by Giovanni Marcelli
November 29, 2011

Follow these steps to choose estimating solutions that will fit your construction company.

The days of hand-calculated estimates are gone, except on the smallest of jobs. Construction businesses of all sizes use technology to expedite nearly every aspect of the construction process, including estimating.

A well-chosen construction estimating software solution will help streamline processes, drive accuracy and efficiency and provide essential details for project management and scheduling. In contrast, a poorly chosen solution will become a costly dust collector.

To find a solution that provides value to the estimator and project team, construction business owners must employ certain best practices and procedures.

The Essential Selection Process

Though estimating may differ from trade to trade, the process shares the same key principles of accuracy and detailed breakdowns. Takeoff and the bid summary are two key areas in which software is a proven time-saver that also increases accuracy.

Choosing the wrong construction estimating software system can be very costly and disruptive. The most common software selection method is to evaluate every feature available in each software system, and the one that has the most features wins. But this method is unreliable, particularly if the comparison is based on each provider's sales presentation.

Another option is to ask two or more software providers to present estimating products side-by-side to facilitate the evaluation process. This approach has benefits - it validates the quality of the product and allows expert criticism from both sides. On the other hand, this process could be chaotic if it is not properly planned and supervised.

The best evaluation method is performed by individuals who know a particular system very well. The process should include the estimating team, the management staff that finalizes the estimate and the IT department to make sure the software is contemporary and compatible with other company systems.

Ask potential providers the following questions:

  • Is the system designed by proficient estimators and written specifically for estimators?
  • Is the construction estimating software intuitive and fully compliant with all requirements and estimator expectations?
  • Does it follow a logical process familiar to the estimating community?

Probing Deeper

After a basic software evaluation plan is established, consider other critical characteristics that quality estimating solutions should incorporate.

Look closely at the makeup of the database. It should be extensive and include all necessary materials. It should also store price and discounts from various vendors and have several columns of labor units, labor codes and price codes. An extensive assortment of assemblies and specifications increases takeoff expediency and accuracy.

The software should also include enough flexibility for the estimator to create project-specific engineered equipment and fixture designations. Estimators should be able to see and change the takeoff materials before they are incorporated in the estimate.

The software must provide a way to break down an estimate into many levels and change the order of the breakdown easily on screen. Estimators should see the bill of materials grouped by phase, system and labor code, and instantly change the hierarchical order or any parameters for quick analysis and review.

Enterprise Solutions

Construction firms and estimators are strongly advised to look for enterprise-based construction estimating software - those estimating solutions that share a platform for various applications.

In the old days, a contractor would look at estimating, change orders and accounting (which usually included job costing) as three separate pieces of software, sometimes interfaced through importing/exporting functions. The problem with this conventional approach is that these systems are often not interoperable so data had to be re-entered. This duplicated effort introduced a greater chance of error.

The correct approach is to have all programs sharing a common database so that information can be accessed from all programs without duplicated efforts. All programs should be designed to work as an enterprise solution, with no incompatibilities or problems as new versions and updates emerge. The software needs to be up-to-date with a web-enabled option and a robust and powerful database for IT employees - .NET and SQL find favor with IT personnel.

Whether your needs lean toward a conventional software package or an enterprise solution, the estimating software you select needs to be integrated - and true integration begins during implementation. The list of internal clients (employees) and external clients is used in marketing, sales, estimating, change orders, project management, billing, payroll, HR, job costing, etc. Therefore, the estimating database must reside in a secure, robust and common repository of information to allow proper access from the authorized users.

The Take-Away

Construction estimating software must be intuitive, user-friendly, fast, specifically designed for your trade and supported by a reputable company that has a large market share in your industry and an excellent track record for support.

You are not just acquiring software, you are partnering with a software developer to take care of your current and future needs. Choosing the wrong partner can be very costly and affect your ability to bid projects efficiently.

Base your decision on value, not price. An expensive product may actually be the most affordable solution in the long term. Evaluating software is a very time-consuming, complex process, and it requires special expertise and skills. It is also subjective. The software evaluation should start with weeks of research. The entire process can take up to one year, especially for larger companies. The goal is to end with a fully successful implementation with the first chosen system.

Questions to Ask

Take the time to determine if the estimating software suits your needs. Talk to proficient users who have used the software successfully for a long time. Contacts from trade associations and friendly competitors can also be extremely valuable. Also, consult with friendly competitors who have successfully implemented and used the systems you are considering. (Be aware that some companies have bought "dust collectors" and are too embarrassed to admit it.)

Get answers to the following questions:

  • How long did it take to implement the system?
  • How much training was required?
  • How much work had to be done on the database to make it truly useful?
  • Is the support responsive, friendly and professional?
  • What enhancements can be provided, and how frequently do they offer more enhancements?
  • Does the company solicit suggestions and accept constructive criticism?
  • Is the software developer growing market share?
  • Are they visible in the industry?
  • Do they truly understand your industry and estimating requirements?