What a Construction Estimator Does: An Important Role in the Construction Process

Construction estimators are one of the most crucial, yet least recognized, players in the construction process. Building projects don’t come assigned with prices. Rather, it’s the job of a construction estimator to compile a list of materials to determine the estimated cost of a construction project. And as simple as that may sound on its surface, construction estimating is actually tedious, time-consuming and requires a high level of skill from estimators.

Who Are Construction Estimators?

While construction estimating is its own expertise, construction estimators normally have backgrounds in a few fields of study connected to the construction industry. Having experience in construction design, like engineering or architecture, is common for estimators. This makes sense, as part of the design process is determining which materials to use in order to fulfill the building design. But estimators can also have degrees in mathematics or work history in manufacturing and construction management.

Just as important as work background are the particular skills that construction estimators use every day. Estimating requires an extreme attention to detail and accuracy. Not only do estimators need to keep track of the types of materials being used for a building project, but also specific measurements for materials and the count of each item being used. If the materials are miscounted, the entire estimate will be inaccurate.

In order to account for all the needed materials, construction estimators need to be able to analyze building projects from multiple angles. Most often, estimates are built from the ground up, meaning that estimators start with the foundation of the building and move upward as they account for materials. But projects can sometimes include multiple buildings or multiple types of construction within a single building. In those cases, estimators will have to determine the best way to work through plans for the varying building types.

Beyond mathematical and analytical skills, construction estimators also need strong communication skills, as they work with several other construction professionals. First, estimators work with construction designers, including engineers and architects, to review plans for the project. Although the designers create technical documents that cover the scope of the project, estimators need ask thoughtful questions in order to assure no important details are missed. Second, estimators also often work with material and equipment vendors, contractors and labor unions in order to determine material prices and labor rates. And lastly, construction estimators need to be able to present their finished estimate in detail to several parties.

What Does a Construction Estimator Do?

An estimator is responsible for determining the total cost of a construction project. The first step of doing so involves validating the project’s Scope of Work. The Scope of Work is a document that lays out the entirety of work that needs to be done in order to complete the building project. The scope documents, along with the building plans and specs, give an estimator a place to start for compiling a list of materials, called a quantity takeoff, that will be needed to construct the building.

If there are any steps missing from the Scope of Work, the estimator’s takeoff will omit materials needed to get the job done. So estimators should take time to familiarize themselves with the Scope of Work before beginning their estimate.

It’s also a good idea for estimators to visit the construction site before beginning their estimate. While the specific site may not have an impact on the materials that get included in the quantity takeoff, it can determine what pieces of equipment will be needed to complete the project and how long the construction team will need to do their work.

Buildings built on hills will require more equipment, effort and time to transport materials up to the jobsite than buildings built on flat ground. Also, weather and time of year may impact the work. For example, it is much more difficult to dig a foundation in winter than summer, and it will be harder to complete framing when it’s raining as compared to mild weather. All of this will have to be taken into account in order to estimate labor hours and equipment rates accurately.

The heart of a construction estimator’s job is the quantity takeoff. It gives line-by-line costs for the types and amounts of materials needed to build a structure. But creating a takeoff involves more than just a list of standard materials. It also requires being familiar with the local market for materials. Some materials may be more economical in certain areas, like wood in regions near lumber mills. Choosing the right materials to match the project’s locale can be a savvy way for estimators to work with a tight budget.

Once all the material, labor and equipment needed to create a building, the estimator has the important job of adjusting costs to account for profit, overhead and indirect costs. All of this and more is needed to create a comprehensive and successful estimate.

What Challenges Do Construction Estimators Face?

Working with fixed budgets and schedules can also be challenging. If an owner, designer or contractor has unrealistic expectations for how much they can fit in the project budget or how quickly the construction team can finish the work, then the estimator may feel pressure to inaccurately report costs in the estimate. This unfortunate circumstance will inevitably lead to the project going over budget, in turn leading to excess costs for the owner. It’s a hard position to be in. However, accuracy is paramount to an estimator’s work. Frequently producing inaccurate estimates will harm a construction estimator’s reputation and damage working relationships.

The hardest part of an estimator’s job is predicting the future. It’s not enough to create estimates that are accurate to current costs since the building projects they’re estimating won’t be started for another six to 18 months after the estimate is complete. This means that construction estimators are constantly chasing a moving target. Prices and availability for materials, equipment and labor are always shifting, so estimators must stay attuned to market trends. Shortages in supplies or labor can drive prices up past normal rates and wreck an estimate’s accuracy by the time the project breaks ground, even if the estimate was accurate to market prices at the time it was completed.

See How COVID-19 is Impacting Construction Costs

This is why having reliable data on costs in the construction industry is imperative. Trying to estimate a project with outdated cost data will make an estimator’s work much harder. Luckily, there are tools that can help make sure that your cost data is never behind, one of which is RSMeans Data Online from Gordian. The data in our easy-to-use, cloud-based estimating platform is updated automatically each quarter, so estimators can stay on top of every cost change for materials, equipment and labor for almost 1,000 locations across North America. And our predictive cost data enables estimators to accurately build estimates for projects up to three years in the future.

The work of construction estimators is a cornerstone to every successful construction project. No building is built without their expertise, and every project that comes in on budget and on schedule is a testament to their skill.


About Gordian

Gordian is the leader in facility and construction cost data, software and services for all phases of the building lifecycle. A pioneer of Job Order Contracting, Gordian’s solutions also include proprietary RSMeans data construction costs and Sightlines Facility Intelligence Solutions. From planning to design, to procurement, construction and operations, Gordian’s solutions help clients maximize efficiency, optimize cost savings and increase building quality.