Estimator Q&A: Technology Transforms the Job

December 27, 2017


Technology is revolutionizing the construction industry. From grappling with a tsunami of emails to hunting down details and specifications, today’s estimator has a new role that requires flexibility and a desire to learn new technology.

On Center Software (OCS) discussed this evolution with industry veteran, Paul Jonez, CPE, a senior estimator with Golden Triangle Construction, Inc., in Longmont, Colorado. As someone on the frontlines, Paul brings a unique perspective to just how dramatically estimating is changing. Covering everything from digital takeoff to LED lighting, here are the highlights of our conversation:

1. OCS: Let’s start with how estimating has changed in the most fundamental ways since you first started out in construction?

Paul: I’ve been an estimator for 10 years and in construction since high school, roughly 17 years. When I started out in estimating, we did everything on paper. We worked with full-size plans and a single digitizer for all the estimators. We would distribute 25 sets of printed plans and have different groups check out the plans. This process would take weeks. We would get a lot of bids by phone or fax from our subcontractors. Now, everything I do is electronic. It use to take three weeks to turn something around. Today, I can start and finish estimates in far less time. The subcontractors get the plans on the same day as the estimator. I just have a small set of paper plans for notes and meetings and that’s it as far as paper.

2.OCS: It’s been reported that as many as half of estimators are doing takeoff manually—why do you think this is the case?

Paul: Some estimators are not willing to let go of manual estimating. It is definitely a learning curve. Paper is so much more piece-meal. Instead of faxes, we have email and the tools are getting so much better and much more readily available. There is always a learning curve in construction. One of the first projects I did electronically took some time, but the reward was worth the effort. I still use the same methods (area, length, count), but I can keep track and manage my takeoff. I can also do more with my takeoff by getting more than one quantity at once.

Now, I can open up a project and see what another estimator is working on or visually show or explain my takeoff with co-workers or even clients. There is no reason to not do everything electronically if you can show all the data and the details. The progression is clearly toward digital. In fact, there are just a couple companies who still do full-scale printing. It’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain the pencil and paper method. If you were just starting an estimating business, you would definitely go digital.

3.OCS: When it comes to day-to-day tasks, what are your go-to technologies as an estimator?

Paul: Email, definitely, and it is both good and bad. You can use it to quickly and clearly communicate, but it’s easy to get buried. It’s also important to still make those phone calls to establish relationships and solve something in a 60-second conversation rather than an email dialogue. File-sharing platforms have streamlined sharing information, allowing me to get and distribute plans quickly. This has a big impact on how I share information for the field and office or the office and subcontractors.

We can do so much more in the pre-construction phase and during construction. We can swap drawings and plans back and forth. It’s a lot easier for the designers to sketch something up and get it back to me the same day. In addition, we’re also seeing new technology in building products, such as concrete admixtures, new flooring, and exterior wall assemblies to mitigate issues of the past. Another example is LED lighting, which is becoming almost standard over fluorescents.

4.OCS: OK, you’ve got all this great technology, what are your biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to being a successful estimator?

Paul: Drawings are our No. 1 challenge. They don’t always accurately convey what needs to be built. This lack of information is our biggest hurdle. We end up working through incomplete design and design conflicts. These slow down the preconstruction estimating process. I spend more and more time managing and working out conflicts and coordination issues to be able to clearly quantify, price, and plan projects.

There are many reasons for this. With a lot of 3D modeling, it just doesn’t capture the details. Part of this can be attributed to the downturn in the construction market around 2008-2011. With the market slump, design teams had to really compete for work. With lower fees, they began doing less paper design work. Now, a lot of younger designers have less experience with paper 2D drawings and are letting the modeling do the thinking for them. They can’t physically capture all of the details they want, but they’re under pressure to hit their milestones. In addition, there’s more to be aware of with code requirements, environmental and safety requirements, product requirements, and compatibility.

With the construction workforce growing slower than the demand and the current workforce aging out, scheduling and companies’ capacities become more of a concern when I’m putting projects together. We’re spending more time finding products and asking more questions to make sure all the parts and pieces are included. For example, vapor barrier is something that easily gets overlooked in design, but I need to make sure it’s in my estimate. Also, glass and glazing, we have to make sure there is the structural support to hold the glass in place. This problem typically pops up when designers plan to put the heating and cooling units on the roof, but there is no plan for the support structure or access platform. The lines between construction and estimating are getting blurred.

5. OCS: These are exciting times, what does the future hold for estimators?

Paul: Computers are going to continue to do more for us, but construction is going to always require critical thinking – a spatial analysis of what we’re going to build. The estimator will always be tasked with evaluating the information they’ve been given. How we are provided the information and what we work from may change, but the process of evaluating a project for cost and how to carry out the construction will always be the estimator’s charge. As estimators get better with 3D modeling, they will spend less time doing takeoff. Right now, 3D models are still in their infancy and are not widely used. Estimators will always be tasked with filling in the gaps and have to analyze for cost and figure out how to carry out the work.

Right now, my role has expanded because estimators are doing more managing of the pre-construction process. I’m working more with the design team and subcontractors. A lot of what I do is educating our owners on the pitfalls and price. If you’re still doing this on paper, it will take a lot more time. When you’re doing this digitally, it goes much faster and you can speed through the details.

If you’re ready to leave manual takeoff behind and put your estimating in overdrive, On Center Software can help. Choosing software for your construction business shouldn’t be complicated and time-consuming. Don’t stress. Get our simple, easy-to-follow eBook, An Estimator’s Guide: Assessing and Picking the Right Software, for step-by-step advice.

Paul Jonez is a Certified Professional Estimator (CPE) through the American Society of Professional Estimators. He began working in construction while in high school as a laborer and carpenter and has a bachelor’s degree in Construction Management from Colorado State University. As a senior estimator for a general contractor, Paul is primarily focused on commercial projects in the western United States. He is also an officer in the Denver Chapter of the American Society of Professional Estimators (ASPE).

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