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Knowing Your Costs for Light-Gauge Steel Framing: Take-offs and Estimating

Western Metal In Architecture - March/April, 1998
By Scott Shaddix

The single most important factor that determines the profitability of a framing contractors is an ability to precisely project material and labor costs when bidding for a project. If you underestimate by as little as $500 dollars per home on a hundred home development, you're sitting on a $50,000 loss and your entire profit margin. If you over-estimate by $500 per home, you may price yourself out of the market.

(In the first article in this series Scott Shaddix, President of Nicholm Lane Contractors, Inc. discussed the market factors that must be developed to support the growth of light-gauge sfeel framing. Nicholas Lane Contractors is a Southern California based framing contractor that has built more than 800 production steel framed homes)

Light-gauge steel introduces an entirely new dimension and potential for error to conducting takeoffs and estimating labor costs.

The challenges that a framer faces include the obvious dilemmas of having to estimate labor costs for unfamiliar assemblies and utilizing materials that are entirely new to the tradesmen in the field. Less obvious hurdles to accurate estimating include problems an estimator runs into doing takeoffs from plans that have call-outs for materials such as Deep Leg Track or Web Stiffeners and C-Stud that they are only mildly familiar with; or more challenging yet is that an estimator frequently looks at plans that simply do not have details for many openings and assemblies because the engineer did not know how to detail a particular design using steel.

Material Estimates: Learning Your Materials And Techniques
Estimator Dennis Long has been working on steel plans for Nicholas Lane Contractors for more than a year. Dennis possesses more than 25 years of experience in the framing business. However, he found that estimating with steel was like having to learn a whole new language. "When I first began looking at steel plans I sat there and stared at different components to figure out what was going on," he says. "Doing take-offs was taking two to three times as long as it took me for wood because I wasn't familiar with the different materials and gauges, with how components were assembled."

Dennis invested many hour, at the job sites with Nicholas Lane's Field Operation Managers learning about assemblies and the language of steel: C-studs, Track, Steel Trimmers, Multiple-Beam Assemblies and Wide Flange Steel. He continues to visit the job sites to stay abreast of new techniques and specific engineering advancements.

The time that Nicholas Lane estimators have spent in the field has allowed them to develop confidence and expertise about steel. They are now able to make assumptions and assessments about elements of the
plans that are architecturally incomplete or are simply not "functional."

Paul Godwin, Executive Director of Construction for Nicholas Lane explains that, "We have to look out for errors or over-sights on the part of the engineers." For example, if a home has an exposed balcony, when building with steel the floor joist must still be designed with wood to allow the carpenters to rip a slope in the floor, providing for drainage. The plans show a steel Deep Leg Track joist extending to the end of the balcony, yet the estimator must know that wood is used in this situation.

Only through a significant investment in time and money has Nicholas Lane been able to add precision to its estimates, as the entire management team has gained experience with steel plans and materials. We are now able to not only estimate material costs as closely as with wood, we also utilize our Lane System software to order complete assembly packages cut to size and labeled with location cards.

Labor Estimates: Attention to Detail
When estimating labor costs for a wood home, most framing contractors,.simply add up the number of board feet in a home, count the number of openings, identify outstanding characteristics of the elevations, then apply a straight forward formula to come up with a labor figure. It's a technique that is tried and true. Engineers and architects have standards that do not vary much. Framers typically know going into a job what the average labor costs will be.

Screws Instead Of Nails
When estimating for steel, the obvious difference is that you are using screws instead of nails, cuts involve sawing steel, not wood, and stud sizes larger than 2" x 4" C-Studs must be assembled. Calculating labor costs requires accounting for the added time needed to assemble each steel component. For example, assembly of a window opening with steel typically requires a carpenter to: 1) assemble the Header by clamping two C-Studs together and applying twelve #10 screws; 2) attach four L90 fasteners to the Headers so that you can fasten the Header to the King Stud; 3) assemble the top and bottom Cripple with deep leg track and attach four screws on the top and bottom; 4) attach the four L90s to the King Stud with twenty-four #10 screws. This entire assembly takes approximately thirty-five minutes.

With wood, this assembly takes approximately ten minutes. You receive a 4" x 10" Header from your supplier, nail it directly to the King Stud and spread and buck-up the top and bottom Cripple.

Most components of the steel home are not as complicated as the window openings and don't require three to four times more labor than for wood. However, the fact that there is a significant amount of additional time required for many components of the home necessitates that you precisely break down every structural element when adding up labor costs.

You would imagine that once we have learned how to assemble the different components of the house and as we calculate the labor required for each task, all we have to do is add up the numbers to come to a total labor figure.

That's half the battle, but not all.Not only are we required to account for labor costs that differ from wood, we also have to account for the differences in engineering from one set ofplans to another. Currently there is a wide range of acceptable industry interpretations on standards for steel. Two windows on two separate sets of plans may be assembled differently.

Imagine trying to ballpark a labor figure for a steel job when two different sets of plans, designed by two different engineers on the same day, have completely different structural requirements from the gauge of steel to the number of screws attaching your sheer to the studs. One set of plans may call for twelve screws on both ends of the L90s, on another only four screws are required. Not only do you have to account for the added hardware costs, but you also have to account for the fact that it may take the carpenter twice as long to do the assembly.

Establishing Standards and Simplifying Techniques
At Nicholas Lane we have been fortunate to work with extremely progressive engineers at Borm and Associates and in coordination with the Light Gauge Steel Engineer's Association and the American Iron and Steel Institute.

All are working closely with the building industry to not only implement efficiencies that we develop together in the field, but establish standards that allow our estimating to become ever more precise.

After building approximately 800 homes with steel, Nicholas Lane Contractors has made tremendous headway in adding precision to its material and labor estimates. The growth of the light-gauge steel framing industry has led to a rapid acceleration in the advancement of cost-saving building techniques that dramatically affect the way we work in the field.

Therefore, the systems that we have developed to identify our costs are designed with flexibility in mind, because we know that our ability to incorporate technilogical advancements will be the key to our profitability.

"Things change faster than in the computer industry, with new techniques, new tools, new hardware and new standards emerging every week. It's an exciting industry, but you have to stay on your toes to keep up," notes Paul Godwin.