AEC Estimating Tools

31 Aug, 2002 By: AIA ,H. Edward Goldberg

Estimating software taps into CAD building model data.

The next productivity-increasing challenge facing software developers is culling and codifying information from the electronic data in the drawing files so that it can be used downstream for estimation and construction. Estimation software has been evolving for several years, and getting information from construction documents is an important new emphasis. Today, various vendors offer solutions that not only help coordinate information, but also track costs throughout the entire design-to-construction process.

Though many excellent estimating applications are available, I selected two as examples: Timberline and WinEstimator. Both companies are well-respected in the estimating software arena. We'll also look at TRIRIGA, which recently launched a construction-centric solution for bidding and purchasing.

Conversations with several estimators lead me to believe that most estimators still prefer to take information from the drawings themselves rather than accept information automatically derived from electronic files. This may change as CAD programs move more toward the total building model or object-based design concepts. With these types of design programs, the architect or designer creates a complete 3D model that contains information about all the components and structures in the building. Right now this seems to be a viable direction for design-build, where the designer and contractor are part of the same team. What may hinder wider use of this system is reluctance on the part of architects and designers to be fully responsible for an estimate generated electronically from their drawings.

Because construction companies vary greatly in size and need, software vendors generally develop integrated modules rather than single, all-purpose solutions. A construction company thus can design the type of software solution that fits its particular needs. The following paragraphs describe modules available from the two companies surveyed. They recommend that you contact them for a needs analysis to establish the cost of your system.

Timberline Software Corp.
Timberline is one of the largest publishers of construction estimating and construction accounting software, with more than 540 employees and 25,000 customers worldwide.

Its software also covers property and service management, and a project management tool was scheduled for release in August 2002. You can create the type of system you need from the modules in these product collections. If you need estimating plus digitizing capability, just pick those modules from the Timberline Estimating line. Then add accounting modules to tailor an integrated estimating/ accounting package to your needs. In fact, Timberline offers Timberline Office, a fully integrated software collection for the entire facility lifecycle.

Timberline Estimating encompasses the whole estimating process, from conceptual estimate to final bill of materials. According to Timberline, the software reduces estimating time by 50% or more. Timberline Estimating offers fast and accurate takeoff tools, a variety of ways to view and analyze the estimate, presentation-quality reports, and more. Estimating comes in Basic, Standard, and Extended editions. Among its modules are Buyout, Cut & Fill, CAD Integrator, Commercial Construction Knowledgebase, Digitizer, Explorer, Model Estimating, ODBC, Palm Estimating, Prebuilt Databases, Scheduling Integrator, TRA-SER Integrator, and Viewer.

Timberline Accounting provides integrated accounting, service management, and property management. This collection for construction accounting automates everything from payroll and job costing to change orders and purchase orders.

Service Management streamlines dispatching, automates billing, and improves communication between customers and technicians.

Property Management integrates accounting, lease management, forecasting, and valuation to maximize the financial performance of properties.

Model Estimating. Potential clients may ask architects and contractors to give a conceptual estimate before a building is designed. Model Estimating lets you create detailed conceptual estimates, from even paper-napkin sketches, by answering a series of basic questions about a project (figure 1). The software links each of your answers to hundreds of variables in different stored items and assemblies to produce detailed conceptual estimates. Once you generate a conceptual estimate, you can easily update and refine it when you have more complete information about the project. Often these courtesy estimates do not result in a job, but because this module speeds up the estimate, it can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Figure 1. Timberline's Model Estimating lets you create detailed conceptual estimates by answering a series of basic questions about a project.

CAD Integrator. One of the newest components of Timberline Estimating is CAD Integrator, which incorporates support for the IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) standard (figure 2). IFCs are standard object definitions for building elements such as walls, doors, and windows. Each IFC object contains information about itself, such as type of materials, properties, and relation to other objects.

Figure 2. Timberline's CAD Integrator can import data using the IFC Standard. IFCs are a library of standard object definitions for building elements, such as walls, doors, and windows.

A designer who uses IFC-compliant software, such as a CAD program, can save designs in IFC format. Timberline CAD Integrator then imports the IFC data. From there, Timberline Estimating takes the data, creates a working file, generates a takeoff and an estimate, and writes the cost estimate back to the IFC file. No additional measuring, digitizing, or manual takeoff is needed for the IFC objects. If the design changes, you can generate a new estimate in minutes. CAD Integrator was a Cadalyst new product All-Star award winner for the first half of 2002 and a Cadalyst A/E/C Systems 2002 Best of Show winner as part of the BLIS (Building Lifecycle Interoperable Software) project.

WinEstimator, Inc.
WinEstimator publishes five main estimating packages or modules: WinEst eTeam, WinEst Pro, WinEst Pro Plus, RFQ Server, and TakeOff Pro. It will soon introduce WinEst Virtual TakeOff, an on-screen option for TakeOff Pro (figure 3).

Figure 3. WinEst Virtual TakeOff allows electronic takeoff using common digital image file formats such as BMP, TIF, GIF, JPG, and PNG.

WinEst eTeam 2000 is a wide-area collaborative tool that enables estimators to produce and share estimates simultaneously from any location across Windows-based LANs (local-area networks), WANs (wide-area networks), and Internet-based VPNs (virtual private networks).

Designed especially for companies with a large, specialized estimating staff, WinEst eTeam 2000 enables individual estimators from various disciplines to collaborate on the same estimate file from multiple, remote locations, incorporating shared or local data sources.

In partnership with Primavera, WinEstimator developed an optional P3 Integrator for WinEst eTeam 2000 and WinEst Pro Plus. Estimators can generate the project plan in either WinEst or Primavera Project Planner and then dynamically transfer the scheduled plan to the supporting software. Cost and resource dictionaries, including relationships between the activities, automatically move from the estimate to the schedule.

WinEst Pro provides a solution for day-to-day AEC cost estimating. The WinEst interface provides integrated estimating and cost information gathering and reporting (figure 4), including data collection from CAD, and downstream capabilities to project scheduling applications such as Microsoft Project and Primavera Suretrak and to accounting systems ranging from QuickBooks Pro to SAP.

Figure 4. WinEst Estimate Sheet View shows a conceptual estimate sorted by system and cross-referenced by CSI and job cost.

WinEst Pro Plus is designed to satisfy the sophisticated estimator and the complex project. It includes integrated estimating, cost information gathering, bidding, buying, and useful options for functional gateways to online e-procurement through WinEst-compatible (v6 or later) Web portals such as It also provides additional features such as subcontractor and supplier databases, labor and equipment tables, and bid item capabilities.

Takeoff Pro is a digitizer interface for electronic takeoff. You can automatically enter takeoff quantities into your estimate as you measure from blueprints. The takeoff is represented on screen to ensure the completeness of the measurements. You can even scan plans and save them as graphic files such as BMP, TIF, and JPG.

RFQ Server option. A new product for creating and sending invitations to bid, RFQ Server enables online users to create and deliver RFQs (request for quotes) and ITBs (invitations to bid) to subcontractors and suppliers via e-mail, fax, or on the Web. Bid filtering functions enable you to condition, sort, and summarize bid-specific items.

TRIRIGA produces a Web-based specification, cost, and procurement management solution for the AEC industry. Corporate owners can use the system across any industry to streamline the design, building, and operation of all types of large-scale capital asset and improvement projects. Although not estimating software, TRIRIGA's solutions can receive and dynamically integrate information from accounting software, Bentley's TriForma, Autodesk's Architectural Desktop, engineering subcontractors, and so on. TRIRIGA hosts the system, which is called TRIRIGA IBS (Intelligent Business System). By keeping all data in one repository, TRIRIGA's management solutions are intended to codify information, prevent construction bottlenecks, speed procurement, and simplify changes.

Both Timberline and Autodesk are working to integrate their applications with TRIRIGA. Recently Autodesk announced a strategic alliance to provide hospitality and design-build owners with a new intelligent management platform that uses downstream data throughout a project's lifecycle from concept to facilities management. This should streamline efficiency across every phase of a large-scale development project such as a hotel or office complex.

Autodesk Architectural Desktop offers a way to create intelligent design data that can be used throughout the building process, enhancing workflow from conceptual design-to-design development and construction documentation. In other words, intelligent information contained in Architectural Desktop can be automatically culled for use in TRIRIGA, and vice versa.

TRIRIGA comprises four Web-based solutions:

Cost Management provides a platform to manage and control project and lifecycle costs. It provides one centralized solution for cost and revenue planning, tracking, and forecasting from the design stage through procurement on to the final build.

Project Management provides a centralized, automated solution that uses real-time information and collaboration tools to improve the efficiency, accuracy, and effectiveness of existing project management processes. The Project Management Solution provides access to real-time information across processes and partners. It also delivers the tools required to maintain and use this information, to turn it into usable knowledge that enables the delivery of quality assets on time and within budget.

Design & Specification Management enables you to create, define, and manage detailed item specifications online. You can link specifications to objects within CAD drawings. TRIRIGA maintains that relationship throughout the project lifecycle.

Supplier is designed to help suppliers, subcontractors, and consultants work efficiently and effectively with customers who use TRIRIGA IBS. It provides a secure, centralized, online site for suppliers to receive, respond to, and track information-from bid packages to purchase orders-that customers create within TRIRIGA IBS.

Final thoughts
As building model-based software such as Graphisoft's ArchiCAD, Bentley's TriForma, and Autodesk's Architectural Desktop and Revit become more sophisticated, so will estimating and management systems. As mentioned earlier, the publishers of CAD programs realize that the next important productivity thrust is to make the construction documents contain electronic data. When these programs totally achieve this, we can expect the demise of paper documents, change orders, and so forth.

We can look forward to the day in the near future when the superintendent in the field, using a wireless tablet PC, opens the drawing file of the building under construction. A tap on the footing diagram pops up the concrete, steel rebar, and labor estimates. The built-in GPS system automatically locates coordinates for the footings and matches them with the drawing file. The superintendent visits the project Web site to see if the architect has electronically updated the plans in the project's Web site and to check the status of the modified permit. The permit office viewed the electronic plans at the project Web site and electronically issued an amended permit. Next, the superintendent points the Tablet PC's video camera at the footing excavation and sends a picture, along with a contract, to the concrete contractor via wireless e-mail. All this before lunch.