Technology in Construction: Making the Grade, Getting the Bid

Nov. 1, 2008
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Bids—it’s great to win them, but the paperwork can make you lose your temper.

The solution? A variety of companies produce bidding, estimating, and/or excavation management software that can take the mind-numbing tedium out of number crunching.

Making bids a breeze
The Odessa, TX-based Jones Brothers Dirt and Paving has used HCSS’ HeavyBid software for three of its 55 years. “I attended a demonstration at a trade show and was impressed with the way the program worked,” says Kenneth Ford, estimator and project manager for Jones Brothers. “I brought it back to the company; HCSS came to our office with a demo, and we decided to buy it. In the past, we used an Excel spreadsheet to make bids; we’d work whatever hours it took to get the job done. Now, HeavyBid software has tripled our productivity.”

“HeavyBid was one of the first estimating software packages; it was created back in 1986,” says HCSS Chief Operating Officer Steve McGough, from the company’s headquarters in Houston, TX ( “The program itself is Windows-based. You enter your costs in the HeavyBid software, and then you add markup, overhead items, et cetera. It can also input DOT items right into the system. Making a budget? Our program will export a budget file to your accounting system. We interface with 35 accounting systems, such as Forefront, QuickBooks, and others.”

Jones Brothers usually operates within a 200-mile radius from Odessa. “Our bread-and-butter is Texas highway contracts,” Ford continues. “We also do municipal work and private projects. Texas DOT requires a paper bid, but HeavyBid comes out in a bid form. I believe all the state DOT forms are built-in. Getting up to speed on the software didn’t take long; the basics we “˜got’ in one month. Learning to use all the tools it offers is an ongoing process.”

Certain specifics about Jones Brothers had to be entered into HeavyBid, but from that point it was smooth sailing. “All the information about our equipment we had to input,” Ford says. “We own units, we rent some-there are different costs per machine when we’re making bids. We also had to input labor costs and crews. But from then on, we can copy, paste, and adjust estimates, especially private work-I mean, a parking lot is a parking lot; the costs per foot usually don’t vary. We’ve made an estimate template. The bid items I use on state work, we import that information from a utility; we used to put all that data in by hand. One of the features I really appreciate is the standalone mode; we put HeavyBid on our laptops and take that with us to Austin-we have to be on location to turn in the TX DOT bid. All the information is in our laptops.”

Although HeavyBid is usually loaded onto a desktop machine and/or a local network, it can also go into the field. “When people estimate, the majority are doing it in their offices. There are times someone would want to take system to a standalone-take a laptop to the site or home to work on-and we have the ability to do that as well,” McGough says.

The program easily imports state DOT bid items and files. “When state DOTs let work out, they give a list of items they want bids on,” he continues. “HeavyBid can electronically pull those in, as well as the history of jobs that your company bid in the past, so you can get a better idea on how to bid the current job. In many cases the contractor is bidding the same type of work, like a roadway; you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your production histories were about putting gutters in cost-per-foot, for example. HeavyBid helps with the repetitive items; it eliminates a lot of the math and the manual input work. That’s where a lot of the real power is; you don’t have to punch a lot of stuff into the system.

“You can have lots of master activities information already loaded-like what a certain bid item costs in Texas, Louisiana, et cetera. For instance, if you wanted to change your labor rate or fuel and equipment costs, the software will do it throughout the estimate. HeavyBid gives you the ability to standardize normal activities. If you always have the same foreman and three laborers to perform a certain task, you can quickly bring that item in.”

Computerization also means speed. “You can also take, and make, bids at the last minute,” he says. “Some states only take electronic bids now, and HeavyBid allows you to get your bid in on time-the software will produce a bid form.”

Electronic estimation reduces work and time, he adds. “HeavyBid gives you the ability to produce more estimates in less time. Want to keep track of your actual costs? With our HeavyJob software, you note and send in the actual job-site challenges and mistakes-so you know how you’re doing against the estimate. If you find you’re on the way to losing money, you can make some choices: “˜What if I add more people or add another excavator?’ HeavyJob allows you to make more proactive decisions, so you’re not losing money every day and not knowing it. And, of course, it interfaces with our estimating software.”

HCSS produces a number of products that interface with each other for complete business management. The Dispatcher program schedules equipment and employees. The FuelerPlus fuel-management software notes consumption rates. “How much gas per hour are you using? If you know this, you can make a more accurate bid,” McGough says. “Gas use might flux if the unit idles a lot, which keeps costs down. If the machine works a lot, it burns more fuel. There are a lot of advantages to knowing, and using, actual consumption rates.”

Neither rain nor wind stops HCSS’s service: “Other than the software itself, I really like their support and service,” says Ford. “Nobody offers the customer support and training they do-impressive. Even during Hurricane Ike, they made sure we knew how we could get in touch with them.”

The Dirt on Excavation Costs
When one’s primary purpose is to move dirt, it’s vital to know how much soil there is, how much must be moved to attain grade, and, perhaps, the easiest way to accomplish this. In Vacaville CA, Patricia Darnell, president of Vaca Valley Excavating & Trucking Inc., uses EarthWorks, produced by Albuquerque, NM’s Trakware (

“We use the EarthWorks digitizing system for take-off,” she explains. “It’s a big tablet connected to the computer. You put the elevation drawing on it and trace it with a digitizing pen. EarthWorks studies the drawing, and it will tell you how much dirt needs to be taken off. For construction, it will give you a 3D map of the site, showing you where the cuts and fills are and how deep.”

How was this accomplished before? “In the past, we had to take cross-sections by hand-the total area, the distances between … it was extremely tedious. We also had to do the graphics and the cross-sections by hand, do all the spreadsheets in the computer and make that work-but now, EarthWorks does it all for us. To a certain extent, we still have to use surveyor’s tools when investigating a site, but what used to take me a full day now takes 20 minutes.”

Once the tracing of the site has been loaded to EarthWorks, Darnell makes a few clicks of the digital pen to get as much information as she needs. “You hit the elevation with a pen, tell the program, “˜This is 200 feet above sea level,’ and trace the contours. EarthWorks makes a 3D image of the site, then you plot how it will end up, per the specs-and then the software will figure out how much dirt to move. I’ve only had the program a couple of months, so I don’t know if it tells you which earthmoving machine to use for the most efficient results. I’ve never put in borings samples, as there’s not a whole lot of rock where we’re digging right here. EarthWorks can help on other projects, too; if you were building a parking lot, it would figure out the cut and how much asphalt, et cetera, goes on the site.”

Most of Vaca Valley’s work entails site work-utilities, grading, paving-for municipal, commercial, and private customers. “We don’t do highway or building work,” Darnell says. “We do some take-away from demolition; we do some hauling for others. EarthWorks helps us know how much work we have to do, what manpower and equipment to use, and then you can make a bid. This doesn’t export to an estimating program, although we have one; we have to input that data.”

EarthWorks is easy to learn, according to Darnell. “Support is good, as well; their rep came and gave us a demo. We read the instruction book, and EarthWorks has a cool online tutorial-it goes through actual video, talking you through certain procedures.” Why did she choose EarthWorks? “I made a bunch of calls to people we knew, companies of our size-what did they use? The word-of-mouth referrals for EarthWorks were great.”

Working Smart, Looking Sharpe
Instead of swearing at the piles of paper and hours of calculations, some estimators swear by products from Yuba City, CA’s SharpeSoft Inc. ( Chief Estimator Tom Smith, of Santa Rosa, CA’s Ghilotti Construction, appreciates the time SharpeSoft Estimator saves him. “It takes away a lot of the data entry, saving time. Many of our jobs are still given to us on paper; we get the blueprints and cost out from there. When building our database, we have to input all equipment information first, but once it’s in there, it’s there. Estimator allows you to figure costs of equipment and the labor using it, so you can make a well-reasoned estimate, a well-rounded bid price.”

Smith has built templates of certain tasks. “You bring up the template,” he says. “This is my standard default crew for this type of task … how does this new job differ from the default? I have to know how many tons of this, square feet of that, what’s my take-off? When we input this into Estimator, we know what crew we’ll use, what materials we’ll need, where we buy it, and how far we have to move it. This is a complex process that used to take me days; now, depending on the job, I can do it in just hours.

“Say it takes three days to install this bit of construction work,” Smith continues. “Estimator does the math, gives you the prices to put in your bid. Yes, all jobs are different, but every snowflake is different, too-yet they’re all snowflakes. Why remake the wheel every time you have to bid? Similar jobs, similar bid items-with Estimator’s Item Master, which is copy-paste on steroids, I can fill in much of the form with just a click.”

Although SharpeSoft Estimator can make electronic bids, right now Smith doesn’t use that feature. “No one I work with takes electronic bids-they all want them printed out on paper, like a spreadsheet. We can download the information from Caltrans, but it wants our bid on paper. We send bid runners to Sacramento, telling them numbers we come up with over the phone.”

Over the phone? Isn’t the bid finished by the time they get there? “In almost every public works job there are so many bid items-as many as 350-using software is the only way we can make the bid, because we’re always getting calls from subcontractors moments before the bid is due! You lock in as many item costs as you can and leave open those you must. Subcontractors tend to give their numbers at the last minute, because they’re afraid of getting “˜shopped’-they fear you want to know what they’ll charge, then you pick their competition. If you can’t accept this information quickly, you won’t get your bid in on time. Estimator allows us to get in under the wire.”

Smith believes Estimator offers many advantages. “It’s intuitive, user friendly,” he says. “Other programs will do the same thing, but Estimator works like contractors process information in their own minds. I’ve no doubt we’re getting more business because we use this; it’s increased our efficiency and accuracy. And we can bid more work in a shorter period of time. Competition is fierce; some companies are charging less just to get the work, so you’d better know what your costs are. You need to be able to look backward so you can focus on looking forward-you need some sort of program that shows you cost histories, or you can’t survive.”

Survival often requires having extra help. Since 2004, Dennis Manley of Roseville, CA’s DLM Consulting, has worked with some of the nation’s top engineering firms and land development companies on complex, difficult projects.

“I started using Estimator in 1999,” Manley says. “I used to work for Teichert Construction, which was using SharpeSoft’s program; I was selected to be on the estimating committee, which helped with the development of SharpeSoft. The biggest user of the program had 62 estimators and knew what they wanted from an estimating program. The suggested modifications to the program were determined by the input from all of the estimators. When I started DLM Consulting, I continued using SharpeSoft, providing comprehensive project oversight, including costs, to land development and engineering companies. Estimator is a civil engineering infrastructure software, not a general building or vertical construction software.”

Manley explains his services. “Companies contact me, saying, “˜We need various costs of an item, based on different scenarios.’ This is also known as value engineering I compare one method to another, one that would include a different piece of equipment, material, and difficulty of the task. Sometimes companies just want a “˜second opinion’ from me, to ensure their figures are right.

“The engineers have most of the design work figured out. When I perform an overview of the project, I look for cost savings, and mostly I find the excavation doesn’t balance. Looking at the specs and the geotech report, I adjust elevations of the site or specific excavation, if possible, to balance the earthwork quantities in lieu of import or export of soils. I estimate the best equipment to move the soil and adjust for costs due to unknown conditions-such as rock or soft soils.”

Soil isn’t the only bid item Manley digs into. “Going into wet and dry utilities, I provide alternate methods and costs savings based on a “˜What if?’ type of estimate,” he says. “SharpeSoft Estimator has this feature, and it allows me to compare the cost of obstacles, such as, “˜What if we dig 15 feet and find native American artifacts?'”

Estimator’s fully loaded database allows Manley to provide costs on the basis of conceptual or design drawings … or simply, “”˜We want to build this object, give us some costs, also the parameters of how you got that cost.’ When I have all the data in Estimator, I can tell them such specifics as, “˜If you use this earth-moving machine at the top of the dig, this one at the bottom, this is the cost differential.’ Estimator allows me to find out how fast that piece of equipment can dig something to design grade. For example, let’s say you’re digging a site and have to go 25 feet down. You’d use scrapers first, but in the corners, you might have to use excavators, which are more costly to operate. I can break these costs out.”

Although the cost histories Manley uses are based on California’s soil conditions and geography, “…this very user-friendly program can go anywhere in the world. After loading the Labor, Equipment, and Materials database, you could use it from day one, and start estimating with that country’s soils,” he says.

He explains setting up the Estimator database. “You need to start by inputting the data for the labor group, then materials-resources, concrete, pipe, et cetera. You also have to set up the equipment grouping-machines that the company owns, leases, or rents. Lease costs and depreciation are factored in to the equipment costs.

“This data will give the user a starting point to begin estimating. The more data entered at the beginning, the faster an estimate can be generated. Say you want to establish a paving crew. You input the amount of labor, equipment, and materials in the database that are needed for this operation. Now establish a paving crew by picking the labor, equipment and materials necessary. Future estimates with paving ass a bid item can be extracted from the paving crew database; any modifications needed to account for actual conditions are easily made.”

What about the actual conditions of rising fuel costs? “Newer equipment contains computers, which tell you gallons per hour while it’s in use, in idle, et cetera. This information allows the company a more precise cost of ownership,” he says. “Of course, that data comes more on the shop/field side. My clients will provide the updated costs and give the estimating department the cost data for updating the estimating system.”

After he compiles all this data, then where does it go? “To share my data, I can download to disc or send it electronically,” Manley says.

“I can generate the bid for them, or give them the estimate data. Provided they have also SharpeSoft, they can modify the bid. I couldn’t live without Estimator-it calculates LEM [labor, equipment, materials], then you set a production rate into the worksheet. For example, say I can produce 100 widgets an hour, and need to make 1,000. Estimator will show how many hours are required to do the work and the costs of each, including man-hours per unit.”

What about making changes to his data? “Companies will sometimes want to add or subtract labor. After estimating the unit price, I research the historical costs and make modifications as necessary,” he says. “This allows me to manipulate the cost based on historical production, and competitively win a bid.”