It all adds up to a building for this construction estimator

It’s more than blueprints and math for construction estimator John Chereski, also known as the “human calculator” at his firm, Kaplan Construction of Boston. Whether it’s a commercial building, home remodeling, healthcare facility, or multi-family unit, Chereski creates an accurate budget and thinks through all the expenses to determine a project’s feasibility. He’s even taken a tiny sketch on a sticky note – “transform a mill building into a recording studio”– and determined the possible cost based on past comparable jobs. If he’s working with an architect’s blueprints, often he needs to “read between the lines,” said Chereski; putting in a new door into an existing masonry wall, for example, might mean more than just framing an opening but also supporting structural beams. “This kind of information isn’t always shown on the drawings, but it could mean the difference between a job that costs \$1,000 or \$5,000.” A large part of his job is also negotiating with subcontractors such as plumbers and electricians; setting timelines and predicting how much materials or labor is needed.

Q: What’s the process you go through for estimating a job?
A: I construct the building on paper and in my head; it’s the most through way of making sure that every detail is covered. This includes plugging in costs for every item. But I don’t get bogged down with miniscule components, such as exactly how many nails are needed, because I usually can plug in a formula for the cost per linear or square foot.

Q: How much variance are you allowed?
A: I’m not allowed any. The owner doesn’t want to want to hear, ‘Oops, it’s a hundred thousand more than I told you would be.’ A good conceptual estimate is 3 to 4 percent plus or minus what I figured it would be. Of course, if it’s less, they love it; if it’s more, it’s not good.

Q: In the past, chief estimator must have relied on just paper, pencil and calculator. Today software programs must do a lot of the legwork. How much easier does software make your job?
A: I couldn’t live without Excel; it’s the key tool I use to extend values and come up with a number. Other programs do ‘take offs,’ which is basically taking an item off the budget and estimating the cost, such as the amount of wiring or number of light fixtures. For new buildings, I may also use BIM or Building Information Modeling, a 3-D imaging program that can layout the physical construction of a facility, such as where ductwork and pipes might run above a ceiling. But nothing is better than actually going to the site and sticking your head above a ceiling. It might look good on paper but that may not be the real life situation.

Q: How do regulatory requirements and other conditions play into an estimate?
A: Most towns have a general building code but there may be a lot of other little innuendos to consider. For example, a fire alarm system can be different from city to city, whether a master box or a phone line. Each of these have different costs. Some communities also are green communities, which requires us to go above and beyond the energy code. All of these need to be considered in our planning.

Q: What’s your thinking when it comes to soliciting bids?
A: Whether it’s selective demolition, rough carpentry or dry wall, I create a big ‘shopping list’ then get bids, or ‘buy it out’ for the entire project. I might have three to four ring binders for one job; an entire project might have a couple hundred bids. But I try to only solicit three or four bids per trade; a lot of people think the more bids the better, but if you solicit too many bids, subcontractors get discouraged and think they won’t get it, so they either don’t bid or give a high estimate. I like to get three bids: one will usually be a high number; the other too low, and the third will hopefully be in the ballpark. But the best price is not always the lowest price; sometimes I spend a little more, knowing that in the long wrong, I’ll get better quality and service.

Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: Every summer my parents did renovation work on their colonial home in western Massachusetts. I was the one who had to rip apart the walls and bring the debris to the dumpster. Everyone said I should be an architect, but that lasted about a year – I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then I went to school for construction management and worked into the field, then fell into the groove of estimating and pre-construction.

Q: One risk factor for cost is extreme weather. Has the recent extreme weather thrown a kink into budgets?
A: It’s all about time and money. If you are digging in the ground to lay a foundation during the winter, every time it snows, you’ll need to remove it. It’s a risk you can’t control, but I look at past jobs and see what winter weather cost at that time and try to extrapolate and take my best guess. It’s such a huge unknown.

Q: Has your ability to estimate helped you in your personal endeavors?
A: I’m really good at buying a car since I know how to deal with people and negotiate. A few years ago, when I bought my Subaru, I knew exactly how to find the best components at the best price. It was just like working with all the subcontractors that I need to deal with on the job.

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