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Technology has rewritten many job descriptions, and that of the construction cost estimator is no exception. Not so long ago, estimators spent the bulk of their hours methodically manually extracting quantities from project drawings and tapping numbers into calculators. Now, thanks to innovative algorithms and ever-smarter software, estimators are able to devote more time to ensuring accurate pricing for clients.

Technology has liberated estimators from desks piled high with rolls of blueprints, letting them seamlessly collaborate with colleagues and stakeholders, and with multiple persons working on projects simultaneously from multiple locations. As well as more powerful analytic tools, vastly improved access to real-time data on pricing options allow estimators to respond quicker to cost fluctuations that can affect a project. All these developments have led to increased productivity and higher return on projects.

Change is Good—Isn’t It?

Ongoing tech advances on the construction side are impacting how cost estimators do their jobs, too, transforming all aspects of the process. Global positioning systems (GPS) allow contractors to accurately set excavation lines and foundations, ensure grading is being done correctly and facilitate other site and survey work with unprecedented precision. Mobile apps let the construction team upload complete sets of project drawings and walk through the job with an iPad, identifying problems and documenting conditions live. When a project wraps up, computerized punch lists synchronize and track the progress and completion of the to-do tasks.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a technology that has far-reaching effects on the AEC industries and, by extension, the cost estimator. Beginning with conceptual design through design development, then into the construction documentation phase and extending all the way through cost management/quantity surveying and construction and project maintenance, BIM applies a total lifecycle approach to the realization of a project.

Because BIM can detect design conflicts in the early stages of a project, it offers the power to resolve problems before construction commences. So if architects and engineers have been diligent in their detailing, there is a downstream benefit to estimators, because change orders or additional work that is identified after the contractor has been awarded a project is more expensive to implement than if it had been caught it before the contractor won the job. Pricing is always better in a competitive bid environment.

But it’s critical to note that the accuracy of the quantities generated by BIM software is dependent on the accuracy of the information embedded into the model. Cost estimators need to be aware that any discrepancy carries through to the resultant quantities, and ultimately the estimate being prepared. It’s vital to establish and maintain new crosschecks to ensure that the end result of all this technological gain is not a loss to the client.

Consistent, But Not Perfect

While technology brings much to the practice of cost estimating, it is not without some degree of peril. Beyond a system crash, failed backup or other technical glitch, there is one other factor that poses a serious risk: human error. 

In matters of fact as well as in expectation, human error is an ever-present pitfall and stems from a deep-seated reliance on the supposed infallibility of technology. As people are increasingly conditioned to assume that what is being produced by any technology is always correct, it can be easy to forget that the information received from technology is only as good as the information that’s put into it.

For cost estimators, the most significant lesson to be learned about technology is not to blindly trust what the computer spits out and to continue to rigorously run the all-important crosschecks to ensure the estimate is accurate. As technology enables estimators to respond to clients in a faster, more detailed and sophisticated manner, clients’ expectations for speedy turnarounds and precise estimates rise. Professional cost estimators must manage data, not the other way around.


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