It Don’t Come Easy!

Construction management in a nutshell is the planning, organizing, implementing and controlling of a project’s time, costs, resources and cash flow. Construction projects are made up of hundreds of interdependent tasks that have a specific order that they must occur. Success in construction management begins with a well thought out plan for the unfolding of events. The secret to a good plan for construction; build it before you build it. Without first a good plan all else is chaos.

Following establishing a good project “plan” is the organization of that plan into tools that can be used to implement the project. Examples of project organizing tools are budgets, schedules, cash flow diagrams, manning charts and resource schedules. The secret of success here is that they must be realistic. Unrealistic tools tied to an unrealistic game plan is a sure way for construction project failure. Successful construction management always starts with a realistic organized plan.

The organized tools, tied to a realistic plan, are used to implement the construction project. These tools are the sheets of music that each member of the construction team will play from. The secret to success here is having the right team in place to implement the project. The “right” team is one that is operating in sync with the other members and the organized plan. Leadership is key to the success in the implementing of a construction project.

Construction projects never unfold exactly how they are planned; this is a given! Success in construction management allows for deviation from an organized plan as it is being implemented. The key to success here is the timely revisions to the project plan, updating the tools accordingly and then implementing the changes without missing a beat in the orchestrating of the project. Here again, leadership is key. Construction project leadership comes with experience.

Successful construction management does not just happen. Any construction project failures, the results of which are overrun budgets, costly court battles, project completion delays and poor project quality, could have been avoided if time and effort were put into these principles of succesful construction management. It don’t come easy!


Putting Facilities Construction Estimating in Context


The First Line of Defense against Cost Overruns is an Accurate Budget Estimate

Lighthouse in ocean

Bell Rock Lighthouse–built in 1810

On Bell Rock off the coast of Angus, England sits the world’s oldest surviving lighthouse. This 116’ tall granite structure was built by Robert Stevenson starting in 1807. The project was completed and functioning by February 1811. The construction duration approached 5 years and the cost exceeded the original budget estimate by 60%.

Just another example of a public funded project exceeding budgets of time and money?

Did I mention that the Bell Rock is a treacherous sea-washed submerged reef, located 15 miles off the coast, and the base of the lighthouse is 12 feet underwater at high tide, 4 feet above water at low tide? Did I neglect to mention that during construction the rock was hammered with brutal storms 5 months out of the year and that labor shortages were on-going due to a war with France? Compounding these issues, the granite specified for this project was not native to the area and had to be brought in by wagon at a premium expense.

Context Matters: The engineer’s plans and specification were well defined for the Bell Rock Lighthouse. The baseline budget was established. The project was seemingly straightforward when viewed from the two dimensional form of the Architect/ Engineers (AE) plans and specifications.  Lighthouse with base submerged in oceanThe budgetary estimating lessons learned here are not too different from those that continue to frustrate facility managers today. The accurate estimating of construction goes well beyond the project drawings (things always connect together neatly on drawings) and must include an accounting of the realities of the environment where the project is constructed. The fact is: project context matters!

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Costing Construction

Let’s start with a little bit of sarcasm. Imagine an advertisement for the latest construction estimating software; “….. With click and drag speed you can choose from thousands of line items of unit cost national average data and build accurate cost estimates….blah, blah, blah! ” This is not a real advertisement; I made it up to make a point. Thrifty, speedy estimating software coupled with unit cost construction data does NOT an accurate estimate make!!!

There is No Time: Let’s be honest; we all get lazy particularly when we are pressed for time. We are always looking for shortcuts in our “means” to get to an “end.” The facilities manager is already strapped for time with another demanding tenant, tight timelines, on-going operations, and emergency fixes. Budgetary estimating is just another pesky necessity that gets in the way of progress. The problem is that decisions on facilities issues are generally made based on cost considerations. There is always someone asking “how much is it going to cost?” The budget estimate is just another task that takes from the already limited time in a day.
The truth is that when time is tight, shortcuts are taken. Sadly, some budgets are derived from a “click and drag speed” application of software. Unit pricing is thrown at a project from a data source with little thought given… verbatim! It is then “ipso-presto” and another budget cost estimate is ready to wreak havoc on a project as reality is revealed. Just because it comes from a published resource and is well-known does not make it correct for your project. Choosing, Clicking, and dragging is not construction estimating. Much like the old adage “you always get what you pay for” for accurate budget estimators this is “you get the accuracy from it from the accuracy you put into it.”

The Consequences: Starting a project with a poorly thought-out project cost plan is simply setting the project up for budget overruns, under runs and run away froms. Failing to plan is planning to fail! In the long run it is easier to put the time in up front to establish a correct budget then it is to deal with the project in a crisis mode as the job unfolds. The first crisis will occur when the contractor bids are greater than the budget estimate. Ooops! It is here that you can ask the customer to cut scope or return to the funding source and ask for more money. Good luck on either account.  Accurate budgetary estimating requires a thought out effort of building the project before the project is built. All scope, quantities and unit pricing must reflect the realities of the project or suffer the consequences.

Construction Costing: The process of construction cost estimating starts with scope and ends with the pricing of the project quantities. Pricing the project is a lot more than a spreadsheet and unit prices from an average cost database. Contractors have pricing sources such as vendors, subcontractor’s, suppliers and their own historical costs. They are usually secretive about these prices because they reflect their own discounts and productivity…things that make them competitive. Budgetary estimators must rely on their own sources such as the internet, select vendors and published cost data. Published costs are not generally site specific and they reflect an average job, with average productivity and average hassles. This is typically not your project. Unit costs will have to be adjusted away from an average to fit the realities of your project. Unit costs for direct activities include material, labor and equipment. These are the direct costs; directly attributable to the physical final project. Then there are the indirect costs; these are all the cost items that support to the direct activities.

Direct Costs: The direct construction costs are those that are attributable to any of the direct activities or tasks required to put the components of the project together. The hard costs for construction materials, labor and equipment are the direct costs. Many of the national average published cost data unit costs are focused only on direct costing of construction in a place of average productivity in an average context working environment. Average is the starting point. The estimator will have to make necessary adjustments to the average unit construction costs to fit the complex specifics of the project being estimated. These adjustments come from knowledge of the “average” of the database and how the project deviates from that.
Then there is the issue of bare costing or total direct costing. Bare is exactly that; it is the bare cost of the direct activities less any mark ups for labor burden, taxes, bond, overhead and profit. The total unit direct costs should then include all the direct additions to labor, materials and equipment. Labor is adjusted for necessary “burdens” such as social security (fica), federal and state unemployment (futa, suta). All direct costs are then adjusted to include home office overhead and profit for the installing contractor. All these adjustments to bare direct construction costs can get complicated and must be understood as applied to the specific job but also understood in the published unit cost data. Are they included in the data or do they need to be added? The adjustments to very bare direct costs can be 40% to 50% higher depending on the mix of labor and material. The misunderstanding of direct costs and published cost data is usually where the first mistakes are made in construction costing.

Indirect Costs: The indirect costs are those project costs that are indirectly attributable to all the direct stuff. Site specific indirect costs include site superintendent, site trailers, permits, temporary utilities and other support for all the direct activities. Site overhead costs can be 5% to 15% of the overall project cost. Other indirect costs include performance bond, payment bond, sales taxes, contingencies and markups for overhead and profit for the general contractor. This markup is over and above what a subcontractor will mark up for overhead and profit on the direct costs. This double mark up of overhead and profit is the reality of construction and construction costing.

Costing Construction: You can see that a simple application of unit costs from a national average cost database from a quickly applied software module is not construction estimating. Costing construction is much more than just an application of unit prices. Don’t get me wrong, estimating software is great and helpful. Published construction cost data is also very helpful for budgetary estimating and for checks and balances in bidding. It is in the application of the software and unit costs where some budgetary estimates go very wrong.


Eating Elephants

I fondly remember my college calculus classes because for someone who likes numbers, calculus problem solving was fun. Don’t tell anyone but I actually will read a calculus book for enjoyment! With calculus you can sum up many minute pieces of an area or volume and arrive at a very accurate conclusion. How does this relate to construction estimating? Well, you can improve the accuracy of a project’s budgetary estimate by breaking the project up into pieces and pricing them separately then adding them up  to make the “whole” again. As long as you can define the parts and know enough about construction to think through the AE, Context and means execution of the work issues you will arrive at an accurate cost conclusion for a project. I call this eating your elephant one bite at a time. Any scary project can be accurately budgeted with some knowledge of construction scope and understanding of the pieces. Many times I have speculated on the cost of a project as a whole and then proceeded to put the time into quantifying and pricing the pieces to find out my “whole” guess was off base. Of course many people react with “but that takes time.” They’re right, it does take time! Accurate cost estimating for correctly budgeting projects takes an investment of time. Welcome to the world of estimating. There is definitely a time/accuracy tradeoff in construction cost estimating. If you want to put little time into budget estimating a project you will most likely arrive at some degree of inaccuracy in the estimate depending on the ugliness of the elephant. The typical estimating process on the owner’s side will generally start with a Conceptual OR Order of Magnitude cost estimate. This is quick and based primarily on historical (at times hysterical) numbers. Typically the elephant is not defined and many assumptions are made about scope. With this type of estimate I would not feel uncomfortable with a 15% to 20% estimate contingency depending on the size of the project. New construction projects are easier to get your conceptual arms around because there are good historical numbers on new construction projects. Historical costs per unit floor area are helpful with new construction projects. Remodel projects are more conceptually challenged because of the uniqueness inherent in repair/remodel projects. I have not yet seen an identical repair/remodel project. Budgeting at a conceptual stage of design (AE Scope) is a challenge; the complete scope is fuzzy and it takes a good imagination to swallow the project in large undefined bites.


As the project moves through a design process a second cost estimate is typically (should be anyway) compiled at the design/development stage of design (40%  thereabouts). Project owners are wise to perform this second estimate just to make certain that the project is still within budget. If the project exceeds budget it is easier to deal with scope changes at design development rather than at the time of bid opening where it is discovered that you cannot afford the project. This happens all the time and it is frustrating because it may mean going back to the funding source for more funds OR cutting the project scope. Neither option is pleasant. Correct budgetary estimating through the design process can prevent this embarrassing dilemma. The approach taken here is an improvement in accuracy over the conceptual cost estimate because the project is better defined. A typical approach is to break the project up into “assembly” type pieces. Assemblies are great for budgeting projects at this stage of design and with the right thought process and good assembly unit costs the accuracy is much improved. I would peg the contingency factor at about +/- 15% depending on the size of the job. An example of an assembly bite of an elephant might be a 4” concrete slab on grade with welded wire fabric, a steel trowel finish and 4” of granular base. In current local dollars (Seattle) this would run around $6.50 per SF depending on the site, time of the year and location of the placement.

A third estimate is generally completed at an 80% working drawing stage of design. This type of estimate is closest to the one bite at a time philosophy and is called Unit Price estimating. Unit price estimating is time consuming because at the current design so much of the scope is defined right down to the size of the reinforcing steel and specified quality of roofing material on the roof. An accurate budget is arrived at by looking at the pieces, scoping them, quantifying and unit pricing. The summation of all the estimated pieces is then the whole. As a project is better defined and the bites become clearer theoretically the contingency is reduced. At this stage of design with a good unit price estimate a  +/- 5% to 10% estimate contingency is applicable. Contingency is to cover the “stuff” left out or not yet defined and is related also to the knowledge of the cost estimator of filling in the blanks with some construction experience.

In construction budget estimating through a design process 3 different cost estimates are generally performed. The reason is to keep a project design in line with a budget. The time and cost required to eat a project in pieces is worth it if accuracy in budgeting is achieved. Inaccurate budgeting costs an owner time and money.