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For Estimators the Devil is in the Details (the Specifications)

Linda Candels

Posted: October 30, 2017 | Estimating

Completing a take-off, turning it into an estimate, and ultimately bidding a project involves a specific process, regardless of your trade. In the last issue of DCD Magazine, we talked about knowing your business, including determining your overhead, knowing the sizes and types of projects where your company can be most successful, and the steps to take to make sure your customers (or potential customers) get to know your company. We also discussed bid strategy, including when to bid or not to bid on a project.

Is it time to start the take-off yet? Absolutely not! Before you uncap a highlighter or open up your take-off software, a thorough review of the specifications is critical to your estimate. In addition, the scope of work, invitation to bid, and any other information provided should also be reviewed to totally understand the project.

Now it’s time to focus on the nuts and bolts of the process. The project’s specifications provide the road map to complete your take-off, estimate and, ultimately, get to your bid price.

The front end specifications (Division 1) provide general project information that applies to all trades. The responsibility schedule or a scope of work document will detail “who owns what.” Never assume that everything you normally bid is part of the bid package on every project! Make sure to thoroughly understand the scope of work for your trade.

The specifications should also detail the project schedule. Be sure you can meet the deadline. Do you have the labor and equipment to complete the work on time? All over the U.S., contractors are experiencing labor shortages in the trades. Unless you know you can staff the project, you should only bid what you know you can complete.

The project schedule and liquidated damage clause should be reviewed in advance of bidding a project. Liquidated damages could cost thousands of dollars per day. Even when failure to meet the schedule is no fault of your own, you can be held responsible, particularly when you are one of the last trades off the job. When you experience delays due to other trades, always document the situation and put the Owner/GC on notice, so as not to be hit with liquidated damages charges.

Another piece of information included in the front end of the specifications is the project walk through. Often the walk through is mandatory. Regardless, you or a designee should always attend this meeting, as valuable project insight can be gained about jobsite conditions and restrictions, working access, working hours, parking or materials storage space availability, and even the presence of asbestos. If the walk through is mandatory and someone from your company does not attend, your company will not be able to submit a bid. A walk through also allows you to “see” with your own eyes what may not be shown on the drawings, such as existing equipment, access to the equipment, and general site conditions that may be hard to depict on the drawings. If the walk through is not mandatory and you cannot attend, consider using a tool like Google Earth to get familiar with the jobsite.

The front-end specs also include bonding requirements – be it bid, performance, or payment bonds. There is a lead time in getting a bond, so the earlier you request one, the better. A bid bond, usually no more than 10 percent of the project value, is subject to full or partial forfeiture if the winning contractor fails to either execute the contract or provide the performance or payment bonds.

A performance bond, also known as a contract bond, guarantees satisfactory completion of a project by a contractor. Finally, a payment bond is a surety bond posted by a contractor to guarantee that its subcontractors and material suppliers on the project will be paid. Any of these bonds can take three to four working days to acquire. A good working relationship with your bonding company can reduce the lead time tremendously. And, if your relationship is really good, you may be able to arrange to write your own bonds through power of attorney.

Finally, the general contractor or construction manager may require you to carry “extra hours” to be used at their discretion, and they may require you to carry allowances for contingent items. Often these are high ticket items, so you want to make sure to include them in your proposal. More and more often, general contractors, especially larger ones, are including “500 extra hours to be used at their discretion,” feeling that they are pre-buying hours that can be used for change orders at a discounted rate.

After review of the Division 1 specs, you should read your trade’s specification section very carefully. Often your trade’s specifications will also refer you to other related specification sections, and it goes without saying that you should read those as well. The bottom line is to understand the requirements of the project, and what your trade “owns” relative to the work on the project. As the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” If there is a conflict between the specifications and what is shown on the drawings, try to pinpoint a reference within the text that defines what information supersedes other information.

You cannot rely on the old wisdom that “the specs supersede the drawings.” For example, the specs may state that outside duct banks shall be run in Schedule 40 PVC. However, a drawing note may state that all duct banks shall be run in galvanized rigid conduit (which costs a lot more than PVC!). If you can’t find a specific reference about what information supersedes, submit a Request for Information (RFI) for clarification. At all times, you want to be sure to cover your costs; yet, at the same time, you do not want to cover any unnecessary costs that could unnecessarily inflate your bid price. Whatever you do, always qualify your bid! For example, it could be as simple as “Carried Schedule 40 PVC for all duct banks per specifications. Did not carry GRC per drawings.”

Specs are often considered “boiler plate,” meaning they do not always contain project-specific information. And, to be truthful, it can get tedious reviewing hundreds of pages of what may seem to be worthless information. For example, with electrical, the contractor will look for wiring methods, fittings required, testing and coordination studies, and the responsibility of providing starters and disconnects. As a general rule, if the project is funded privately, a contractor can deviate from the specifications. However, if the project is publicly funded, each trade will be bidding on “plans and specs,” meaning no deviations from the plans and specifications.

Be aware that specs may include information on systems that are not shown or referenced on the drawings. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cover the cost for these items if they are in your bid package.

A thorough review of the specifications helps you map out the entire bid process and set the stage for the next part of the estimating process – the take-off. In the next issue of DCD Magazine, we will discuss the elements of the take-off, and some tips and techniques for completing your take-off efficiently.

About the Author: Linda Candels, is co-founder of Candels Estimating LLC, an outsourced estimating consultant specializing in electrical take-offs, value engineering, and budgeting. She currently holds the position of President of Candels Estimating Training LLC, and is a board member of the Consulting Estimator’s Roundtable ( and a member of the American Society of Professional Estimators (ASPE). Located in Fort Myers, Florida, Candels Estimating and Training has a nationwide clientele. Visit Candels Estimating LLC at