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5 construction estimating trends to watch

I recently was on the road for four weeks exhibiting at and attending some of the most informative construction technology conferences today: BuiltWorlds in Chicago, Advancing Building Estimation in Houston, and ENR FutureTech in San Francisco. These conferences attract some of the best and brightest minds in the construction industry.

Nick Papadopolous, CEO of estimating and benchmarking technology consultant Eos Group, joined me at several of the events. For this blog post, I sat down with Nick to discuss our observations from the conferences and what we see as the latest estimating trends. Here is an overview of our conversation:

The changing dynamics of estimating

Perhaps the biggest trend in estimating is that it is pervasively a process that involves multiple iterations of estimates versus a single bid event. In the past, an estimator might develop a couple versions of an estimate to submit for a final bid or negotiated contract. (This approach still applies to hard bid projects.) But that was essentially it.

Today, with building information modeling (BIM) and more design-build project delivery methods, owners and designers modify and mature project plans continuously. As a result, the information coming to estimators is continuous and always changing. Large projects can now have hundreds of estimate iterations and on some mega projects it’s not uncommon for a team of estimators to deal with thousands of estimates. Managing that process is now more critical than ever before.

Data explosion

The iterative way in which estimates are now developed is creating a lot more data for estimators. “The estimator needs to find some way to get that organized, managed and controlled,” Nick told me. “BIM processes and automated quantity extraction can result in an explosion of data.” He sees this historical data eventually being combined with external information such as cost indexes to improve conceptual estimates and further hone and validate final estimate numbers. “It’s essentially the beginning of Big Data use for estimating,” Nick said. “Big-data-driven, decision-support systems will be common in the coming years.”

Visual estimating

We’re also seeing a shift in how estimating work is communicated and analyzed. In the past, estimators worked primarily in spreadsheets. When they needed a quantity, they’d reach for a set of plans, and maybe a digitizer, and then enter the quantity into the spreadsheet. Today, estimators are working with 3D models and 2D electronic plans that integrate directly with estimating systems. During takeoff, estimators can drag and drop, automatically count, and watch as information is sent from the drawing into the estimate. They can easily see in the model or electronic plan what they’ve already taken off and any changes that have been made. The whole process is very visual. And the visual process carries over to the execution team where the estimator can effectively communicate what’s in the estimate and where the project manager can find it in the model or drawings.

BIM in the estimator’s world

Comparing this year’s conferences to last year’s, we saw a major change in how contractors and estimators are viewing BIM. A year ago, there was a lot of talk about BIM and estimating integration (5D BIM), but more from an exploratory standpoint. Nick said it best: “With respect to BIM and estimating, we’re done with the euphoria stage and have moved on to the practical stage of how to make it work.”

Estimators broader acceptance of BIM appears to be based on a realization that BIM doesn’t have to have all the answers. BIM models (generated by designers) are rarely complete and estimators still need to go back to 2D and specification documents to fill in the gaps. But even with missing information, BIM can be a huge productivity enhancer when it is integrated with estimating. New tools that can more easily combine 2D and 3D input into one estimate are also making BIM more pragmatic for estimating.

Looking to the future

Even more changes are on the horizon for estimators. Robots, drones, prefabrication, and innovative new materials will change the way most estimators typically price a job. Construction is prime for process and technology advances that will transform the industry. Estimators will play a major role in how contractors take advantage of new capabilities that will help deliver projects more efficiently, for less cost, and with higher profit margins.