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Automating the Takeoff & Estimating Process

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There are many options available in applying information technology to the takeoff and estimating process. What software is available? What criteria should one use to evaluate software? Which system is best for your operations? This paper tries to shed some light on your options.

Automating the Takeoff Process

Takeoff is the process of obtaining quantity measurements from plans and specifications. The process involves measuring items and then performing calculations to arrive at the required quantities. Estimating, on the other hand, is applying costs to these quantities. We first discuss automating the takeoff, quantity surveying process before reviewing estimating software.

The quantity takeoff is the key component of a properly created cost estimate. The estimated costs cannot be created without first knowing the quantities. Often, the quantity takeoff is the most time consuming activity in creating the estimate and the activity that is most subject to error and mistakes. As a result, many contractors can gain competitive advantage by simply automating the quantity takeoff process.

Today, there are two ways to perform takeoffs for new construction projects: from paper blueprints or from digital files. Paper blueprint plans are usually created from some type of digital file. Nowadays, these files are easily available from contractors, owners and reprographic houses through Email and web sites. Working off the digital file instead of the paper blueprints offers several advantages:

  • Cost savings through reductions in paper, ink and printing costs
  • Ability to work anywhere with a laptop computer. No need to tote around a large set of plans. The takeoff is now easily performed at home, the beach or virtually anywhere.
  • Cleaner and more organized office. Estimators do not require as much square footage when blueprints are not required. It is much easier and cheaper to store files than bulky blueprints.
  • Cost to perform the takeoff is less since a large digitizer tablet is not required.
  • Environmental savings through these paper reductions. A much greener process when working with files instead of paper blueprints.

Based on the above, many contractors are now implementing takeoffs directly from the file.

On-Screen digitizing from drawing files

A well designed on-screen digitizing program allows the user to view a variety of drawing files including DWG, DWF, TIF and PDF file formats and electronically measure items using your mouse rather than a scale or digitizer tablet. Other than a computer, no additional hardware is required. As items are measured, the on-screen digitizing software should offer a choice of colors, line styles, count symbols and area fill patterns of the items measured. If using MS Excel for calculations and/or estimating, the on-screen measuring software should clearly record the quantities and drawings into the proper spreadsheet cell.

Once the measurement is obtained on-screen, the on-screen digitizing software or Excel should automatically and easily provide further calculation capability to arrive at the quantities.

When selecting an on-screen digitizing solution ask these basic questions:

  • Do you receive paper blueprints or digital files?
  • If you currently receive paper, is it possible to receive the digital file?
  • Do you currently use spreadsheet software for estimating? If yes, do you want to continue using the spreadsheet software?
  • Do you need the digitized takeoff integrated with your assembly, database driven estimating software?
  • Does the software read and measure from raster and vector files?
  • Does it easily work with DWG, TIF, PDF, DWF and other file types?
  • Are the digitized drawings automatically saved?
  • Can the drawing be edited and printed?
  • Is there a clear audit trail between the quantity measurement and the digitized drawing?
  • If using with Microsoft Excel is the digitizer interface added directly into Excel or is it a separate application? Are the digitized drawings saved with the Excel file?
  • Is the software easy to use?
  • How fast can you learn the software?
  • Will you need a lot of support?
  • Is there a satisfaction guarantee?
  • Who is using the system successfully and unsuccessfully?
  • What does the license cost and are there support training and upgrade costs?

In summary, image files of the blueprints are usually readily available. Automating the takeoff from these files by digitizing with your mouse is becoming the preferred way to operate for many contractors. A variety of cost savings and efficiencies are gained by digitizing quantities on-screen.

Automatic takeoff using BIM (Building Information Modeling)

Building Information Modeling ("BIM") is developing and increasingly being used in the architectural, engineering and construction industries. One of the goals of BIM is to share data, enter it once and seamlessly transfer the data between platforms and among applications. Regarding the takeoff function, the engineers and architects will automatically generate the takeoff quantities during the design phase and the contractor will have this information readily available from a shared project model. The aim is to reduce errors and omissions and save time and money.

The BIM model is an outstanding methodology for designing the project. There are many other benefits to using BIM including the ability to automatically generate the takeoff quantities from the design model. This model, in theory, is the ideal way to generate takeoff quantities. However at best it will take many years, if ever, before it becomes fully operational. The designer may have the ability to generate takeoff quantities but several questions will arise including: Will the designer create the database of items required to generate these quantities? Will the designer accept the perceived liability resulting from the provided quantities? Will the contractors have enough faith to automatically accept the designer's quantities?

Using BIM to generate the quantities will first be employed by design build contractors. Other contractors and subcontractors will follow. As of today however, there has not been widespread adoption by the design professionals and architects in identifying the quantities through BIM. This is an evolving technology however. We suggest that you keep informed regarding the successes and problems of Building Information Modeling.

Digitizer based takeoff of paper plans

If you prefer to work from paper blueprints instead of on-screen, a digitizer tablet based takeoff system may be the way to go. Digitizer based takeoff systems are ideal for paper, blueprint measuring. A digitizer tablet will replace your scale and greatly speed up the takeoff process, especially for irregular areas. Digitizing quantities can also eliminate potential errors resulting from digit transposition, non-standard scales, and miscalculations. A digitizer is a hardware device that is placed on a tabletop. Blueprints are then placed on top of the digitizer, and by using an electronic pointing device, a signal is sent through the plans and an X,Y coordinate is generated by the digitizer. As you click or trace around areas and lengths, X,Y coordinates provided by the digitizer are used by the takeoff software to draw and calculate quantities.

In order to implement a digitizer solution, you'll need to have a digitizer tablet along with software that turns the digitizer coordinates into quantity measurements. There are two types of digitizers: rigid, hard digitizers or roll-up tablets. Roll-up digitizers provide portability if needed. GTCO/CalComp is currently the leading manufacturer of large-format digitizer tablets. Currently digitizer tablets are not sold by the manufacturer to the end user, but rather are resold by companies that provide a digitizing software solution. The list prices of large format digitizer tablets are often over $2,200 before adding the cost of the takeoff software. Since everybody is selling the same make and model of digitizer tablets (i.e. GTCO/CalComp) and these tablets are supported and warranted by GTCO/CalComp, you should purchase the digitizer based on price. Many vendors discount the price of the digitizer tablet and the price of the digitizer should always be shown separate from the price of the software. We have found that Vertigraph offers the best and lowest price for large format digitizer tablets. Since everybody is selling the same digitizer tablet, the important item is the value, ease of use and power of the digitizer software.

There are two kinds of digitizing software applications: 1) simple digitizer software that calculates quantities and often sends the quantities to spreadsheet programs, such as Microsoft Excel or 2) digitizing software that is integrated with a database, assembly driven estimating program. Once you decide to implement a digitizer, you'll then need to evaluate which type of estimating software is best (i.e. spreadsheets or database applications) for applying costs to the digitized quantities.

When selecting a digitizer solution ask these basic questions:

  • How much time do you spend calculating quantities from paper plans?
  • Do you currently use spreadsheet software for estimating? If yes, do you want to continue using the spreadsheet software?
  • Do you need the digitized takeoff integrated with your assembly, database driven estimating software?
  • Does the digitizer communicate with the software using the industry standard Wintab driver?
  • Are the digitized drawings saved?
  • Can the drawing be edited and printed?
  • Is there a clear audit trail between the quantity measurement and the digitized drawing?
  • If using with Microsoft Excel is the digitizer interface added directly into Excel or is it a separate application? Are the digitized drawings saved with the Excel file?
  • Is the software easy to use?
  • How fast can you learn the software?
  • Will you need a lot of support?
  • Is there a satisfaction guarantee?
  • Who is using the system successfully and unsuccessfully?
  • What does it cost?

In summary, you should look at digitizer tablet and software solutions only if you spend more than five hours per month performing quantity takeoffs from paper plans. Many contractors are moving to digital takeoff using the mouse from the image or CAD file where no digitizer tablet or paper plans are needed.

Automating the Estimating Process

A variety of estimating software, written specifically for the construction industry, is available. Some programs focus on specific divisions and sub trades such as site excavation, mechanical and electrical. Others, written for highway and infrastructure contractors such as HCSS and Hard Dollar, are focused more on bid item, crew based, unit price estimating. For commercial building the leading developers include Timberline, MC2, Hard Dollar, WinEst, ProEst, Maxwell, QuickBid and Vertigraph.

All of the commercial building programs involve use of a costing database in which many items are quantified and priced through the use of "high-level assemblies". A high-level assembly enables you to break down the estimate into logical elements. For each high level assembly you'll enter, measure or select a variety of information pertaining to a construction activity and a collection of cost items are automatically generated and priced. Depending on the software program, these high level assemblies are called various names: work records, work packages, systems, models and assemblies.

The other option in automating any estimating process other than a database, assembly driven program is to utilize a spreadsheet application such as Microsoft Excel. We have found that Microsoft Excel is by far the leading software for automating the estimating process and is used by many small and large contractors. In fact, it is likely that more estimators use Excel than all of the other takeoff and estimating applications combined. There are many companies that use high-end estimating packages for the digitizer interface and then record the measurement into Excel.

As a result, your first decision in selecting commercial building construction estimating software is spreadsheet software such as Excel versus database, assembly driven software.

Spreadsheets versus database, assembly driven estimating software

Why are many contractors moving to Excel or other spreadsheet applications instead of database, assembly driven estimating software?

There are many reasons for moving towards MS Excel, including:

  • Virtually any estimating process can be automated through an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Unlimited flexibility - if you can think it, Excel can often do it.
  • Ability to set up an Excel template to your way of estimating or to a company standard.
  • Large user base. Excel is currently taught in college and many high schools.
  • Training is readily available and affordable.
  • Easy to move from a paper spreadsheet system to an electronic spreadsheet. You will not change how you initially build and think through the estimate.
  • Excel is more powerful and user friendly than previous spreadsheet applications. You can even link open databases to Excel spreadsheets.
  • Lower cost and often higher value.
  • Easier to build mathematical and logical formulas.
  • Clear audit trail of how the numbers are generated.

Advantages of database, assembly driven estimating software, in comparison with spreadsheets, includes:

  • Better reporting with custom report writing capabilities.
  • Estimating history is stored in a database; with Excel each file and estimate is an island of information.
  • More structure, Excel spreadsheets tend to be more personalized to the individual estimator.
  • Better at handling and keeping track of a lot of different parts and pieces.
  • Lower risk of erasing or corrupting formulas.
Disadvantages of database, assembly based estimating software includes:
  • Harder to learn and customize.
  • Requires higher level of support from the developer, resulting in higher support and maintenance costs.
  • More expensive and often more difficult to find adequate training.
  • Often does not give you the flexibility, Excel provides.
  • Can change the way you think through and develop the estimate.
  • Often provides more detail and complexity than required.
  • More detail, more maintenance, and possibly more room for error.
  • If resources are not dedicated to implementing and customizing the database, the estimating benefits are often not realized. Many estimating programs sit on the shelf and are never successfully implemented.

Other considerations in selecting estimating software

In selecting a computerized estimating system, factors to consider include:

  • How much more productive, knowledgeable and accurate will you become by implementing a new system?
  • Will the takeoff, estimating, accounting, scheduling and project management activities be integrated?
  • What is the cost? What are the benefits? Do benefits greatly exceed costs? What is the projected rate of return?
  • Do you have the personnel with the time and capabilities to implement and operate a new system?
  • Is the new system easy to implement and use?
  • What resources are required for training?
  • How much support and maintenance is required by the system vendor and at what cost?
  • Who is using the software successfully and unsuccessfully?


If implementing a computerized estimating system strong consideration should be given to the development of Excel estimating templates to perform the task. You should be looking at database, assembly driven commercially available takeoff and estimating programs only if the features you are seeking are not provided by a well designed Excel, or other spreadsheet, estimating template. Digitizer tablet based takeoff should be considered if you spend more than five hours per month calculating quantities from paper plans. On-screen takeoff is increasing in popularity and will reduce costs and increase efficiencies in comparison with paper blueprints. Widespread implementation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) for quantity takeoff may be years away.

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