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It’s Not That Hard

How Do You Estimate What You’ve Never Done Before?

Material costs are easy to quantify. Labor isn't.

In January, 2019, I started work as a lead carpenter at HVP Corp. The crew all seemed top-notch, but I was a little concerned about the other lead carpenter, Ian Schwandt. Not that there were any red flags, but I was being hired in at the same level as him and I hoped he wouldn’t feel I was stepping on his toes.

It turned out that I needn’t have worried. Ian welcomed me and spent a fair amount of time showing me the company’s internal procedures. We quickly came to like and respect each other, and the times we got to swing hammers together were second only to the times we bellied up to the bar together. We’ve both moved on though, me to my current partnership and Ian returning to Wisconsin where he and his wife plan to build a high-performance home on a corner of his family’s farm.

In addition to being an utterly pragmatic carpenter with a background in commercial construction, Ian is an analytical thinker with a head for numbers. He’s enough better at that than I am for my partner and I to have hired him to help out with estimating. So when Ian told me that while planning his own house he had developed a spread sheet that compared not only the material costs and R-values of several high-performance wall assemblies, but which also took a stab at quantifying their buildability for the purpose of estimating labor costs, I took notice. There’s value here not just for Ian’s home, but for anyone who builds.

In an email exchange, Ian wrote to me:

One of the themes that I have noticed in watching all of the high performance building quarantine media specials is (most of the time) that…

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  1. User avater
    Ian Schwandt | | #1


    Thank you for bringing this concept to a larger audience. It has been fun hashing it out with you these past few weeks. Looking forward to pulling as much data as I can from building my house. Shooting for having a hole in the corner field by Independence Day.


  2. Doug McEvers | | #2

    "Twice as long and twice as much". Whomever said this originally was quite wise and had a sense of construction projects. Along with estimating labor cost is the quality component. There is a wide gulf between some projects featured on GBA and typical standard construction. Most have convinced themselves they can't afford quality workmanship, always looking for a deal. There are no deals, only money poorly spent.

    1. User avater
      Ian Schwandt | | #5


      The quality component is a huge part. It’s a problem our industry has with its customer base and their perspective of our work.

  3. Robert Swinburne | | #3

    From an architect's perspective: It's good to know who is going to be building the project and what their experience and comfort levels are with different construction methodologies. You don't want your project to be the first unless that's part of the plan going in. Even talk to the crew early on (not just the boss) to get an idea of enthusiasm but also to brainstorm at the on-paper stage. There are projects where I would feel much better about pushing panelized construction to bypass a crew's unfamiliarity and discomfort with high performance building.

    1. User avater
      Ian Schwandt | | #4


      That’s a great point about the importance of the architect getting involved with the crew early on.

      1. Robert Swinburne | | #8

        The builder and I have been taking and comparing notes on a recent project. It's clear that the more I am involved on the site and the more they are involved during planning, the better. We all can't wait to do it again.

  4. Dan Kolbert | | #6

    Einmal ist keinmal

    1. User avater
      Ian Schwandt | | #7

      Alles ist Arbeit

  5. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #9

    Two points that probably apply to construction as well as new product development:
    1. Motivation and buy-in: A software developer will estimate (and probably deliver) a much lower time to build something they like (i.e., their choice) vs. something someone asks them to do differently. So the carpenter builds "that's the way its always been done", far faster than anything they don't want to try.
    2. Capitalizing on others' knowledge: Development teams that include ALL work specialties at the beginning of a project get the project done in one-third less time and one-third less cost (on average) than when specialists are added to a team as the work progresses. Although it seems counter-intuitive to bring everyone on board at the beginning (well before their work is performed), they become fully aware of all the constraints when they finally get to do their work, and early on, they point out problems that others do not recognize until the project is partially completed and changes need to be made (often causing rework, delays and cost increases), or extra work needs to be done to deal with difficult constraints imposed by earlier work. So it likely would pay off well if the architect is talking to building construction subs from the start, and all team members pointing out to each other what would help them get their job done more easily and efficiently.

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