Construction is a vast industry that encompasses a myriad of project types from small remodel jobs to vast billion-dollar commercial and industrial projects. Some projects can span years and decades. Even the most seasoned construction estimator will be required to estimate materials, products, and assemblies they have not previously encountered, or that they need additional information on, to correctly estimate. Some primary sources for obtaining information about construction costs and processes are known as cost data manuals. These resources serve as invaluable databases of information and can be an invaluable tool for the construction estimator.
Cost Data Manual Publishers
These databases are provided by a number of different publishers and cover a wide range of material, processes, and procedures from basic construction processes to detailed specialty and trade work. Some cost data manuals are more universal in nature and serve as a primary source for finding information about the majority of processes and operations on a construction project. Others are more specific in nature and serve as resources for specific specialty trades and contractors. In addition, there are different resources that serve various segments of the industry, such as industrial, heavy highway, commercial, and residential construction. A brief review of some of the publishers and their products are as follows:
Craftsman Book Company
The Craftsman Book Company is a large publisher of construction-related books and products. They publish a line of cost data manuals, with their signature product known as the National Construction Estimator (NCE). This major reference serves as a resource for both the residential and commercial construction industry and is a general reference for all phases of construction work from basic processes to specialty trade work. It is published in both printed and electronic formats. The residential portion of the reference is organized in alphabetic order of materials and processes. The commercial portion is organized into divisions following the CSI MasterFormat classification system. This will be the primary cost data manual that will be used in this course.
Much more about this resource will be covered later in this chapter.
In addition to the National Construction Estimator, the Craftsman Book Company publishes a wide range of cost data manuals and software that provide more specific and detailed cost information for subcontract and specialty trades. These include the following:
- National Building Cost Manual
- National Concrete & Masonry Estimator
- National Earthwork & Heavy Equipment Estimator
- National Electrical Estimator
- National Framing & Finish Carpentry Estimator
- National Home Improvement Estimator
- National Painting Cost Estimator
- National Plumbing & HVAC Estimator
- National Renovation & Insurance Repair Estimator
- National Repair & Remodeling Estimator
More specific information can be obtained from the Craftsman Book Company website.
The RSMeans company is also a large publisher of construction-related books and software. Their catalog of cost data manuals is likely the most extensive in the industry and includes their signature product known as the RSMeans Building Construction Costs data manual. This general reference source is intended primarily for the commercial construction industry. The text is organized similar to the MasterFormat style common in the commercial construction industry which is organized into 50 separate divisions. In addition to this flagship product, the RSMeans company publishes the following:
- Assemblies Costs
- Commercial Renovation Costs
- Concrete & Masonry Costs
- Construction Cost Indexes
- Contractors Pricing Guides: Residential Repair & Remodeling Costs
- Electrical Change Order Costs
- Electrical Costs
- Facilities Costs
- Maintenance & Repair Costs
- Green Building Costs
- Heavy Construction Costs
- Interior Costs
- Labor Rates for the Construction Industry
- Light Commercial Costs
- Mechanical Costs
- Open Shop Building Construction Costs
- Plumbing Costs
- Residential Costs
- Site Work & Landscape Costs
- Square Foot Costs
- Yardsticks for Costing
More specific information can be found on the RSMeans website.
Saylor Publications offers a number of different cost data publications. The flagship publication is known as the Current Construction Costs, which is a cost data manual focused primarily for the commercial construction industry. The reference is organized into 16 major divisions, which follows the older CSI MasterFormat classification of 16 major divisions. This reference provides information in a unit cost format. Additional products from this publisher include the following:
- Current Construction Cost Manual
- Current Remodeling Repair Construction Cost Manual
- Current Construction Cost Residential
- Current Residential Remodeling Costs
More specific information can be found on the Sierra West Publishing website.
Frank R. Walker Company
The Frank R. Walker Company publishes a cost data manual known as Walker’s Building Estimator’s Reference Book. This reference has been in continuous publication since 1915. It is considered a standard reference source for commercial construction. It is organized in a manner following the CSI division format. The standard reference cost data manual can be purchased in an individual chapter format covering sub-specialties. More information can be found on the Frank R. Walker Company website.
Craftsman Book Company. (2018). 2018 Craftsman Costbooks. Retrieved from https://www.craftsman-book.com/
Frank R Walker Company. (2001). The Building Estimator's Reference Book BERB 31. Retrieved from https://www.frankrwalker.com/
Pray, R. (2018). National Construction Estimator (66th ed.). Carlsbad, CA: Craftsman Book Company.
RSMeans. (n.d.). RSMeans Data Online. Retrieved from https://www.rsmeans.com/
Saylor Communications. (n.d.). Saylor Cost Manuals. Retrieved from http://www.saylor.com/
Sierra West Publishing (Ed.). (2014). Current Construction Costs Manual. Retrieved from https://books.byui.edu/-kpeB
Wikipedia. (2018, April 09). Rule of thumb. Retrieved from https://books.byui.edu/-jtgc
Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Cost Data Manuals
There are both advantages and disadvantages to using cost data manuals when preparing an estimate. Ultimately, it is the estimator’s responsibility to determine the value of the data that is acquired from cost data manuals. Some of the advantages and disadvantages of using cost data manuals are as follows:
Advantages of Cost Data Manuals
Advantages of using cost data manuals include establishing costs for unfamiliar items, making a quick check of figures, standardizing costs, and helping to understand the necessary factors that go into a particular cost estimate.
Establishing Cost for Unfamiliar Items
Certainly, one of the most important benefits of using cost data manuals is being a resource for establishing costs of unfamiliar items. For example, the requirements for energy efficient and green building construction has significantly increased in recent years. One popular program known as Leadership in Energy & Environmental and Design (LEED) has specific requirements for design, materials, and processes that must be incorporated into the project in order for the project to meet the required LEED standard. The owner may specify a specific standard, such as a LEED Silver or LEED Gold, and the contractor is responsible to manage the construction process to meet the standards of an outside certifying agency. There is a construction cost associated with this process, and the estimator can reference cost data manuals such as the National Construction Estimator or the RSMeans Green Building Cost Data manual.
Quick Check of Figures
There are occasions when the construction estimator needs to make a quick check of the figures to help establish a benchmark or ballpark figure. In addition, there can be occasions when a mistake or error in the estimate can lead to significant miscalculation. A quick check of the figures can often point out that something could be amiss that requires further examination.
There are occasions on construction projects when a client may question the veracity of the costs on the project. This can often stem from a lack of understanding of what a fair cost for the project is or a desire to understand that they are receiving value for their dollar. Referencing costs from cost data manuals can help to clear up any confusion or uncertainty of the value received.
Understanding Necessary Factors that Go into Establishing a Cost
When estimating items or systems that are unfamiliar, it is important to understand all of the elements that go into completing the system so all of the elements can be established and priced. For example, the RSMeans 2012 Green Building Cost Data manual shows the cost data for installing a stand-alone photovoltaic power system. 28 separate items are included in the system to be estimated including interrelated items such as deep cycle solar batteries, battery temperature computer probes, wooden vented battery enclosures, and lightning surge suppressors. When estimating unfamiliar items, the estimator should strive fully to understand all factors that go into the cost of the item.
Disadvantages of Using Cost Data Manuals
There can be disadvantages to using cost data manuals including the fact that published costs may not be your costs, actual job conditions may vary, material costs may vary, or it can provide a false sense of security.
Published Costs May Not Be Your Costs
Just because a cost is published in a cost data manual does not necessarily mean that it will be the actual cost for your project. There can be a wide range of valid causes for significant variation in price. This can be especially true when undertaking an unfamiliar process or procedure. Prices published in cost data manuals are for the industry in general and represent an industry standard. This would suggest that the prices published are for experienced crews who are familiar with this form of work. There is always a learning curve when undertaking new procedures and processes that can make it both more time consuming and costly. The estimator should make a realistic assessment of the capabilities of the crew that will actually complete the work.
Actual Job Conditions May Vary
Every construction project is different. Locations are different, circumstances are different, materials are different, and crews are different. For example, one project may be undertaken in the summer with few concerns about the weather and another may be undertaken in the winter with significant weather-related issues. Another may require distant travel requirements, increased regulation, or administration oversight. Most often, these special circumstances are not included in the price established in cost data manuals.
False Sense of Security
Relying too much on cost data manual information without making the effort to truly understand the real costs involved can lead to a false sense of security about the project. The use of cost data manuals does not overshadow the need to truly count all of the costs involved in the situation.
Understanding the realistic use of cost data manuals, the authors of the National Construction Estimator state that “[these cost figures are] as accurate as possible considering that the estimators who wrote the book don’t know your subcontractors or materials suppliers, haven’t seen the plans or specifications, don’t know what building code applies or where the job is, had to project material costs at least six months into the future, and had no record of how much work the crew that will be assigned to the job can handle.
You wouldn’t bid a job under these conditions. And we don’t claim all construction is done at these prices” (Pray, 2018, p. 5).
In spite of the concerns about possible cost inaccuracies with using cost data manuals, they can be a vital part of any construction estimator procedure.
NCE 2018 Layout
The 2018 edition of the National Construction Estimator will be used in this course as a vital resource. A new version comes out each year, but using the 2018 edition will allow the coursework to stay the same while still allowing you to learn vital estimating processes. The 2018 NCE will serve as the primary source for obtaining construction labor and subcontractor costs for the project assignments and tests. Information about the layout and use of the data manual will be addressed next.
Layout of the National Construction Estimator
The National Construction Estimator is divided into three major sections: the introduction section, the residential section, and the commercial section.
The introduction section is comprised of an introduction and explanation about using the National Construction Estimator and a number of other information sections including abbreviations and symbols, craft codes, hourly costs, crew compositions, residential division labor costs, adjusting labor costs, and area modification factors.
How to Use this Book Introduction
The first few pages of the National Construction Estimator are an explanation about using the resource, including information about pricing methods involving delivery, sales tax, waste and coverage, supervision expenses, payroll taxes, man-hours, labor productivity, equipment costs, subcontractor costs, and markup.
The second subsection of the introduction section is a description of the abbreviations used in the database. Abbreviations are used throughout the text. When encountering an unusual or unknown abbreviation, the user should refer to the reference at the beginning of the book. NCE Figure 3-1 shows an example of the abbreviation subsection highlighting the abbreviation for square foot of contact area (SFCA) and the use of the abbreviation in the concrete formwork subsection.
The third subsection of the introduction contains information about craft codes, hourly costs, and crew compositions. The section is divided into two divisions, a residential division and a commercial division. NCE Figure 3-2 shows an example of the residential division costs with the information about Crew B1 highlighted. The cost for crew B1 is shown as $33.34 per hour, and the crew is comprised of two individuals: one laborer and one carpenter.
Each construction process covered in the NCE contains a column labeled Craft@Hrs. The letters and numbers in this column show the estimates for who will do the work (the craft code), an @ symbol meaning at, and how long the work will take (given in man-hours). For example, NCE Figure 3-3 shows an example of the Carpentry, Detailed Breakdown section for installing TJI floor joists. The Craft@Hrs column along with the labor costs are highlighted.
This means that Crew B1 can install 9 ½″ TJI/15 floor joists at a rate of .017 hours per square foot of floor area or 17 hours per 1,000 square feet of floor area.
The labor cost for installing the floor joists is listed at $0.57 per square foot. That means that 1,000 square feet would cost
Crew B1 has a cost per man-hour listed as $33.44. Calculated another way, if the 17 man-hours determined to complete the job were multiplied by the $33.44 cost per man-hour, the total would be
Residential Labor Cost Division
The residential labor division shows how the labor costs are determined for individual craft trades. NCE Figure 3-4 shows an example of the residential labor division labor costs with the cost for a building laborer and carpenter highlighted.
The base hour wage for a laborer, listed at $20.67 an hour with taxable fringe benefits, insurance and employer taxes, and non-taxable fringe benefits added on the total comes to $29.93 per hour. The carpenter wages are listed the same way with a total of $36.94 per hour. The rate for crew B1 with one laborer and one carpenter is calculated by adding the wages of each crew member together and dividing by the number of crew members as follows:
Area Modification Factors
An important factor that determines the construction cost is the area of the country where the job is located. Costs vary significantly by area and region. The area modification factors provide information about adjustments that should be made for both labor and material based upon the area that the job is located. NCE Figure 3-5 shows an example of area modification factors for Idaho and Kansas.
The labor rates for Idaho Falls show that they are 19% below the national average, while the labor rates for Independence show that they are 39% above the national average. Given those rates, it could be expected that the rate for Crew B1 in Idaho Falls would be around 81% of $33.44 or $27.09 per hour, while the rate for Independence would be 139% of $33.44 or $46.48.
While area modification factors are very important when determining estimate costs for actual projects, the national average will be used for determining cost for the project assignments in this course.
NCE 2018 Residential Construction Costs Section
The residential section is the first cost section of the National Construction Estimator. This section is organized alphabetically and starts with “Adhesives” and ends with “Windows” on page 297. The carpentry division of this section utilizes four separate methods of preparing estimates: Carpentry, rule of thumb; Carpentry, assemblies; Carpentry, piecework rates; and Carpentry, detailed breakdown methods. NCE Figure 3-6 shows the Table of Contents for the NCE. The residential section is highlighted, and the four types of estimates for the carpentry framing category are emphasized.
Carpentry Rule of Thumb
A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. Rule of thumb prices in the carpentry section are general guidelines for pricing construction framing cost. They are typically estimated as cost per square foot of floor in the living area. NCE Figure 3-7 shows an example of the rule of thumb costs for framing on single story conventional crawl-space foundations.
The costs for framing the floor joists using this method would be calculated at $1.95 per square foot of living area. A building with 1000 square feet of living area could expect to cost $1,950.00 for the project. Framing the entire residence would cost $13.47 per square foot or $13,470.00 for the job.
The second subset of the carpentry section is the assemblies subsection. The costs in the assemblies subsection are established by creating a group, or assembly, of the individual components for the particular items being estimated. Figure 3-6 shows an example of a typical floor framing assembly with the four major floor assembly elements highlighted in color; this includes the rim joist, floor joist, floor sheathing, and floor blocking.
NCE Figure 3-8 shows an example of the Carpentry, Assemblies subsection of the National Construction Estimator. Floor joists, subflooring (sheathing), blocking, nails, and box or band joists (rim joist) are included in the description. In addition, the NCE includes 6 ¼″ thick R19 insulation, which would not normally be considered part of a framing assembly. The price established for this method is $4.53 per square foot or $4,530.00 for a 1,000 square foot floor.
The insulation could be removed from the calculation by looking up the cost from the insulation subsection of the National Construction Estimator. This is shown in NCE Figure 3-9, which highlights the square foot cost for installing 6 ¼″ R19 insulation at 16 inches on center at $0.94 per square foot.
Subtracting the $0.94 square foot cost from the $4.53 cost listed in the floor assemblies subsection would result in a price of $3.59 per square foot. The floor framing cost without the insulation would be $3,590.00 for 1,000 square foot of floor framing.
The third subset of the carpentry section is the piecework rate subsection. The costs in the piecework subsection are established by pricing per square foot of floor area. This is a specialty area of estimating that is focused primarily towards production home building by subcontractors who work for production building companies. These companies build large tracts of hundreds—even thousands—of homes in a single development. The work is repetitive, and the general subcontractor supplies all of the material for the project. The subcontractor who would use this pricing method supplies only the crew who would perform the framing labor in a production situation. NCE Figure 3-10 shows the introduction to the piecework rate subsection, which describes the details of this pricing method.
NCE Figure 3-11 shows the floor and ceiling joists price category for the piecework rate subsection with the installation of 2′ × 10″ floor or ceiling joist spaced at 16″ O/C highlighted. The price is established per square foot of area of floor joist. There are no craft hours or material costs associated with this pricing method.
The majority of prices in the residential section of the NCE are established using the detailed breakdown method of pricing. This method prices each component of construction individually.
When estimating the prices for common construction tasks, the price for each individual component will need to be added into the total cost. NCE Figure 3-12 shows an example of the floor joist category of this subsection with the cost for 2″ × 10″ floor joist spaced 16″ O/C highlighted. Also, highlighted is the description explaining that this pricing methods includes floor joist, box or band joists (rim joists), and double joist.
The cost of the floor joist framing would be calculated by multiplying the $1.82 cost per square foot. Using the example of 1,000 square feet, the cost for floor joist framing would be
The description also explains that no beams, blocking, or bridging are included. This would extend to the floor sheathing. These items would need to be added as a separate cost. NCE Figure 3-13 shows the bridging or blocking category of the detailed breakdown subsection from the NCE. The blocking is priced per piece based upon the spacing of the floor joists.
In order to add this cost to the floor framing, the estimator would need to know the actual dimensions of the floor that is to be framed so that the number of pieces of blocking could be calculated. Figure 3-5 shows an example of a 1,000 square framed floor system that is 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. The number of pieces of blocking would be calculated by dividing the 40-foot length of the floor by the floor joist spacing of 16 inches. This would result in 30 pieces of blocking.
Priced at $3.55 each would result in a total cost for blocking at
The floor sheathing would need to be added to the floor framing costs. NCE Figure 3-14 shows an example of the subflooring (floor sheathing) category of the residential framing section.
The cost of $1.20 per square foot would be multiplied by the 1,000 square foot size of the floor framing. This would result in the following subflooring cost:
The detailed breakdown cost of the three floor framing elements would result in a total detail breakdown floor framing cost of
Floor Framing = $1,820.00
Floor Blocking = $106.50
Floor Sheathing = $1,200.00
Total Cost = $3,126.50
This procedure of determining the detailed breakdown cost of each individual component of the construction process, and adding the costs together will be frequently followed when establishing construction cost for each project in this class.
Using the NCE in Class
A number of strategies can assist in making the use of cost data manuals more effective. Two important strategies are to utilize the information in the headings and instructions and modify the numbers to suit your needs.
Utilize the Information in the Header Section
Information in the header section of each category provides important information about the cost data presented in the section. For example, NCE Figure 3-12 shows the header of the floor joists section and explains all of the elements that the subsection prices, but it also gives hints into other items that will need to be added to the estimates, such as blocking and subflooring. In addition, the header section gives information that only openings in the floor over 25 square feet should be subtracted from the estimated quantity.
Modify Figure to Suit Your Needs
When using cost data manuals on actual projects, the estimator should modify the numbers to suit the needs of the project. For example, many sections of the NCE provide details about the cost of materials used in the manual. NCE Figure 3-16 shows details of the plates category in the detailed breakdown subsection of the residential section of the National Construction Estimator. The cost for 2″× 4″ wall plates is shown as priced at $652.00 per MBF (Thousand Board Feet). Information is also given that a single 2″× 4″ contains 0.73 board feet per lineal foot and that the material cost includes 10% for waste and nails. Shown mathematically, this would be calculated as the following:
A single 8-foot 2″× 4″ priced at $0.47 per lineal foot (priced without the 10% for waste and nails) would cost $3.74 each. If the price for that 2″× 4″ were reduced to $3.00 each, the material lineal foot price would be $0.375 per lineal foot, not including the 10% waste and nails. If those two factors were added, then the material price per lineal foot would be
This price could be substituted when calculating the actual costs on a project.
Using the NCE Cost Data Manual in Class
The National Construction Estimator will be used in this class in a way that is significantly different than could be used in calculating real project costs. In most situations in this course, the national average for cost will be used. Most material cost will be taken from databases that are included as part of the estimating template supplied to the students in class. To simplify and standardize labor costs in this class, national average labor costs from the NCE will be used when determining labor cost. In addition, subcontractor costs for the class assignments will be the national average labor and material costs from the current edition of the National Construction Estimator.