Types of Construction Cost Estimates
Construction cost constitutes only a fraction, though a substantial fraction, of the total project cost. However, it is the part of the cost under the control of the construction project manager. The required levels of accuracy of construction cost estimates vary at different stages of project development, ranging from ball park figures in the early stage to fairly reliable figures for budget control prior to construction. Since design decisions made at the beginning stage of a project life cycle are more tentative than those made at a later stage, the cost estimates made at the earlier stage are expected to be less accurate. Generally, the accuracy of a cost estimate will reflect the information available at the time of estimation.
construction cost estimate
Construction cost estimates may be viewed from different perspectives because of different institutional requirements. In spite of the many types of cost estimates used at different stages of a project, cost estimates can best be classified into three major categories according to their functions. A construction cost estimate serves one of the three basic functions: design, bid and control. For establishing the financing of a project, either a design estimate or a bid estimate is used.

  1. Design Estimates. For the owner or its designated design professionals, the types of cost estimates encountered run parallel with the planning and design as follows:
    • Screening estimates (or order of magnitude estimates)
    • Preliminary estimates (or conceptual estimates)
    • Detailed estimates (or definitive estimates)
    • Engineer’s estimates based on plans and specifications

For each of these different estimates, the amount of design information available typically increases.

  1. Bid Estimates. For the contractor, a bid estimate submitted to the owner either for competitive bidding or negotiation consists of direct construction cost including field supervision, plus a mark-up to cover general overhead and profits. The direct cost of construction for bid estimates is usually derived from a combination of the following approaches.
    • Subcontractor quotations
    • Quantity takeoffs
    • Construction procedures.
  2. 3. Control Estimates. For monitoring the project during construction, a control estimate is derived from available information to establish:
    • Budget estimate for financing
    • Budgeted cost after contracting but prior to construction
    • Estimated cost to completion during the progress of construction.

Design Estimates
In the planning and design stages of a project, various design estimates reflect the progress of the design. At the very early stage, the screening estimate or order of magnitude estimate is usually made before the facility is designed, and must therefore rely on the cost data of similar facilities built in the past. A preliminary estimate or conceptual estimate is based on the conceptual design of the facility at the state when the basic technologies for the design are known. The detailed estimate or definitive estimate is made when the scope of work is clearly defined and the detailed design is in progress so that the essential features of the facility are identifiable. The engineer’s estimate is based on the completed plans and specifications when they are ready for the owner to solicit bids from construction contractors. In preparing these estimates, the design professional will include expected amounts for contractors’ overhead and profits.
The costs associated with a facility may be decomposed into a hierarchy of levels that are appropriate for the purpose of cost estimation. The level of detail in decomposing the facility into tasks depends on the type of cost estimate to be prepared. For conceptual estimates, for example, the level of detail in defining tasks is quite coarse; for detailed estimates, the level of detail can be quite fine.
As an example, consider the cost estimates for a proposed bridge across a river. A screening estimate is made for each of the potential alternatives, such as a tied arch bridge or a cantilever truss bridge. As the bridge type is selected, e.g. the technology is chosen to be a tied arch bridge instead of some new bridge form, a preliminary estimate is made on the basis of the layout of the selected bridge form on the basis of the preliminary or conceptual design. When the detailed design has progressed to a point when the essential details are known, a detailed estimate is made on the basis of the well defined scope of the project. When the detailed plans and specifications are completed, an engineer’s estimate can be made on the basis of items and quantities of work.
Bid Estimates
The contractor’s bid estimates often reflect the desire of the contractor to secure the job as well as the estimating tools at its disposal. Some contractors have well established cost estimating procedures while others do not. Since only the lowest bidder will be the winner of the contract in most bidding contests, any effort devoted to cost estimating is a loss to the contractor who is not a successful bidder. Consequently, the contractor may put in the least amount of possible effort for making a cost estimate if it believes that its chance of success is not high.
If a general contractor intends to use subcontractors in the construction of a facility, it may solicit price quotations for various tasks to be subcontracted to specialty subcontractors. Thus, the general subcontractor will shift the burden of cost estimating to subcontractors. If all or part of the construction is to be undertaken by the general contractor, a bid estimate may be prepared on the basis of the quantity takeoffs from the plans provided by the owner or on the basis of the construction procedures devised by the contractor for implementing the project. For example, the cost of a footing of a certain type and size may be found in commercial publications on cost data which can be used to facilitate cost estimates from quantity takeoffs. However, the contractor may want to assess the actual cost of construction by considering the actual construction procedures to be used and the associated costs if the project is deemed to be different from typical designs. Hence, items such as labour, material and equipment needed to perform various tasks may be used as parameters for the cost estimates.
Control Estimates
Both the owner and the contractor must adopt some base line for cost control during the construction. For the owner, a budget estimate must be adopted early enough for planning long term financing of the facility. Consequently, the detailed estimate is often used as the budget estimate since it is sufficient definitive to reflect the project scope and is available long before the engineer’s estimate. As the work progresses, the budgeted cost must be revised periodically to reflect the estimated cost to completion. A revised estimated cost is necessary either because of change orders initiated by the owner or due to unexpected cost overruns or savings.
For the contractor, the bid estimate is usually regarded as the budget estimate, which will be used for control purposes as well as for planning construction financing. The budgeted cost should also be updated periodically to reflect the estimated cost to completion as well as to insure adequate cash flows for the completion of the project.