Day To Day Estimating Challenges & How They Can Be Overcome

Words: Domenic Livoli

Words: Domenic Livoli
Photo: everydaybettertodoevrythingyoulove

A day in the life of an estimator can be hectic, challenging and tiring.  It can also be exciting, flowing and satisfying.  The goal is to maintain a balance.  How can this be done in this era of constant information exchanged by the click of a button?

A few of the obvious ways are staying hydrated, giving your eyes a break and getting enough rest.  These can be said for any occupation, but estimating these days means spending long hours looking at multiple computer screens, possibly sitting down at a desk for hours on end.  After many hours of focusing on a screen, you could develop a throbbing headache and it makes for a grueling rest of the day.  Taking an hourly break for a few minutes away from the screen can refocus your mindset.  Investing in a pair of blue light glasses could also help with the constant glare of the computer screens.  

Now for the things that can be done to make life a little easier.  The first is organization.  Bid requests come in daily.  There is definitely not a shortage of those.  Does the estimator get them and decide what to bid or not bid?  Do the emails go to a junior estimator or administrative personnel?  This task can eat up valuable time every day.  A bid schedule should be put together.  While an owner wants to bid everything that comes across their desk, realistically, it cannot be done by one or multiple estimators.  If you have a whole estimating team, then the bids should be divided up and each estimator can take on their assigned projects.  If multiple large projects come out for bid and the estimator is overloaded trying to juggle these projects in a short amount of time, then sometimes a project will fall through the cracks given the complexity of the project and the constant changes coming in through Bulletins and Addenda.  Focusing on your company’s goals for volume and type of work is key.  You can blanket the market with bids, but targeting the company’s strongpoints on the most profitable projects and ones that the company can do best is the key.  

After the bid schedule is established, now the documents must be obtained.   Drawings & specifications must be downloaded.  They may have to be purchased or printed out.  Do you want the estimator to use their time to do this or can someone else in the company prepare all these items so the estimator can just get right to work?  Maybe there is an assistant estimator that can do this.  Possibly they can even set the job up, load plans and make it so that the estimator just has to launch the estimating program and get to work.  

Next is the estimate itself.  The estimators need to familiarize themselves with the project.  Sometimes this could take a few hours of reading the specifications and planning on how to get the takeoff done quickly and efficiently.  I am victim of jumping from one project to another.   Sometimes to get the flow going, I just take an area and start bulk taking off walls.  It can make you understand the project as you go along, but you don’t want to get too far in and realize that you started off incorrectly and have to go back and make changes.  If time allows, take the initial step and plan out how you want to estimate the project.  

During the bid process, changes usually emerge through Addenda, RFI, Bulletins, etc.  They often can be large with new revised drawings, changes to the specifications and changes to scope.  You want to stay on top of these so that you do not have to go back and rearrange walls that your originally estimated correctly, but now have been shortened or eliminated through changes.  Someone must manage the flow of information coming in.  Again, in a small company, the estimator may end up doing everything.  In a large company, a dedicated person may be assigned to making the information gets to the correct person.

Keeping computers current is also key.  Downloading updates to the estimating software, updates to operating systems and to graphic drivers are also important to making sure that the computer is running correctly to maintain speed and avoid loss of data.    

During the takeoff, staying focused is important.  It can be tiring.  You can be searching for information in multiple places before you find the correct information.  I do not want to guess at heights and will not enter the correct height in until I am 99.99% sure that it’s correct.  It avoids second guessing later on.  Sometimes by 3:00pm, you may have had enough for the day on a particular project.  The time you are spending is not getting you anywhere.  It may be time to stop and maybe take on a small project that is easy and that you can finish by the end of the day.  This will make you feel that you got something done and will make use of the last hours of the day, saving time the next day.  Stepping away from a tough point in a large estimate is a good thing sometimes.  

While you are estimating the project, it is also time to contact suppliers for pricing.  Suppliers will need specifications, shapes of non-standard material and quantities on the project to accurately send material quotes.  While you cannot always give them quantities because you are not complete or because you do not want to put your numbers in a competitor’s hand, you can inform them that it is small or that it is major so they can plan accordingly.  

Distractions occur many times a day.  Emails, updates, phone calls from general contractors, suppliers, and field personnel can eat into your time.  Designate a particular time of day for these if you choose.  If you cannot be disturbed because you are finishing and submitting a bid, then inform people that you will not take any calls, salespeople visits or anything else that is not pertaining to the bid.  These things can wait until later on.   

While bid extensions are needed sometimes to accurately estimate the project, they can backfire on you.  This has happened to me many times.  I got a project just about fully complete, then the bid date changes.  You then stop and kickstart the next project.  Time goes by, then getting the extended project to the final bid price becomes critical.  It may be a few days or a week and then you need to get back to the extended project to get it ready for submission.  Given that you have looked at a few projects in between, you may need to refresh yourself with the project, rev the engine again and see it to completion.  This could mean retracing a few of your steps to get the flow going again.  I sometimes have projects completed that I come back and say, “Did I actually put the correct rebar and grout spacing in?”  I then go back and analyze a few walls to make sure.  

When bid day finally arrives, then it’s show time.  Some contractors have a “war room” where the entire team assembles, the quotes are all positioned on a conference table and all phone calls are transferred into that room.  For a subcontractor, that usually doesn’t happen.  It is usually handled in the estimator’s office.  Quotes are emailed now instead of faxed.  Usually the bid is already done the night before and you are just revising some last minute items.  

Once the bid is submitted, you may get results immediately after the opening if it’s a public project.  If it’s private, you will not hear results.  It’s time to take deep breaths.  Put all the quotes in a file on your computer.  You should clean your workspace of any drawings and file as necessary and get ready for the next project.  During this short breather, maybe log in material quotes to your software that came in for the bid or that have been piling up.  They are good to have current so that you can use them for a little.  We all know that prices are changing very quickly. 

As you can see, an estimator’s life is definitely not boring.  It is full of challenges.  Early mornings, late nights and weekends come with the territory.  When a bid must be completed, the estimator has to see it through no matter what.  By having good systems in place, an estimator can be productive and valuable to their employer in compiling accurate and profitable estimates.  

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