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By Mark Pelletier, Associate Director, Cost & Project Management | June 1, 2020

Who hasn’t felt undervalued or underutilized? Whether it’s in your relationship, at work or as a player on a sports team, we all go through periods in life where we feel unrecognized and unable to reach our full potential. We see the contribution that could be made, but circumstances, perceptions or expectations hold us back.

Think about a person on a construction team, with several years of hardened experience on a wide variety of construction projects and intimate involvement in the design phase, and in reviewing and quantifying the scope of work of each discipline in detail.  It would be unimaginable to not include them in problem-solving and risk assessments for that project.

Now imagine the risk planning and design coordination meetings taking place without that person’s opinion on the quality of the drawings, and whether or not there were inconsistencies between any drawings, or if there were any additional risk items that needed to be accounted for.  We can all agree that their insights would be greatly missed.

It would be similar to a soccer coach playing their star centre mid-fielder at right back.  Although they may do a reasonable job in the backline, is this really where the coach will get the most return?

Yet, in my experience, this is exactly what happens.  Cost estimates are one of the best problem-solving tools an owner, design team and construction manager have at their disposal.   While estimates are obviously not people; if they were, they would most certainly be distraught at how rarely they are used to their potential in parts of the construction industry.  Often treated as a formality, pulled together for compliance; the wealth of information that is contained is often lost and rarely fully-leveraged to the extent it should.

In other words, a detailed estimate is much more than a number. Estimators literally draw over other people’s work to extract the information and present it in a different way. When I started working as a quantity surveyor, I would sometimes joke that part of my job was like a childhood game of ‘connect the dots’.  As a professional construction cost estimator, I’m efficient at extracting the information needed from the drawings to connect the dots; however, whenever a dot is missing, I get stuck and have to make assumptions.

What are common issues that quantity surveyors face when connecting the dots?

  1. Sections are missing or incomplete
  2. Specifications and drawings do not match
  3. Different disciplines do not reconcile. For example, I was once doing a pre-tender estimate for a leisure centre and the architect had drawn a curved roof, but the structural engineer had drawn a triangular one.  So, which is it?
  4. Drawing tags are missing (or sometimes tagged incorrectly)
  5. Incomplete or missing legends and assemblies

By providing this feedback to the design team, a lot of loose or partially completed ends can be tied up prior to going to tender. But that is only if we’re asked for our input. So often, quantity surveyor assumptions are not reviewed in detail, and the issues we’ve noticed go unaddressed. A lot of people talk about the advantages of BIM (Building Information Modeling) for clash detection (etc.) and it’s true; a good BIM model adds value to projects and helps to solve problems. What’s intriguing is that a lot of the problem-solving that emerges during the estimating process isn’t systematically captured – even though it’s the low hanging fruit.

Moreover, the review of the estimate is often limited to how the market numbers compare to the budgeted figures, even once the numbers come back from the market. Savings are treated with glee; overruns are a hit to contingency. Rarely does the detailed estimate get used by the team as a tool for bid-levelling and scope review, even when it’s provided in divisional format (which makes it easy to compare to the bids coming back). If everything was measured correctly, the person who prepared the estimate will know if there’s anything unusual or finicky about the design that could be overlooked and can check to see if the bidders have captured it. This insight is incredibly useful when reviewing bidders’ lists of qualifications and exclusions.

A good example are precast stair nosing inserts which are sometimes specified by the architects. Trades will often exclude these in their bids to keep their initial number to a minimum. If this qualification gets missed prior to award, the owner is likely to have two remaining options: 1) get hit with a six-figure change order to add the inserts back into the scope, or 2) accept an inferior product. Small as this may seem, owners feel the impact. To illustrate this on a more personal level, it would be similar to booking an all-inclusive vacation, and then realizing upon arrival that there will be a number of additional (and unexpected) resort fees that you didn’t see in the fine print when you booked. While you may still enjoy the vacation, you can be sure this detracts from the overall experience.

Furthermore, the quantities in the estimate are one of the best ways to back-calculate and benchmark the change rates proposed by bidders. So many people lock in change rates without doing their due diligence. It’s akin to locking in a 3-year fixed mortgage rate without checking the prime rate first. How do you know if the bank is being reasonable without also knowing the prime rate? For instance, say a trade asks that all additional tiling be priced at $200 / m2, but you use your estimate to back-calculate their tendered cost and show that their competitive rate is in fact $135 / m2; you can almost always renegotiate a better rate for changes down the line.

Well-prepared estimates are one of the most useful resources during the development lifecycle, serving as a useful tool for:

  1. Problem-solving during the design stage
  2. Checking scope inclusions / exclusions during the tender levelling phase
  3. Back-calculating and checking proposed change rates being locked for changes once construction starts are reasonable

So please, when looking at estimates from your quantity surveyor or construction manager, don’t limit yourself to just looking at the bottom number.   If you do, it’s likely you’ll miss the wealth of information contained within that could save you time and money down the road!

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