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What is a Consulting Estimator? – Part 1 - One Step Beyond

While working on a courthouse master-plan in New Jersey,

our client, the county executive, had been obligated to hire an architect to design a courthouse complex to replace an aging and moldy facility that had suffered decades of unfunded maintenance. He was required by statute to accommodate program growth to a certain point in the future. To make it more interesting, some of the resident agencies had sued the county executive, the building was regularly incurring health code violations, and he needed to respond to the demands of a judge overseeing the issues, as well as his “tenants” who were court systems as well, and his own needs as the owner of the building. Quite a tangled web our governments become.The design team did an excellent job on the master plan; they interviewed the tenants for their current and projected needs, they modeled population growth for the county and how that would effect the building program requirements, and they packaged it all up and drew an elegant building to contain it all and abandoned the old building to be reused for another purpose as the county determined appropriate.

We were called in to price that package. We took our best shot at the limited documentation – we did as much takeoff as possible, sent the plans out to some subcontractors for their input, identified unusual items that might cause cost issues, and provided an in-depth document review to confirm the feasibility of the plans. To no-one’s surprise, the cost was well beyond the ability of the county to provide. For my team, walking in with an unattainable budget was the worst possible position to be in. If the budget could not be made to work, it would have made our position difficult as all other stakeholders were deeply invested in this solution. Our client would remain liable for the building condition and violations. The architect would have faced extensive redesign efforts that had not been budgeted for in their fee proposals.

We were directed to create some cost saving options to bring the budget in line. The first step was to determine the target savings. A quick review showed us the truth. The sum total of available savings from a reasonable value engineering effort would not achieve the budget - without substantial reduction to the program, which was impossible.

A few tense emails were passed around while the county executive considered his options.

We had an epiphany at one of the design meetings – since this was a feasibility study, with very limited documentation, we hadn’t done a construction schedule and no-one had asked for one. Further, the program study assumed that all of the program needs would be met with construction today, even though office needs might not be required for 5 years or more.

The rate of program increase in those needs was fairly substantial, and a significant amount of the new building was devoted to those future needs. We created a proposal to phase the project, building a minimum size new building, and renovating and backfilling the existing building over time to meet the program growth needs.

This had several positive effects for the county executive. He suddenly had a smaller building that would still be responsive to his legal requirements, and his tenants needs. He was meeting the statutory requirements to evaluate and incorporate future growth into the project. The executive saw our presentation and realized that he would be able to accomplish all of his goals, or at least provide a pathway forward to resolving the problems. If we had limited our response to simple value engineering, which would have meant stripping the building of ornament, function and quality, nobody would have been happy with the outcome. Looking at all of the dimensions of the problem, and providing a creative response enabled a better project, a happy client, and more work.

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