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Cost Estimators Winning Work With BIM

07/17/2009 by Brent Pilgrim


Project awards are the lifeblood of a company’s survivability, particularly in times of economic recession. Veteran members of architecture and construction firms strive to cultivate trust and the kind of relationships with their clients that usurps competition and all but guarantees the next business opportunity. However, with issues such as the economy, shareholder satisfaction, and the fear of losing the “competitive edge” a relationship built on trust and repetitive successes can still easily fall prey to the hunt. In this industry it is common that project awards are made based on a combination of factors, where relationships carry only a portion of weight. Traditional project awards are made on the basis of factors such as contract price, schedule, proposed team members, fee, etc. Therefore, assembling the right team players, executing a flawless interview, and developing competitive RFP responses are crucial to winning a job. The Project Manager and glossy collateral often are responsible for, and credited with, “the win”, but today’s technology may be enabling a new team member, the Cost Estimator, to shine and assist in bringing home the coveted project award.

In a traditional project pursuit the Cost Estimator may not play the largest part of winning a job, although the quality and accuracy his/her efforts is a key component. The Cost Estimator’s role is to develop a competitive and defendable cost estimate for the project. His/her role is important in that a competitive cost estimate can open and close doors for the rest of the team, but the cost estimate by itself is not enough to win a project. This is because in its most honest form, the estimate is truly a numerical reflection of the architectural design, leaving little “control” to the estimator. Also, project cost remains only one component of a multi-part scoring system for evaluating teams, particularly in a large GMP style effort.

The effort spent in developing the cost estimate is rarely given the spotlight. Little credit or attention is given to how much actual design work occurs on the part of the Estimator, in order to generate a complete conceptual cost estimate. In some arenas, such as design/build where the design hasn’t fully evolved yet, the cost estimate is based on little more than an ink smeared, napkin sketch. And what the eyes don’t see, the estimator must account for. Ultimately, of all those painfully extracted details, the client is seeking one number….the grand total.

In an interview setting, after a brief but passionate attempt by the Cost Estimator to intelligently discuss the derivation of the cost of the project, the client moves on to other qualifiers such as project experience, construction sequencing or schedule, and of course, fees. If the price isn’t right then the team must hope that enough credit is given to other factors so as not to get dropped from the short list. Regardless, the Cost Estimator is usually the poor soul bearing the bad news that a budget that has been blown, or indicating that architectural features may have to be eliminated from the design to get the scope into budget. Therefore, how much real opportunity does a Cost Estimator have in winning the client and securing a project?

BIM (Building Information Modeling) is a buzzword that is permeating the industry at an astonishing rate, and for good reason. It is being proven in case studies worldwide to provide a better way of doing business, and it is providing architects and contractors a more accurate way of designing and constructing buildings. This type of technology gives clarity to design and construction and is enabling a more effective virtual design and construction process to take shape. However, it is also causing many people to re-evaluate many aspects of their traditional means & methods, such as how project design teams are selected, the design life-cycle itself, construction scheduling, and estimating.

What is not as easily understood is how organizations are making their platform selections. What qualities or features about a product increase its chances for adoption by any given organization? There are many different BIM applications on the market and most do different things. BIM applications fall first into one of two major categories, macro or micro. The categories are fairly self explanatory in that the application’s functionality and intended use defines their subsequent category. This factor alone can help an organization quickly determine which application is best suited for their needs. There are many technologies available to develop micro data sets such as design development documents, construction documents, clash detection models, energy analysis, and detailed 4D scheduling simulations. There are also several technologies that enable macro data sets such as space planning, conceptual design, and conceptual cost estimating. How teams utilize these tools and data sets is entirely up to the user and because of its infancy in adoption, creativity often gets good marks.

Creativity in a proposal will help an organization get a leg up on the competition and the BIM process is an enabler. Whether it is through the use of imagery, animation, or showcasing technical know-how, BIM is providing a platform for teams to communicate extraordinary amounts of data to clients in a rather short amount of time. It is for these reasons that incorporating BIM into the traditional project pursuit is being heralded as an innovative way to compete for projects. Now is the time for Cost Estimators to join this group.

Creativity and Cost Estimator may feel like paradoxical companions in most offices, but behind the straight-forward, no nonsense façade of many cost estimators, lies a certain design flare that only gets exercised in limited venues. As mentioned earlier, the cost estimator must be creative in order to fully develop the design concept in his/her mind so that it can be completely costed. Additionally, value engineering exercises require a degree of creativity to effectively reduce cost without sacrificing quality. There is a new breed of Cost Estimators that are exercising their creativity and are getting richly rewarded for their efforts. Several Estimators have incorporated a specific type of macro BIM, known as conceptual cost modeling, into their proposals and are winning work as a result!

A conceptual, 3-dimensional cost model can be created easily, with little information to begin with, and can communicate volumes of information to the client. A conceptual cost modeling software melds itself well with conceptual cost estimators because they already think in these terms of high-level pricing. Ask any Cost Estimator what an average price “per/SF” for slab on grade or concrete tilt-wall panel and your bound to get an answer. More than likely answers among different cost estimators are going to be generally in the same range as well. Many Cost Estimators are trained to look at buildings as high level componentized systems which lends itself well to conceptual cost estimating, also known as Uniformat. Some examples of high level components would be Foundation System, Superstructure, Exterior Skin System, Interiors, Services (MEP), etc.

The graphical, or CAD based side of conceptual cost modeling is also easy to use and the skills required to do so can be easily acquired. Due to its conceptual nature, modeling 3D geometry in a macro BIM tool is often not at all a detailed or laborious process. Additionally, concepts such as blended materials (one piece of cladding material representing a blend, or percentage of dissimilar materials such as punched openings and brick) can aid in creating even further efficiency in a modeling effort. At this level of detail the goal is not to define the colors of paint and carpet, or to show the flashing detail at the parapet, but rather to capture accurately, the size, shape, height, number of floors, etc.

Combining estimators and macro BIM is a perfect vehicle for introducing technology into a project pursuit. This type of technology gives the Cost Estimator a tool to communicate the cost of a project at the conceptual level in a very visual manner. Finally, as we all know, we unfortunately bear the burden of initial missteps throughout the life of a project. Therefore a macro BIM such as this gives the team a tool more appropriate with the stage of design to make smarter and better decisions.

About the Writer Brent Pilgrim joined The Beck Group in 2001 to work with their integrated services group. He has worked on multiple projects in varying capacities from construction project management and estimating, to architectural design development, construction document production, and construction administration. In 2006, he began working with Beck Technology as a practitioner of the company’s software and now manages a consulting group offering cost modeling services using DProfiler. He has participated in numerous projects and a worked with a variety of clients both private and public. Brent graduated from Texas A&M University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Environmental Design and in 2001 with a Masters degree in Construction Science.

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