The Rise of the Modern Estimator

modern estimator

What we in America call Estimators, and what the rest of the world calls Surveyors, have been around for thousands of years. Today, estimators are the unsung heroes of a project team. No matter where you go, they carry the most risk while getting the least amount of recognition for their success. Their success is a critical element of how a company continues operating at a profit for another day.  

The History of Surveying 

To understand how modern estimation got where it is today and exciting growth opportunities for the future, it’s important to understand the profession’s origins.  

The roots of quantity surveying as we know it today can be found following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Before then, master builders and masons were commonly paid by the day, leaving less need to understand the total cost of the project from the onset.  

That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist before then, because even God needed an estimate. For instance, in the Bible, Luke 14:28 reads “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first and counts the cost to see whether he will have sufficient to finish it?” Would you believe me if I said it even went back further than that? There are records from the construction of the pyramids and Egyptian temples back in 2500 B.C. that reference a “measurer of royal works.” 4500 years have passed and the biggest mistake they have ever made is changing their name from that. 

Watch now: Looking to elevate your takeoff game? Watch our Estimating Master Class.

After the Great Fire, wealthy folks started hiring and contracting others to design and build their homes for them. A lot of reconstruction was needed which led to a decision to pay craftsman a standard rate to complete work . That, in turn, left a need to understand the exact quantity of work required. Once this was established, competition rose and master builders started taking bids and negotiating rates with the building owners.  

Surveying practices started to gain legitimacy in the late 1700’s, continuing to grow until the late 1860’s, when a man named John Clutton was elected as the first president of the Surveyors’ Association, made up of 49 members in London, England. This organization is now known as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and has 134,000 members. The term surveyor is inclusive of many professions from building surveyors to land surveyors, all the way to environmental surveyors, but today is all about the quantity surveyor. 

Same Job, New Tools and Mindsets 

So what do all these surveyors who operated prior to 1990 have in common? They were most likely doing everything BY HAND. Can you imagine estimating the Golden Gate Bridge (1933), Empire State Building (1930), and the Eiffel tower (1887), with nothing but a pen and paper? The amount of time and effort taken must have been enormous, not to mention the margin of error.  

The good news is that it’s not 1980 anymore, and the number of tools on the estimator’s tool belt has risen dramatically. BIM, cloud based takeoff tools, estimating databases, historic cost analysis, value engineering tools, carbon tracking tools, and more are all available to make sure an estimator can be as precise and confident in their number as possible.   

So much of the way that our industry works has changed since the 80’s, but the estimating job is still the same: provide the proposed budget for the proposed work as quickly as possible. What has changed is the minds of many estimators themselves. I have met plenty of ambitious people who are hungry to embrace technology and change the way they think about task.  

The Estimator of 2022 

Today’s estimators take the age-old task of developing cost to the next level. If you look at the computer screen of a new age estimator, you see a 3D Model on one monitor, the PDF contract documents on another, and right in the middle is a list of 10 similar projects that have been built in the past 10 years to set their baseline.  

If you look at that estimator’s calendar, you’ll see meetings with the owner, the design team, their estimating peers, and VDC. They are constantly collaborating, and they are no longer just reacting to updates to design documents. They are meeting with owners ahead of time to help inform design and reduce risk and talking with design teams to inform them of the details they need to be more efficient. Fixing a budget starts with making sure they don’t inherit an owner’s misunderstanding of a cost before the documents are even created.   

They get their hands on the model first thing and have already shifted their mindset away from quantification and more towards analysis. Quantities are established the second they get the model, saving them time and allowing them more opportunity to assess risk. They know the real art of their job is not to get every little quantity correct, it’s to know what isn’t shown and being able to fill in the gaps. It is an estimate, not an exactimate, and every little quantity accounted for is less important than getting the project into the right cost range and being confident about the number they provide. 

Unsurprisingly, you can still find many that distrust 3D models, and sometimes contract types restrict one’s ability to be tech forward and collaborative as they would like to be. At the end of the day, new age companies drive new age people, and certainty is more important than short term savings.  

Embrace the Golden Age of Estimation 

New age companies aren’t the only way to drive change, there is a responsibility that falls on the solution providers to innovate and provide cutting-edge tools to the industries they serve. Estimators have been waiting a long time for that to change and I can say with confidence that their golden age has finally arrived. 

More and more I hear estimators getting tasked with more and more projects. But there’s only one thing we can’t get more of: time. The more they can do with less is the key to their success, and technology has been the missing link for many years.  

I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be an estimator. Design data is improving rapidly, technology for preconstruction is a hot topic at tech companies across the globe, and collaboration has never been easier. It’s time to seize the day, what tools will you keep in your toolbox? 

I recently hosted a Master Class to help modern estimating and preconstruction teams create better processes around quantity takeoffs. If you’re interested in learning how to level up your processes, watch the series:  

Watch NOW



Nate Coombs