Have you outgrown your software? How to achieve long-term productivity and an improved estimating process with construction-specific estimating software.

To win more jobs, you have to produce more estimates. But generating twice the number of estimates alone will not help. In today's competitive market, you have to work smarter by creating tighter and more accurate estimates instead of cutting corners and compromising your profits. Although using generic Microsoft Excel spreadsheets may work for smaller jobs, their capabilities are limited when bids demand more complexity and fine-tuning. You do not want to realize those limitations when you are in the middle of an intricate bidding process.

Automating your estimating processes helps you make the best use of your time and results in more accurate estimates. By eliminating the inconsistencies in your estimates, you can be more confident in your numbers. Spending less time crunching numbers means more time for estimate analysis and developing strategies to win more jobs at a higher profit. By using construction-specific estimating software instead of manual or generic spreadsheet methods such as Excel, some sources cite they have experienced up to a 50 percent increase in estimating productivity.

Shane Peterson, an estimator at Port of San Diego, says his estimating software saves him significant time. He did a recent estimate for a parking garage that took about an hour total- 20 minutes to build the model and the rest of the time for review.

"Without estimating, it would have taken me a week because I would have had to do takeoffs and calculations," Peterson says.

User-Friendly Interface

Generic spreadsheets can be easy-to-use and intuitive. Unfortunately, simplicity often comes with limited capabilities. Most construction-specific estimating software provides more growth capacity and sophistication but may seem difficult to use or require more time to learn. But some estimating software can offer the best of both worlds: an easy-to-use spreadsheet interface backed by a powerful database for added flexibility as well as integration with other applications.

Using estimating software that has a recognizable spreadsheet user interface (UI) means an instant comfort level and a shorter learning curve for estimators. Look for estimating software that allows each user to easily customize the UI and also easily recall any work with only a few simple clicks.

Database Power

Each line item has to be typed in manually when using generic spreadsheets for construction estimating (unless, of course, you have created a number of standard templates to use for specific project types which can be time-consuming). Unfortunately, the manual approach only multiplies the risks of potential data entry errors, omissions, transposed numbers and outdated pricing. When using construction-specific estimating software, you simply populate your spreadsheet by pulling items or groups of items directly from a database. The database stores the items and assemblies, plus pricing, productivity factors, formulas and more.

Some types of estimating software that support pre-built, industry-specific databases can be fine-tuned and customized. In addition, some estimating software takes automation to the next level by keeping your database pricing current by integrating with pricing services.




Estimators' responsibilities do not always end once the estimate is completed and the job begins. Sometimes they may be required to buy out the job or perform project scheduling. The last thing an estimator wants to think about is finishing up one process (estimating) and starting another one (project scheduling) from scratch.

Most estimating software has some level of integration with other applications or software in your business. Since most construction-specific estimating software systems store a variety of details associated with items in the database (labor productivity, task, etc.), most make this information available- via integration- to other applications, thereby minimizing the need to re-key data.

In addition, estimate details can often be shared with construction-specific accounting software that support the buyout, purchase order generation and job cost tracking processes. This reduces duplicate data entry, typos, transposed numbers and omissions. Besides resulting in greater time savings and increased productivity, you will see improved accuracy and communication throughout multiple departments.

Integration with digitizing tools is very common among construction-specific estimating software. Digitizing, an automated method for performing counts and calculating dimensions, speeds up the estimate takeoff process considerably. With the rapid adoption of on-screen (electronic plan) takeoff capabilities, estimators using construction-specific estimating software that integrates with electronic takeoff can increase efficiencies even more.


A flexible comparison and variance reporting is key to many aspects of the estimating process. In addition to sharing estimate information with other project team members as well as management, it is imperative that estimators be able to easily compare current estimates with data from historical estimates or conceptual estimates for a more accurate final estimate. Construction-specific estimating software is available that includes a variety of built-in reports necessary for estimate generation, analysis and collaboration. Having these built-in reports or a report writing tool that is powerful, yet easy to use, is critical throughout the entire estimating process to quickly provide the information you need when you need it. Doing a finite comparison between estimates or portions of estimates will ensure a better chance of success and accuracy with new jobs.

Organizing and locating past estimates often presents a difficult challenge. For instance, you start looking for a certain project you bid about 12 months ago, and you realize it may save you more time to move forward and develop an entirely new bid rather than invest time in looking back. Using historical project information can be a huge timesaver when building new estimates and can also be a significant factor in developing highly accurate and competitive bids. Some construction-specific estimating software offers built-in methods for quickly viewing current and past projects from a variety of angles such as projects by status, type of work, estimator and more. In addition, estimate management tools are available to help organize your estimates, minimizing the amount of time spent searching for historical estimates.

Audit Trails

Reviewing your work before your estimate is considered "final" can be confusing. All too often, knowing just how a particular takeoff quantity was calculated or what dimensions or variables were used relies on memory. Keeping track of changes you have made to specific values or reverting back to your original values can be time-consuming or impossible without estimating automation.

Many construction-specific estimating solutions provide an audit or electronic trail, showing exactly what steps were taken and what values were used in calculating the takeoff quantity and your estimated costs. Some software allows users to recall the takeoff variables, review and make changes as needed. Calculations can be edited, replaced or deleted, and a trail of exactly what was done with the particular takeoff can be provided. Ask about a built-in method for automating and tracking changes and easy ways to revert back to the original value before the last adjustment you made in your estimating software.

Last-Minute Cuts and Additions

Having the ability to spread last-minute cuts or additions to a near final estimate can make the difference between winning a bid or leaving profit on the table. Estimators require a quick and easy method for identifying the spread as well as the rules to be used (i.e., add 6 percent to all labor items within a particular phase of work). Having the capability to remove the adjustment after it has been made is also important. In Excel, this type of process is often handled by copying estimates at the time of each change to ensure they can go back to the original estimate if needed. However, construction-specific estimating software typically allows the estimator to make the adjustment, review and either keep or reject the changes at any time without sacrificing estimate integrity or accuracy.

Tracking Subcontractor Bids

When your bid deadlines get tight and you are waiting on supplier or subcontractor quotes to finish your estimate, multiple spreadsheets or scattered handwritten notes only add to the stress. Keeping those quotes straight as they come in and then trying to easily analyze and choose who to go with can be tricky. Some estimating software systems allow multiple bids to be logged by the vendor for individual or groups of items. A "spreadsheet" within your estimating software makes last-minute subcontractor/supplier bid analysis, follow-up and selection a breeze.

Can You Afford to Wait?


In today's competitive environment, you are competing against more firms than ever for fewer jobs. Especially now, estimators are looking for ways to work smarter to stay ahead of the game. Using a construction-specific estimating software solution allows you to automate your estimating process and create more accurate estimates in just a fraction of the time.

 Why a Generic Spreadsheet Software System Can Hurt 
Your Business

  • You may seriously underestimate a project due to an overlooked, forgotten or improperly quantified item.
  • Building an estimate from scratch one item at a time is time-consuming.
  • Maintaining Excel templates with up-to-date pricing and estimate details for specific types of projects is time-intensive.
  • When deleting an individual item from your generic spreadsheet, you risk losing an associated formula or end up with a formula that no longer calculates properly.
  • Too many steps or complex processes are needed to analyze and report on your estimates.
  • You fear being the low bidder on a job due to miscalculations or a missed item.

Construction Business Owner, June 2011