When the company I was working for in the early ’80s bought a mainframe drafting computer, before networked PCs were the norm, the IBM sales people told us that their stock answers to most questions they received were:
- “That’s a known problem, and our best people are working on finding a solution,”
- “That is NOT a problem, that’s a feature, we did it that way on purpose,” and
- In response to whether the system could be made to do this, that or the other thing: “it depends,” which meant if there was enough money and time to accomplish it.
These responses are relevant not only to computers, but also in some cases to curtainwall and glazing. Over the years, I’ve used these responses when answering questions from customers – architects, general contractors and glazing subcontractors – regardless of the system and whether I was working as a manufacturer, glazing subcontractor or consultant.
Here’s an example, at one extreme, of the challenges faced in estimating architectural products. A certain wall design looked to be about $400 per square foot installed, taking into account that the framing was all custom shapes and detailing, with the verticals set at 45” centers, 2’-0” wide glass fins set at 15” on center canted at a 45 degree to the main plane of glass, across the entire façade (+/-120’) for the better part of two stories for most of the full length, and stretching to three stories at both ends.
The GC had asked a glazing sub who they had worked with before what a curtainwall installed number was for that part of the country. The glazier’s stock answer: $80 per square foot, which obviously was for a generic curtainwall and didn’t come close to covering the cost of the highly detailed wall described above.
What was really surprising was that the wall’s designer hadn’t questioned the $80-per-square-foot figure. A compromise was made, and the owner spent more than the $80-per-square-foot-“guess,” but nowhere close to the more realistic cost that was about five times as much.
In another example, my employer at the time lost a job when the square foot budget increased in the time between the preliminary review of the drawings and the bid for construction. The problem was the total square footage of the wall had been reduced by half of what it was when the original budget was established, with no consideration given as to how that might impact the budget.
Budgets being budgets, everyone likes to stick with them throughout the project cycle. But as drawings progress from design development, and greater clarity gets added as the design matures, how can an early budget estimate realistically be maintained?
It has always seemed prudent to me to be up front and honest about the realistic costs of a wall at all stages of the design process. Yes, it’s easy to cover what is normally furnished, but that’s not always going to be sufficient for whatever surprising little idiosyncrasies get added later than can increase the cost.
Does it (should it?) matter how you qualify the bids, regardless of when the estimates are prepared? Does it make it easier on the customer to understand the changes? It didn’t on the above project. Even though we tried to explain the situation, the designer ended up looking at another wall systems.
When I lived in Texas, I picked up all sorts of quirky sayings like, ‘that dog won’t hunt’ and ‘that’s slicker than snot on a doorknob.’ Trust me, sometimes you have to live there to understand some of these. Applicable to estimating, here’s some Texas wisdom FDR received. The president had asked his VP, Texan John Nance Garner, for his thoughts on a proposal to add six associate judges to the Supreme Court. Garner replied: “Mr. President, you want it with the bark on [the version you want to hear], or the bark off [the answer you’re not going to like]?”
When it comes to providing an architectural estimate, sooner or later the bark will have to come off, and the final number will be what it is, regardless of the initial budget. In all likelihood, each estimator has his own viewpoint on this.
I strive to be a bark-off estimator. The challenge for many of us in the glass biz, of course, is to provide a realistic estimate, but not price ourselves out of the running. Estimating a standard system and standard application is one thing. But, with a highly detailed system, say one where there are glass plane changes, highly ornamental detailed caps, louver or sunshade systems, etc., the estimator really earns their pay with trying to predict where the architect will take a custom wall system from one stage of development to the next.