Estimating is a complex, high-risk, individualized mixture of art and science, which makes the choice of the tools an estimator uses quite a personal thing. So it is really no surprise to find that four decades of digital evolution have led estimators to a limited automation of old practices, the acceptance of few new tools and stubborn resistance to the adoption of new ways.

The loudest debate at present has been going on for decades. It involves the fundamental choice of whether to start with a generic spreadsheet or use specialized estimating software. Some estimators prefer to mix their own colors by setting up their own spreadsheets. Others prefer the speed and efficiency of the pallets of features offered by the dozens of competing estimating software packages.

Just which initial choice an estimator makes depends to some extent on the type of estimate they are performing and the type of client they serve. Then, factor in corporate culture, personal taste and inertia.

But some experts say that whole debate is missing the larger point, which is that available technology could automate the takeoff process and improve industry efficiency significantly, if only it were used. Eric Lamb, executive vice president of DPR Construction Inc., Redwood City, Calif., estimates the industry's 40,000 construction cost estimators spend 25% of their time, for an estimated 20 million hours per year, doing quantity takeoffs. He estimates 75 to 80% of that labor could be avoided altogether if construction documents were circulated as 3D models built with industry-standard objects, instead of as plans and 2D views.

But such a change would involve the acceptance of widespread, complex process and technological changes. "Even though it is technically doable, that's going to be a ways out. A generation is probably about the time it will take," predicts Kevin Miller, a researcher at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who studies the use of technology by construction companies in the preconstruction process.

Miller does see signs that the less ambitious innovation of using a computer mouse to take off quantities on computer screens, rather than doing it from paper plans, is catching on and may represent the next common addition to the estimator's bag of tricks. "It's gaining momentum. Reprographic houses are noticing a shift in what people want," he says. "They are starting to say, ‘can I get a CD,' and a year ago they cussed if they were getting a CD. It's going to be a quicker transition than people think."

Brandon Briggs, a 29-year-old senior estimator with Layton Construction Co. Inc., a general contractor in Salt Lake City, is the first in the company's 13-person estimating department with a takeoff viewer, On Screen Takeoff, from On Center Software. He transfers his quantities manually into Timberline's Precision estimating software. Briggs says taking off on screen enables him to organize his work, keep track of what he has done and saves him from having to store paper plans. Others in his department want the technology, he says, but generally speaking, "estimators are pretty slow to try new things. They tend to get comfortable with what they are used to. There is so much at risk if something is wrong."

There is no clear demarcation on when to use spreadsheet versus commercial software. Estimators can be found using both at all levels. Nevertheless, interviews of estimators by ENR for a survey of estimating software indicate a few rules of thumb. In general, the more conceptual an estimate is and the more complex the job, the more likely it is that an estimator will turn to the flexibility of a customized spreadsheet. The closer an estimate gets to the final "hard bid" and the more standardized the work, the more likely it is that an estimator may opt for a commercial software package.

Those who go for the commercial software package have the additional daunting task of sorting through a host of vendors and options to determine which software best suits their needs. One reason there are so many to choose from is that most were developed years ago within construction companies from their own customized spreadsheet-based forms. Some even predate the personal computer and were originally fashioned to use cost databases stored on mainframes.

ENR, with the aid of the American Society of Professional Estimators and others, offers a general use and contact guide to many estimating software packages (click on link below).

Many estimators still insist that you can't beat the classic spreadsheet—primarily Excel and Lotus 1-2-3—for flexibility, updating data bases, report creation and customizing estimates to meet individual client needs. In a recent survey of its estimators, ASPE's Delaware chapter found that 38% of the respondents use a standard spreadsheet, 10% use a customized inhouse spreadsheet and 42% use commercial software packages. The remainder rely on the tried and true, if somewhat cumbersome, method of paper and pen.

"Estimators like me who work on something different almost every day prefer the flexibility of the spreadsheet," says Lewis Finkel, CPE, president of Stamford, Conn.-based Professional Construction Services Inc. Finkel was ASPE's estimator of the year for 2002. He says spreadsheets can deal with uncertainties in the very early design stages when the estimator is working from vague drawings and has to figure out what the designer has left out of the drawing. "Spreadsheets allow me to do a number of what-if scenarios, which enables the estimate to become a tool to help the design process," says Finkel.

"Estimates are increasingly used as a working tool in the design process and as a method of cost modeling," agrees Paula Tocci Federman, president of the New York City-based estimating and cost consultant Federman Design and Construction. This estimating trend is one reason Federman is a proponent of spreadsheets. She also says spreadsheets make it easier to generate custom summary reports for clients. "Different clients have different formats that commercial packages donfeature081202a.aspt address," she says.

But most spreadsheet enthusiasts say it is the flexibility of maintaining and updating their own custom data bases keeps them sold on spreadsheets. "Commercial packages serve a purpose, but people should realize that they will have to spend three to six months with one to four people to customize the data in these software packages," says Donald L. Short, CPE, president of Tempest Co., Omaha.

For example, a project may require separate estimates for the budget, schematic, design and bidding stages. While similar, each of those estimates has a different purpose and uses different databases, says Short. "Commercial packages don't use parallel databases, but you can do that with spreadsheets," he says.

In 1981, Short wrote his own custom estimating program, but says if he were starting his business over today he would consider going with spreadsheets rather than the custom route. "Spreadsheets today are very powerful and can do anything the estimating process requires and format it to look good," says Short.

On the other hand, roughly two-thirds of all estimators use packaged estimating software. There are many designed for specialty trades, and there are dozens designed for general use as well. "It makes us more efficient, and there isn't one person here who would rather use a spreadsheet," says Cecilia Padilla, senior project manager at Marek Brothers Systems, Houston, an interior finishing contractor whose 25 estimators use Quick Bid. "We feel it is perfectly tailored to our needs." The estimating product gives a standard for everyone, is extremely efficient and accurate, and it produces "very good reports" that are useful for estimating and for communication with the field, she says.

The range of features that differentiate commercial estimating products is subtle and enormous. Apostolos Hadjisimeon, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, devoted an exhaustive master's thesis to surveying many of the products, exploring their various features and designing a methodology for making a selection. Among key differentiators he noted were whether multiple users could work on an estimate simultaneously; flexibility of reporting features; their ability to integrate with spreadsheets, digitizers and other takeoff tools; their integration with scheduling and accounting programs; and their use of databases.

Many estimating software packages can pick up pricing data from commercial databases, while others, such as WinEstimator Inc., Kent, Wash., maintain their own. Some estimators find such data particularly helpful for conceptual estimates, although others say it is never as current and localized as what they can get by calling their suppliers.

R.S. Means Co. Inc., Kingston, Mass., supplies data to 33 estimation packages. Gary Hoitt, an electronic product development manager, says the Means' database is updated annually. Common items that tend to be "in the market basket of construction," are updated quarterly, and labor rates are tracked whenever major union contracts are due to expire. The database is also localized to more than 930 3-digit zip codes for key city cost indexes, which are also updated quarterly. While the data may not give as precise a read on local pricing as a person in a given town, "We can zero in real close," Hoitt says. He also notes that while some companies maintain their own databases of cost information, keeping them up-to-date can be a big job.

John Ferguson, Means' senior manager of engineering operations, who conducts the research behind the data, says the concerns he hears from estimators about software products are that they want them to integrate with project management and scheduling, and they want the ability to change the assumptions, such as work crew breakdowns and productivity rates, that govern calculations. "The trend is probably for more flexibility," he says. In a sense, they want estimating packages to be more like spreadsheets, he says.

Time may bring about consolidation of the products. One 25-year-old company, Bidtek, Portland, Ore., dropped its Vision estimator when it redesigned its other job-cost and project management software four years ago. The company still supports its 500 legacy customers, but integrates with Timberline and Mc2 for general construction, and Niche and HCSS for heavy construction, instead. "They are very good estimating systems," says a company official. "We couldn't do it all and do it well."