Proper Estimating

The key to project success on concrete foundations can be achieved through thorough estimating practices.

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Jim Baty, CFA Technical Director

It's another busy day at the office, and the phone is ringing off the hook. While you're excited business is hopping, all the calls have been for job estimates. It may be tempting to simply spit out a number based on a couple of details to get this item off your desk, but it could end up being a costly mistake.

A proper estimate is critical to maintaining a strong relationship with your client, whether it be a homeowner or a builder. Taking the time to learn more details about the project, client's desires, soil conditions and several other factors will ensure an accurate estimate for a concrete foundation project.

Getting started
Technological advancements have certainly helped the estimating process in recent years, but it is important to maintain a human connection to develop an accurate estimate. When an estimate is requested, the first step is to learn more about the project you are quoting. Many savvy concrete foundation firms have established a pre-bid questionnaire to elicit basic information about the project including governing jurisdiction, anticipated start and completion dates, condition of the lot, as well as estimates of wall elevations from the existing ground.

"The pre-bid questionnaire helps us assess the start time for the project as well as the services they want our firm to perform," says Amber Lange, estimator for Lavy Concrete Construction, Inc. in Piqua, Ohio. "If it is possible, we arrange to meet the owner or builder at the jobsite to ensure that we can build what they want on the lot they have."

It also is beneficial to meet with the owner or builder to discuss the project's vision. One of the most common mistakes made during the estimating process is assuming that you know what the customer wants. For the estimate to be accurate, it is essential to learn about both the lot and the owner's needs.

In addition to understanding the nuts and bolts of the project, it is important to evaluate the codes applicable to the project. Perhaps even more important than knowing the codes is understanding how the local inspectors interpret the codes in that area. A challenge by a code official can drastically affect a project and can slow the progression of the job. As one of the first elements of a project, the concrete foundation is crucial and a slow down here could result in scheduling challenges. As such, it is often advantageous to hire a foundation contractor who has experience in the geographic area of the project because they will understand how local code officials historically interpret the codes.

"It is important to evaluate how codes are interpreted for a project," Lange says. "One city may apply the code differently than another, so the estimator must account for these alterations when developing the bid. Forgetting these differing interpretations can result in pricing a project too low."

Architects also play a crucial role in the development of an estimate. It is essential to have thorough and accurate plans from the architect that clearly outline the project. These plans provide a clear picture of the house and provide critical information for the foundation contractor. Establishing strong relationships with architects is important because the foundation contractor may be able to offer insight about the best way to construct the foundation. It is much easier to make these revisions before the project begins rather than after construction is underway.

Why foundations are different
One of the most common mistakes made in the construction industry is simply pulling up an estimate from another project, changing the project name and contact information, and sending it on to the new potential client. This is especially true when estimating a concrete foundation.

"Basements and foundations have so many different variables," Lange says. "You need to consider how far the house will stick out of the ground, size of porch and garage walls, ground conditions, the addition of wine cellar or safe room, time of year that construction will take place, as well as code requirements. Not properly accounting for any of these factors can result in an inaccurate estimate."

How the process works
Developing a thorough process for estimating that is tackled the same way for each project is essential for foundation contractors. After the pre-bid information has been gathered it is time to begin reviewing the plans.

To assist with this review and create an easy way to quickly review the documents, Lange developed a color-coded system that is used on every set of plans. "Eight-foot wall heights are green, nine-foot walls are orange, etc.," Lange explains. "This enables me to quickly answer questions and process the information efficiently."

Next, the estimator determines the materials, equipment and labor needed to do the job. A final price is created. To ensure there is no confusion about what the bid covers and to help owners and builders compare the estimate to other bids, include as much detail as possible in the estimate. It is important to evaluate the cost of materials, because they can change rapidly. For example, adding just one piece of rebar can change the price and affect other areas of the project. Further, the site condition greatly impacts the materials necessary for the project including gravel fill and wall heights. The cost of gravel and concrete varies greatly from town to town, so it is important to account for these items on the onset.

Award-winning basements
The estimating process becomes even more complicated as the complexity of the project increases. Therefore, it is not surprising that the winners in this year's Concrete Foundations Association (CFA) Basement of the Year competition faced many obstacles when developing estimates for these unique projects.

For example, Coello & Associates, Inc., Waukesha, Wis. - the third place finisher in the single family under 5,000 sq. ft. category for the Prescott Residence in West Bend, Wis. - understood the importance of communication in developing a thorough estimate. The foundation wall for the 16,000-sq.-ft. home was 10 ft. high and included two faces of steel rebar on the entire foundation. With more than 9,000 lineal ft. of steel rebar in the wall and multiple brick ledge heights, a great amount of time and effort was required prior to pouring the wall. One of the greatest challenges in forming the wall was a double ellipse on the rear of the house. Squaring up this portion of the foundation was extremely complex because of its odd shape, 10-ft. height, and the location of two ellipses back-to-back.

To estimate this complex project, Coello & Associates used data from past projects to ensure they had properly accounted for time and materials. This included accounting for the time to tie all the rebar together, drill all the pins into the slurry mix for the footing and form the ellipsis. Elements of the project were discussed with the supervisors for the job to ensure all factors were properly evaluated in the estimate.

Bottom line
Although it may often seem like a tedious element for running the business, estimates are extremely important to the long-term success of a company. If estimates are consistently inaccurate and result in frequent change orders that increase the cost of the project, it can damage your relationship with the builder or owner. Spending the time to understand the job, site conditions and uses for the space while developing the estimate will pay off with repeat business and a solid reputation for accurate estimates.

The Concrete Foundations Association (CFA) was established in 1974 for the purpose of improving the quality and acceptance of cast-in-place concrete foundations. CFA provides promotional materials, educational seminars, opportunities for networking and technical meetings for members throughout the U.S. and Canada. For more information about joining the CFA, please visit or contact the professional staff at 866-CFA-WALL.