeting or phone call can still be better than an email, technology has facilitated so much of the process prior to building an actual estimate. I almost can’t put into words how much file sharing services have revolutionized what we do in preconstruction. I’ve experienced utilizing Box’s file sharing service for several projects now, and the results compared to my first day 12 years ago are incredible. As built drawings for an area of a hospital can now be scanned, uploaded, and sent for review in a few hours as opposed to digging through old plan rooms for a day to try and find them if you’re lucky. Sharing progress drawing sets is done in minutes without having to print a set at an office and send them to a reprographics shop to make copies. We’ve also started using the sharing and mark up tools these services come with to run the contract review process internally, speeding that up exponentially as teams spread across the state can instantly see the same document. I’ve also used it on projects as a central place for trade partners to provide and collect pricing updates, replacing the old, and many times ignored, email process. Word of warning, though, like many things in life, without proper organization this system can fall apart. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and it also helps you know where everything is stored.
Thankfully for me and our industry, technology and its rapid development isn’t going anywhere. The hours I have saved with its use over my career are incredible, and I truly look forward to seeing where it takes us in the future.