Creating accurate early estimates for fast-track jobs

June 01, 2006 |

In the fast-track world of today's construction industry, hurried owners are finding less appeal with slow, sequentially staged projects.When an owner has to hire a designer, wait for a fully completed design, then spend even more time dealing with all the contract negotiations, design changes, and funding shortfalls, the incentive is there to consider a different approach.

As a result, construction processes where design and construction occur simultaneously, such as design-build, have grown in popularity.

While business is booming for design-builders, the work comes with some difficult challenges—namely creating accurate estimates.

Unlike the traditional bottom-up estimating approach, where contractors rely on detailed design information to formulate accurate numbers, estimating for design-build and other fast-track projects is top-down, where little minimal project information and time is provided.

"We call this methodology analogous estimating," says Nick Papadopoulos, president of Eos Group. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based software developer offers a system called Advisor that develops conceptual or feasibility estimates based on an AEC firm's actual cost historical data.

Developed with input from client Turner Corp., Dallas, the software was released publicly in mid-2003, adopted by Turner later that year, and then substantially upgraded in late 2004. The Web-based program is written entirely in Java and utilizes a SQL (structured query language) database.

Users can query historical estimates for projects of similar profile, compare candidates side by side, and customize searches based on schedule, location, and size differences. The results can be downloaded into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for further manipulation and analysis.

A compelling benefit of the program is the promise of reducing information technology costs through centralized management of project cost data. By providing enterprise-wide access to historical data and project-related documents through centralized storage, AEC firms can make the most of existing investments in creating estimates rather than building estimates once and then letting them collect dust in a file cabinet.

Estimators, project managers, and business development staff can search past budgets and adjust them for inflation, job size, and location to produce up-to-date, defensible budget estimates. And because the product is Web-based, Advisor can be used virtually anywhere, even from the client's office, adds Papadopoulos.

Advisor browses estimates in the repository using a user-defined classification system, such as vertical industry or building type. It can also search for estimates based on user-defined attributes, such as job size, project characteristic, or region. The system can also import estimates from other programs, such as Timberline Precision from Sage Timberline, Beaverton, Ore.

Advisor can display multiple historical budgets side-by-side and compare project information, quantities, unit costs, amounts, hours, and production rates. Users can compare multiple iterations of the same project or a collection of similar projects.

Users experience

Turner implemented Advisor in late 2003 for use by its pre-construction estimating department. The program replaced a legacy Lotus Notes-based history system that housed information on thousands of projects but lacked validation and administrative controls to ensure data quality. Users had to manually input historical data into the system, which limited the process of collecting, storing, and sharing data.

Eos Group helped Turner configure and customize Advisor to meet the needs of the company's 44 offices across the U.S. The work included converting hundreds of existing historical projects. Today, the firm has more than 1,000 projects in the system.

Brasfield & Gorrie, Birmingham, Ala., implemented Advisor in 2005 for use by its pre-construction estimating department. The program replaced an informal process whereby users developed project summary worksheets in Excel and stored the data in a workbook. Eos and Brasfield's system administrator configured Advisor around the firm's healthcare sector. Future implementations are planned for other pre-construction departments.

Bovis Lend Lease, New York, is implementing the system this year in its pre-construction and business development departments. Advisor replaces internally developed systems based on Microsoft Access and Lotus Notes. Future implementations are being considered for the firm's London and Sydney offices.

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