Experts say three functions prove the most critical when buying cost estimating software -- takeoff, cost databases and cost estimating worksheets. Contractors who devote a lot of time to excavations and fills may want to consider specialized site-work tools as well. Each of these functions will be discussed below.
Takeoff software lets an estimator easily convert paper plans to an electronic format in which dimensions and proportions are used to estimate dimensions and quantities. It is a significant time-saving and error-reduction tool.
One of the most common ways to work with takeoff software is to import electronic blueprints or drawings in image formats such as DWG, which is used by AutoCAD, or PDF, which is used by Adobe Acrobat. Dimensioning and takeoff work can then done using a standard mouse or a digitizing tablet.
A tablet is a touch-sensitive drawing surface that records the user's movements with a puck or pen-like stylus. Digitizer tablets work best when plans are electronic; when they are delivered in paper format, you will either have to use the tablet to trace the drawings into the system or have the documents scanned. If you think a tablet is a worthwhile investment for your firm, one feature to consider is the ability to add digitized line and symbol graphics as lines are digitized; this enables you to see what changes have been made.
Built-in cost databases can save time and reduce errors for any estimator. A good estimating software package will allow you to import complete cost lists from multiple sources with a minimum of clean-up.
You will want to ensure that the software supports common third-party cost database providers, such as RSMeans. You will also want to ensure that you can apply cost increases to hundreds or even thousands of items globally, as is the case when a supplier enacts an across-the-board price increase.
Even if you don't have a dedicated cost estimating software package, chances are you have data stored in a spreadsheet somewhere. When shopping for estimating software, make sure your data can be easily imported into the new tool initially -- and ask if there will be a charge for such migration services.
Many companies may not need to have multiple estimators working in the same job at the same time. Nonetheless, it is essential for all estimators to be able to work from a single company cost database. Keep in mind that you may need to pay extra for the networking capabilities that will allow multiple estimators to work simultaneously with cost data and other components.
Estimating worksheets are the spreadsheets where the real work takes place. Here you will want to pay attention to the number and types of calculations available out of the box and note where you may need to purchase supplemental software (which some vendors will refer to as a module).
Overall, you should keep several questions in mind when determining if the spreadsheets within a cost estimating software package are right for your business.
- Can you define your own fields, headers and formulas in the worksheet?
- Can you add your own markups? Can you specify different markups for different categories?
- Can you determine whether a markup can be spread throughout a bid in specific line items?
- Can you build composite assemblies -- that is, can you group multiple cost items into a single package?
- Can you use dynamic or fixed ratios to drive quantities?
- Does the tool allow you to compare bids and quotes directly?
- Does the worksheet support unit-price bidding? (Remember, this is is critical if you are doing certain types of government work.)
- Where will the worksheet manage change order costing?
Finally, estimates for the cut-and-fill, excavation and grading portions of construction work can be difficult. As a result, many cost estimating software packages offer specialized subsets of site-work tools to manage this piece. Often, however, it is an add-on to the core package.
"These are up-sell options for the sales representative," noted Phil Arnt of GCN Consulting, but at the same time they can be seen as "positives that give us a view of the software company's development direction."
But wait, there's more
The four functions discussed above are important, but by no means are they the only functions you'll want to consider. For example, good cost estimating software should allow you to track multiple bids (or at least allow you to export that data into an accounting package).
You'll also want to ask a vendor these questions about the capabilities of its cost estimating software.
- Can the software generate proposals? If so, in what format?
- Does the software let users manage subcontractor and supplier bids?
- Can users create custom reports?
- What third-party reporting tools are supported?
- How will data move between the estimating application and other tools for contractor accounting and construction project management? (The more directly your data feeds into other applications, the better.)
*** Knowing the answers to these questions will help you find software that fits your company's needs. To learn more about how to find a vendor that fits your company's needs, look to the next article: Construction Estimating Software Buyer's Guide: Vendor Selection