Monthly Archives: June 2009

Okanogan P.U.D. Office Building

$50.00 per square foot? For a commercial office building? You have to be kidding. Didn’t these projects used to run under $10.00 per square foot?

My point here is that square foot costing can be a very dangerous way to bid projects these days. One reason is that material and labor costs continue to increase rapidly. Another is the number and complexity of systems being stuffed in new buildings today. Here are some of the reasons this building was so expensive.

  • A very expensive DALI lighting control system with daylight harvesting and dimming
  • Two sidewalk and pavement snow melting systems
  • A complete computer server room with two Liebert UPS systems
  • An extensive data and telephone network

Early in my career, I estimated and managed a high end office building on the corner of Wilshire & La Cienega in Beverly Hills. The shell was a little over $3.00 per square foot. Even though it was in a high rent district, the building had nothing special in it. California codes did not require anything special. If we constructed that building today, it would include additional scope such as a tele/data network, code required energy management systems, ADA compliant life/safety systems and a security system with CCTV. Technology systems and code changes continue to add new costs to these buildings every year. 

I suggest you keep a log of the square foot and per unit costs for every project you bid and construct. If you must use square foot pricing for a budget or (heaven forbid) a contract estimate, tread carefully. Make sure that you analyze the scope of work closely before committing to anything.

Document Quality and Electrical Estimating

We completed an estimate recently for a truck stop. It contained numerous scope coordination problems. Consider this example. The homeruns from the fuel pumps for the various systems were indicated on a number of different plan sheets. Each plan sheet contradicted the next. One claimed that we were to install the conduit system complete in PVC 40. Another claimed that the fuel system contractor was installing all conduit to the fuel pumps. Yet another claimed that we were only responsible for stub outs from the fuel control desks. And a final note claimed that we were to extend the conduits to the fuel island in PVC 80.

We did eventually worked out the real scope. The point of this discussion however, is that we had to do it at all. This may be old news, but documents continue to get worse. Every once and a while, I think that they have gotten as bad as they can get. I am usually proved to be wrong fairly quickly.

 There are many impacts from this trend. Here are just a few:

  • Estimates need to be prepared earlier, so that RFI’s can be submitted in a timely manner.
  • Estimates take longer to prepare because of the time it takes to solve the problems on the drawings.
  • You will be less certain that your competition is including the same scope you are. If you make a call on a problem and include the work in your scope, will the other bidders do the same?
  • Your bid schedule may be affected by the addendum required to correct the problems.
  • If the addendum does not extend the bid time, you may be working overtime to complete the estimate. This happened to me on the truck stop estimate. I worked over the weekend to complete the estimate for a Tuesday bid date. The project was postponed on Monday.
  • If you win the project, will you have enough overhead and project management time to handle the clarification of the scope? It can be hard to recover this time in change orders.

I am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this matter. Is there anything we can do as estimators? I have heard that there are organizations working on national standards for electrical drawings. Is this true? Can they actually make a difference? I have more thoughts on this subject to be discussed in a future post (that is, if you do not bring them up in this discussion).

Auto Count Software for Electrical Estimating

I was asked my opinion regarding auto-counting software recently, so here it is. Specifically, I was asked about SureCount Symbol Recognition Software. This kind of software can automatically count the symbols on your drawings. It does so by asking you to select a symbol with your mouse. The program can then count every similar symbol on the page. Sounds great, doesn’t it. The reality is that this type of software has inherent limitations. Let’s look at them.

Say you select a duplex receptacle. The software then goes looking for every symbol that looks like it. But what if the branch conduit comes in from the left, instead of the right? What if some of the receptacles have background elements of the drawing showing through? The answer to this problem is a “tolerance” setting. The tolerance setting tells the software how much different the symbol can be, and still be counted. If you set the tolerance level @ 70%, then the symbols can be 30% different.

The tolerance settings can lead to false or missed counts. Consider this quote from the SureCount website. “When you use Auto-Count, you will want to visually check the drawing to ensure that all the correct symbols are marked”. That said, the software authors are continually improving the “intelligence” of the system. For instance, if you select a 2’ x 4’ fixture with the letter A on the upper right side, the software will find all of the fixtures, even if the letter A is in a different position.

There are also many strategies for getting around the technology’s limitations. Let’s say you are working on a set of drawings that use the same symbol for many different fixtures. The engineer has put notes on the drawings such as “The fixtures in this room are all type A3”. The software allows you to count the only symbols in that room.

Another strategy for dealing with similar symbols is this. Assume the drawings use the same symbol for most receptacles, with text to identify the differences, such as IG, GFI or WP. If you select and count the receptacles with text first, the software will not count them again.

I have been saying that this type of software is not ready for prime time for many years. That opinion is changing. If you are a little on the “techy” side, and like to figure out new software, auto-count software may be ready for you.

On-Screen Electrical Estimating – Chapter Two

As mentioned in my last post, here are some of my likes and dislikes regarding on-screen estimating. The likes are first.

  • No Paper Handling – Some of our larger projects show up on a pallet. Even small project documents add up after awhile, requiring substantial space for archiving.
  • A Minor Point – No more paper cuts.
  • Faster Estimating – Time is saved during takeoff. When you click on an item, it is counted, highlighted, and listed in a takeoff. All this is done in one step, instead of three. It also eliminates data entry errors.
  • Overlays – No more light tables. You can overlay any plan sheet (or portion of a plan sheet) on another plan sheet. Need to see where the homeruns go to on another floor. Just overlay the two floors. Got change orders? Overlay the new plan sheets over the original plan sheets, and the differences are clearly shown.
  • Ergonomics – About 5 years ago, I started experiencing neck pain. The doctors concluded that over thirty years of looking down at a desk was starting to create damage. I was sent off to the chiropractor. I have been using an on-screen takeoff program for about eighteen months, and have not been to the chiropractor for about twelve months. Not looking down at a set of plans for eight hours a day has been very beneficial.
  • Portability – I think my UPS driver is mad at me. He does not deliver here very often anymore. Being able to obtain and deliver documents with the Internet and email is a boon. It also makes collaboration on a project easier.
  • Supplies – I think the local Staples Office Store manager is also mad at me. I no longer purchase box after box of highlighters and pencils.
  • Advanced features – These programs all have special features that make estimating and plan handling easier. For instance, you can create a snapshot of a feeder schedule, and display it on a second screen while doing takeoff on your primary screen. Another is the ability to create bookmarks, which make it simple to move around large projects.
  • Vision Issues – For those who need vision correction, the ability to set a monitor at a fixed distance makes it much easier to manage. You will no longer need to move closer or farther from the plans, put glasses on or off, or be adjusting to look over and under your bifocal line.
  • It’s More Fun? – One of my estimators told me that working on-screen is more fun. Maybe I’ll get more work out of him. For a while.

Here is my dislike.

  • Screen Size – These programs do work on smaller monitors. I currently use a 22″ wide screen monitor. The zoom and pan controls make it very easy to move around the documents on this screen. I am however, keeping an eye on large monitor prices, and will soon purchase a larger screen. It will probably be sized around 30″. Take note that large screen TV’s may not have a very high resolution for the PC input. I have seen 37″ TVs with only a 1366 x 768 resolution. By comparison, my 22″ monitor has a resolution of 1680 x 1050.

Well, that’s it folks. let me know wht you think.