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Care and Feeding: How to work with a Consulting Estimator in your Concept plan

The concept estimate is most often based on previous project budgets, which are modified to meet the new program of your project. The estimator may do rudimentary takeoff, and show what looks to be an estimate of quantities and items, but both you and he should understand that it is profoundly unlike later estimates – at this level, the estimator is telling you what is in the building, not the reverse.

For this first step, you may have provided a program document for an elementary school, with a simple floor plan. He will, based on previous experience, expect lots of CMU walls, high durability flooring, and simple inexpensive mechanical systems. He’ll probably assume public bidding with all of it’s complications, and he’ll assume that it needs to meet a predetermined budget (at least in Pennsylvania). Those assumptions will be no where to be found in your documentation but will be central to the cost structure that he develops.

If your intent is to achieve something other than a low bid elementary school, you had best let him know somehow at this point – these early assumptions by the estimator will set a marker for the budget that will be difficult to change later in the process.

That brings us to step 2 in the process – you review the estimate. A good preliminary estimate is a response in a conversation – and an estimator will typically be a little passive-aggressive in his conversations. He won’t want to dispute any of your design intent, but where it is difficult to achieve something, he’ll let you know in the body of the estimate, by pricing the difficulty, or excluding it. Your review of his work should start with looking at the line items and quantities, looking for things that do not agree with your vision for the building, and should progress to try to understand what he is trying to say. A common strategy for reviewing estimates is to look at the biggest and smallest numbers - this is where the most impactful errors or discussion points can usually be found.

A common trap at this phase is to scan to the bottom line and determine if the project is in budget, then pass it on to your client. This will often result in budget issues later that could have been avoided, by understanding what the estimator is putting in your building. Review of the estimate will tell you what the estimator included, what he missed, and what he left out intentionally.

Don’t proceed to step 3, turning the estimate over to your client, until you know what the estimator really thinks, and have thoroughly reviewed the estimate. I would also suggest that your engineering consultants should also review and comment - this seems trivial, but it is surprising to me the number of projects I work on that don't get fully reviewed adequately prior to submission to the owner.

Step 3 is important - don't embarrass your owner. If you perceive a budget problem, make sure that your contact with the owners team is fully aware of what he is going to see before he sees it.

Later estimates are different. At the schematic and DD levels, lots of information is available, and the estimate should reflect what you told the estimator. But be cautious in the earliest estimates. Make sure that your intent is reflected in the estimators words and line items. It’ll make all the difference later.

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