Measure Once

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There are many traps that service providers can fall into when quoting building documentation services. At ARC we’ve had our share of being snared. There are also a number of traps owners/clients can fall into when procuring building documentation services. The following story perfectly illustrates some of these issues.

It was 3:39 PM on a Monday last October when I received an email from one of my clients. The subject line simply read "Need a quote." These emails always get my attention for obvious reasons. As a service provider who is constantly in search of the next job to keep our project pipeline full, I immediately began the process of assessing the opportunity. The body of the email wasn’t much more descriptive. It read "1 story below grade, 6 stories above grade (Total 7), 600 ft x 100 ft floors, almost all open floors, little to no existing rooms. Interior only." That was it. With the subject line echoing through my mind, "Need a quote, Need a quote," I thought, "Sounds like a decent sized project."

My client is a contractor who was bidding on work to renovate this near half-million square foot building. He needed a scan-to-BIM of the building inside and out. When I received his email I happened to be traveling and wasn’t able to tend to the opportunity so I replied that I was forwarding the info to our Director of Operations who could start working on it right away. I got a reply back almost instantly stating that he needed the quote by tomorrow. "Of course," I thought to myself, "The normal turn-around time." Why is it that every opportunity seems to be so urgent?

Without a well-defined scope of work or a specification we were resigned to the all-too-familiar painstaking process of having to extract the information we’d need to provide a competitive quote. We were being bid. Within minutes my Director of Operations had fired off an email asking for clarification to a number of questions. The back-andforth exchange of information was under way. As more information came in it became apparent that this project was fairly complicated and required more time to quote than we were being given. We had a building address located in Los Angeles and satellite imagery giving us a clear sense of the complexity of the building from the outside, but we were lacking an understanding of the building’s interior. However, in our race to serve our client’s needs, we walked right into trap number one and decided to take the risky approach of providing a quote without adequate information.

At 8:43am the next morning our client was pressing us for our proposal. An hour later he had it in his hands. "You guys are over fifteen percent higher. "Need to sharpen the pencil," was his reply. Trap number two would have been to just whack our fee to get closer to the stated competitive bid price. Already very uneasy with our quote, we certainly had no interest in lowering it any further especially without knowing what conditions really existed inside the building.

One of the biggest mistakes a service provider can make is falling into the trap of publishing a number without adequate information. It is very difficult to raise your price once an expectation has been set. Not to mention the fact that we were apparently already the high bidder. Many times we’ll get asked for a `rough order of magnitude number.’ This is often accompanied by the ever popular phrase "I won’t hold you to it." This trap is no different than providing a hard quote without adequate information. Don’t do it. Again, another example of `do as I say, not as I do.’

We told our client that if we were to even consider `sharpening our pencil’ we would need a job walk. Of course now that our number had been published there was plenty of time to schedule a job walk. What happened to the urgency? A week later we were inside the building learning first-hand how ridiculously low our bid was. This was one time I was happy to be the high bidder.

The narrative now shifted to "are we even bidding the same thing?" After all, up to this point there was no clearly written specification, or scope of work, just a lot of off-the-cuff descriptions and a bunch of hand waving. Who would possibly bid this work for such a ridiculously low fee? We learned that the competitive bid was solicited directly by the owner and not by our client the contractor. We also learned that both bids were not apples-to-apples. Our competitor’s proposed scope of work had a lot of ambiguities leaving the owner exposed to potential additional services requests.

Our client convinced the owner to have the job re-bid in an effort to get the proposed scopes of work into alignment. This time we adjusted our fee up to match the defined scope. We realized that raising our fee meant we were less likely to win the job. None-the-less, we felt confident that our revised proposal was reasonable and more closely represented the actual amount of work to be done. We also took time to present our qualifications. Two months later we were informed that the project was being put on hold indefinitely.

Next, the story takes an interesting turn exposing the traps an owner/ client often falls into. Three weeks after being told the project was put on hold indefinitely I was contacted by a good friend and surveyor whom ARC works with regularly. He indicated he had a project in L.A. that he provided survey control on for a firm who performed an interior mobile scan. The project happened to be the same job that was put on hold. He said that there were significant issues with the mobile scan data and he was in need of an accurate set of data from static scans that could be used to help his client troubleshoot the issues they had with their mobile scan data. We provided a quote to static scan one floor of the building. Again, the project fell silent for a few weeks. Strange.

The third call was the charm. It was now March 24th. Through an entirely different channel I was contacted by a construction manager who was referred to us by another contractor we frequently work with. The CM worked for the building owner of the `on hold’ project. He was in search of a quote to static scan the entire building inside and out. When I met him, the owner and the project architect on site for a job walk the next day I informed them that I was already familiar with the project and had actually quoted the job the previous October for a contractor as well as the previous month for the project surveyor. I also told him I was familiar with the firms whom they had contracted to perform the mobile scan. All three were very surprised that I knew all this.

I was told that what had transpired was the result of the owner trying to save time and money. They told me that mobile scanning had been offered as a solution that could significantly cut down on the cost and time to document the building in 3D. Instead, the solution proved to be unsuitable for use on this project. The trap the owner fell into is all too common–not defining a scope of work, writing a specification, or qualifying bidders. Instead, he just offered a verbal description of what needed to be done and then based the entire decision on the lowest cost.

In the owner’s defense there are a lot of complicated factors that go into preparing a proper scope of work, writing a spec and issuing a request for proposal. Qualifying bidders can be just as daunting for someone who does not commonly contract for these types of services. In fact, it can take a great deal of effort to educate one’s self on what the latest building documentation technologies and processes can and can’t do.

Many owners simply don’t understand this or the risks associated with contracting for these services. Often we find there is little-to-no interest by owners to get educated or, they aren’t quite sure where to turn to learn more. After all, they’ve got a project to get done and don’t have much time to do a bunch of research.

The bottom line is to reduce the risk of paying more and losing time owners need to get educated. If they don’t have time then they need to find a knowledgeable consultant who can help them navigate these unfamiliar waters by assisting with the preparation of proper bid documents and using a qualificationbased method for selecting bidders.

There is an old saying used in the construction industry that goes "measure twice–cut once." As my client found out, don’t fall into the trap of applying this advice to building documentation. Instead, I contend it is better to simply just "measure once."

John M. Russo, AIA is an experienced architect with more than 30 years of experience in performing building documentation. In 1997 he founded Irvine, California based, Architectural Resource Consultants (ARC),, a firm that specializes in documenting existing building conditions. In 2012 he founded the U.S. institute of Building documentation (USIBD), www.usibd. org, a non-profit membership organization dedicating to supporting all stakeholders with an interest in building documentation.

The U.S. Institute of Building Documentation (USIBD) founded in 2012 is dedicated to furthering excellence in building documentation by promoting, educating, guiding and supporting stakeholders with an interest in the built environment in a way that cultivates networking and information sharing.

The USIBD’s mission is to provide educational resources and standards to building owners, building operators, architects, and others seeking professional building documentation services.

The USIBD is currently in the process of creating standard bid documents to help specify 3D imaging services, a Request for Qualification (RFQ) and Request for Proposal (RFP) template as well as a Level of Accuracy (LOA) specification. All of these documents are available in draft format for download and review on the USIBD website. The USIBD encourages you to download these documents today and provide your feedback. Final versions are due to be released sometime in the third quarter of 2014.

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A 1.817Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE