Is it true that those that can’t install estimate? 

Is it also true that those who install don’t make good estimators?  

If you are an estimator, it is important that you understand and respect the work that your production team, subcontractors, carpenters and installers perform. That should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately many organizations allow there to be an idea that the estimators are the “rainmakers” and they get to wear the red shirt signifying that you can’t tackle or harass the “quarterback” of the construction team.  

No one should be untouchable or above their commitment to the culture, the team or the results, as our roles and responsibilities are interconnected. There needs to be accountability and mutual respect at all levels if we are going to create a culture where everyone does their own job.  

On the other hand, production team members must also understand that just because the estimator doesn’t swing a hammer, this does not mean that their role isn’t important to keeping everyone working. If you are an owner or manager trying to get your team on the same page, I hope this article will help. We all must work together to make our work continue to work for all those working on and for the team. We will discuss how public perception can impact our roles and how we can work together to build a thriving culture where everyone is rowing together toward our goals. Let’s take a common household repair item – drywall installation and finishing – and flesh out the two questions we posed at the opening of this article.  

How often do you hear, or have you said, “It’s JUST drywall. How hard can it be”?  

Installers and finishers around the world know what I am talking about. Everyone wants a drywaller until they get the estimate. Then we hear, “Why is it SO expensive?” Once they see the dollar figure, which should be clearly understood is often much lower than it should be, the consumer suddenly becomes “able” to tackle the task or hits the market to find the installer who will complete the work for their substandard budget. As you may have heard, I am preparing to release my third book in the Be Intentional Series. This one will focus on the mindset and habits that will help professionals develop in the area of project management.  

Can anyone install and finish drywall?  

Anyone can purchase a 4-by-8-foot – 32 square feet – sheet of gypsum wallboard, transport it to a workspace and fasten it to a wall. If this is your definition of doing drywall work, then yes, ANYONE can be a drywaller. Of course, this is a low and ambiguous performance bar. What are some of the objective factors that go into properly installing drywall?  

Is the drywall the correct thickness and density?  

Did you know that there are many kinds of drywall? Do you know the difference between ½-inch and ⅝-inch wallboard? Do you know when one is required and when one can be substituted for the other? The ⅝-inch drywall is thicker and heavier, but it also has a greater fire rating than ½-inch drywall. Writing for This Old House, Norm Abram notes, “The 5/8-inch, ‘fire-code’ drywall (called Type X) increases a wall’s fire rating to a minimum of one hour, from the 30-minute rating for standard ½-inch drywall.” Your friend who does drywall may save you some money, but will they have done a proper job that will maintain the value of your home and provide the intended safety the wall system was designed for? A sheet of ⅝-inch drywall butted up to ½-inch drywall will cause issues for finishing the seams between surfaces as well as blending the joints so that there isn’t a visible hump in the finished wall.  

Was the drywall attached with the correct fasteners? 

Typically a ½-inch thick wallboard is attached with a 1 ½-inch-long drywall nail or drywall screw, while a ⅝-inch wallboard is attached with a 1 ⅝-inch drywall nail or screw. Do you notice a trend in the relationship between the length of the screws and the thickness of the drywall? How much of the fastener will be embedded into the structural members? If you answered one inch, you are correct. Did you also know that there is a recommended fastener pattern for installing drywall? Poor support and improper fastening lead to future cracks, “nail pops” and other common blemishes in drywall.  

If you want to know about the drywall installation and finishing process, we wrote an article, What is a Good Drywall Repair, which you might find helpful. Without going into too many additional details, some other concerns when having anyone install drywall:

  • There are two sides to the wallboard. Does your installer know which one faces outward?
  • The top and bottom of the drywall have tapered edges that facilitate joining sheets together for a better-finished product. Does your installer know how to treat and finish the non-tapered edges? 
  • Does your installer know how to properly support the drywall joints when they don’t land on a structural member (typically a wood or metal stud)? 
  • Does your installer understand current codes and best practices? This can include safety concerns such as fire code compliance, lead and asbestos testing, as well as overall dust control and cleanliness.  
  • Does your installer know the art of properly setting a drywall fastener, where the head settles into the surface of the material without breaking the paper membrane? This is another factor leading to future issues with drywall finishes. 
  • Drywall installation may be the “easier” portion of the work sequence, but a lackluster install will lead to complications with taping, finishing and texturing your drywall surfaces. 
  • Does your installer know how to blend texture if you are making a repair that will join up to existing finished surfaces? 

Can anyone install drywall? Perhaps. 

Can anyone learn to install drywall? Absolutely.   

We opened this article discussing the schism between estimators and installers. While the public often has an incorrect understanding of what goes into a construction project, or a process such as installing and finishing drywall, unfortunately, many of these incorrect mindsets exist within an organization as well. The key to proficiency is to be intentional in whatever you do; to learn how to do it right, how to do it efficiently and how to ultimately do it excellently. This is what we call, The DYOJO Way.  

You must train your mindset and habits for success. An installer should understand what it takes to compose a good estimate, but this is a different skillset that also has to be exercised. Often the installer decides one day that they no longer want to work for “the man” and they want to spread their entrepreneurial wings, or the installer wants to get out of the field and take one of those “easy” office jobs. Knowing your trade will help you be a more accurate and thorough estimator, but there is more to the process than shooting from your hip.   

Can anyone estimate drywall work?  

The installer knows the best practices but may not have learned the fundamentals of estimating. The common formats for estimating include:

  • Unit pricing 
  • Time and materials
  • Standardized pricing
  • Cost-plus
  • Shoot from the hip 

Shooting from the hip as an estimator 

If you are a tradesperson who is starting a business, you may be tempted to think that you can eyeball a project and put a good number on it. One thing I would like to make clear in this article is that an installer is not better or worse than an estimator, and vice versa. The two roles have unique skill sets and responsibilities. Just because you install well does not mean that you will estimate well. Your background in the field should educate your efforts but you should also understand that you will need to develop new skills in estimating and running a business. Unless you are comfortable with having bought your job rather than building something sustainable. To improve your estimating skills you will want to learn the differences between these common estimating approaches.  

Time and materials estimating 

The key here is estimating. An estimate is an approximation, typically given to a customer so that they can understand their cost for an agreed scope of work. Before you can estimate, you need to clarify the scope. What does the customer want to be done, what are the options and/or factors that will impact cost and timelines, and what needs to happen in order for you to assist them with achieving satisfaction in the process? Time and materials can be a good way of presenting cost agreements.  

From an estimating standpoint, you will break down the scopes of work and pencil out what you believe the time involved will be, then you multiply that by your labor rates. While we won’t go into true labor costs at this time, you need to understand what your total labor cost is, which includes your labor burden. Construction Business Owner notes, “All costs associated with paying employees, including FICA, unemployment and Social Security should be calculated as part of labor. The lengthy and varied list of indirect contract costs continues with vacation time, holidays, sick days, drivers, warehouse personnel, training, safety, and clothing.” Your labor sheet should include all non-direct job-related labor and how these rates are factored for the project.  

Communication is key to scope execution 

Every estimate has certain shortfalls and pickups which should be downloaded between the team members who created the scope and those who will be responsible to execute it. Clarity is essential. Often time and materials are utilized on large projects, but many clients will request an estimated final figure or a weekly “burn rate” so that they can plan accordingly. Waiting until the end of a project to provide any figures could lead to issues with collecting payment. If you agree to a time and materials estimate, I would suggest providing regular (weekly) updates of the accumulated costs and making provisions for draws based upon percentages of performance.  

  • Breakdown of time to perform the work x labor rates
  • Materials + equipment + resources + applicable sales tax
  • Sub-total x multiplied by overhead and profit   

While you may not present your final estimate as to time and material, as I discuss in my book, Be Intentional: Estimating, I think this is a good means to check your figures against the unit or standardized pricing. Whether you double estimate every project or do this periodically, you should check your estimates against your hard costs for completed projects to update your pricing and understand industry pricing norms, even if you don’t follow them. In my upcoming book, So, You Want To Be A Project Manager, I will dive further into the mindset and habits for success that empower project managers to thrive in their roles and responsibilities. We have set up a portal for new project managers who are interested in advance copies of this resource.  

Production rate estimating  

As a subset of time and materials estimating, a company I recently worked at which specializes in asbestos abatement and demolition composed their estimates based upon production rates. They had a good knowledge of standardized rates within the industry and were working to better understand their own team’s efficiencies with certain scopes of work. For example, their crews may have been very efficient with removing popcorn ceiling texture but not as strong when it came to vinyl asbestos tile on a wood substrate. Knowing these variances allowed them to adjust their figures accordingly. As much of the work was with government agencies, you always had to keep in mind the “low bid wins” factor and try to guesstimate how aggressive your competitors would be.  

Production rate refers to the amount of time needed per worker to accomplish a specified quantity of work. Xactimate uses square, linear and cubic footage calculations for most of its pricing, but embedded in this are certain assumptions regarding production rates. Ben Justesen discusses how to locate and adapt these assumptions in Xactimate through the yield when the efficiency of a task is impacted by other factors. In the right conditions, how many square feet of wall demolition could tour team members accomplish in an eight-hour workday?  

Basic formula: 1 technician x 8 hours = ____ SF of Task A. Therefore your company would charge $____ / SF for Task A. You would have to determine if your Task A cost includes basic materials and equipment or if you account for those elsewhere in the bid.  

Tom McGuire has been hard at work reminding restoration contractors that Xactimate is not the only way to price a job, especially if they need to produce quick and accurate numbers for a large loss scenario. Writing for Property Casualty 360, Tom says, “If you have a realistic understanding of the capabilities of your people and equipment as well as a clear view of the type of structure and damage you are dealing with, you can estimate precisely what it will take to complete a recovery project under significant time pressure.” The communication of the production rate assumptions of the agreed-upon scope is important regardless of the method of estimating. In Xactimate you would derive this from the Components List, whereas in a production rate bid you should have access to the factors the estimator utilized for their figures.  

Cost-plus estimating 

This is similar to time and materials in the sense that you are agreeing to cost items and markups and facilitating the work. As a general contractor who primarily sub-contractors work to third-party vendors, this may make sense to ensure your costs are covered. I see many contractors who spend so much time working with a client on the design and acquiring bids from specialty vendors only to be cut out of the project when it comes time to sign the contract and collect an initial deposit. I would suggest that all contractors use some form of time and material or cost-plus arrangement if they are developing a plan of action with a client. 

Your time will never be valued by the public until you value it yourself. It is common in my field, property restoration, to hear that the standard 10 and 10 (10% overhead plus 10% profit) covers a broad range of items including planning, supervisory time and any unaccounted for incidentals. Before you get too invested in a project, make sure you understand who is paying for your indirect costs. If you are going to use cost-plus estimating, make sure you understand your overhead costs and your profit goals. If you are doing a few large projects a year, or those projects carry over several years, you have to factor the variables in your overhead so that you don’t finish a project with an empty bag.  

Unit price estimating  

For a long time, RS Means has been the industry standard for construction pricing. Contractors would purchase these books at the local hardware store and could find pricing by trade with factors for their area of operations. As technology has advanced, these tools are more readily available and update much quicker than the 12-month publishing cycle. One way to estimate drywall is by the sheet or by the square foot, but reliance on these pricing structures can be detrimental as there are many factors that impact completing the work in the real world. Estimators should spend time in the field with their production teams, even if they are not skilled in the work. It is good to get your hands dirty from time to time. Not only will being in the field help you have a better understanding of the scopes of work that you are bidding on, but it can also be a great way to reduce the “us vs. them” mentality that plagues many construction organizations.  

Standardized price estimating  

This is similar to unit price estimating; in many instances they are interchangeable. In property restoration, a common estimating tool is a program called Xactimate. Most of the prices in this software are based upon square footage or linear footage. I have heard that RS Means, and other providers, have similar platforms that help estimators in the construction field to create estimates in this fashion. As stated before, you should double-check your estimating means to compare real-world costs with whatever system you are utilizing. Estimators should ask their production team members to review their estimates as well as discuss approaches to unique scopes of work with trusted industry professionals.  

Estimators and installers should not be strangers to each other. If the goal is to create an accurate scope that can then be executed effectively in the field, all parties should be involved in the bidding process. Working with insurance claims for over 20 years, it still amazes me how many organizations put so much time into the estimating process, but don’t utilize all of the tools readily available in the programs that they have invested in. For example, an estimate written in Xactimate can produce a scope sheet that breaks out the work to be performed line by line, room by room, but many production teams don’t utilize this aspect of the program. Not to sound like I am advocating for Xactimate, but it also provides a components list, estimated hours based upon the figures provided (not always accurate) and breakdowns by category that lend themselves to efficient project budgets.  

An estimator who can’t install 

While you don’t have to be a skilled installer to create an accurate and thorough estimate, it sure does help. The next best thing is to get out in the field and get some experience working, or at least observing, your teams doing what they do best: installing and finishing the products you are selling. Kirk Matthews, an adjuster with many years writing insurance claims estimates, shared his experiences with the importance of learning what crews do when restoring damaged homes in helping him be better at his profession. As an estimator, your efforts are essential to starting projects off right for your team, your client and the reputation of your organization in your market. When you understand more about the production process you can better craft your scope of work to reflect those nuances and provide your team with the information they need to make your company deliver an excellent experience.  

An installer who can’t estimate 

We are in the midst of our series on The DYOJO Podcast titled The Xactimate Sessions, designed to help new and aspiring estimators to elevate their skills in estimating. I’m not sure which is worse, or better, in the versus scenario we opened this article with, and honestly, it’s not a fruitful conversation. If you are an installer who wants to get out of the field and grow your career by pursuing estimating, I would hope this article is helpful in setting you on the right path with regards to the mindset and habits you will need to succeed. Likewise, if you are considering going out on your own as a small business owner or contractor, you will need to quickly learn to develop the skills necessary to estimate accurately and run a profitable business. It can be learned.  

Can anyone estimate drywall work? Yes. 

Can anyone estimate drywall work well? With time, yes.  

If you are an installer and you want to work your way into management, you will need to learn to develop the skills that will open new opportunities for you. My third book is written to help you with this process. If you are new to project management, you will need to respect and build a rapport with the estimators. You will also want to earn and maintain their respect for what you do. As you develop in your career, you can boost your growth by helping others recognize and seize upon opportunities for their growth. If you are an estimator, you must understand your role as intertwined with the greater production process. Do your best to compose an agreed-upon scope that can clearly, consistently, and efficiently be adapted into the execution phase. Be intentional with your development and help others to do the same.