Welcome to Walls & Ceilings’ new column, The Bridge. All about estimating, it will attempt to connect the complex worlds of design and construction. For the premiere installment, I’d like to discuss a basic component of the estimator’s job.

An important and often neglected part of the take-off or quantity survey (I prefer the latter) process begins with what is commonly known in the profession as referencing. There are many aspects to this process and this month we will discuss one of the easiest and most effective methods: indexing of the drawings. Another important component of the estimating process is an integral part of indexing— familiarization or, simply put, the “get to know you” stage of the survey.

When I began my career as an estimator in the mid-’80s, I was taught to place a paper clip on the bottom edge of those drawings considered important and/or frequently referred to, including schedules and height diagrams. I was being instructed by a very experienced estimator so I took his advice and proceeded to apply paper clips to important drawings—just as he had done for the past 40 years.

I soon found this method wanting. I could not distinguish those drawings with a paper clip from one another and I found myself guessing at which clip was for the door schedule and which one was for the finish schedule. Using different color paper clips helped but it still came up short—it required expending energy on the thought process of consciously trying to remember which clip was for what drawing.

Since I wanted to conserve all my mental energies for dealing with the complexities of the building, I began placing index cards with the title and number of the drawing held in place by the paper clip. This eliminated wasted energy on trying to remember which drawing was which, but the index cards tended to become dislodged. I solved this problem by replacing the paper clip and index card with 3-inch-by-3-inch “Post-It” notes (this size works best) placed on the right-hand margin of the drawings. (These self-stick notes are inexpensive and easy to use.) I soon came to realize that it was even more advantageous to index all of the drawings in a set—not just those of greater importance. Ironically, I came into conflict with some of my peers over this. Many of them considered it a waste of time, but I stuck with it.

With this realization, I began to index each of my drawings on the right-hand margin of the set and I religiously do so to this day. I begin with the very last drawing in the set and, starting in the upper right-hand corner, progressively “tag” the preceding drawing, making sure that the proceeding tag is not obstructed. I include the abbreviated title of the drawing above and the drawing number directly below on each tag. When I reach the bottom right-hand corner of the set, I start again in the upper right-hand corner of the preceding drawing and continue this process until I reach the title sheet or first drawing in the set. From top to bottom on the right-hand margin I am able to fit about 25 tags.

Thus, a set with 100 drawings should have about four “sections” of tags in place. I leave one tag less at the bottom right-hand corner of each progressive section to allow myself to view the proceeding section and physically “flip” the entire section to get to a proceeding or preceding section. To distinguish one category of drawings from another (e.g., architectural from structural) I use different color tags for the different drawing set categories and stick to this color scheme for every job (architectural: yellow; structural: blue).

I use color pens to distinguish drawings from one another in a category set. For example, in a typical architectural set I will use a purple pen for all reflected ceiling plans, blue for all floor plans, green for elevations and sections, and red for all “very important drawings” like wall, door, window and finish schedules. For the duration of a quantity survey, while the drawings are unfolded on the table, the tags should stay securely in place, though some may become battered and need replacement. I remove the tags after the survey is complete. The tags will loosen and disintegrate if one tries to fold the drawings with the tags in place.

If you try this simple, effective referencing technique, you’ll find the net advantage is twofold. First, you now have a complete index by title and drawing number on the right-hand margin of the set. You will no longer need to waste mental energy on remembering which drawing number was the ceiling details or building section or have to refer to the list of drawings or drawing index at the front of the set. Simply scan the index to locate the drawing and flip to that drawing directly. Estimating is hard work and anything you can do to make life easier for yourself is well worth doing. I can recall the frustration and wasted energy—both physical and mental—before I began indexing all my drawings.

Second, inherent to the indexing of the drawings, is the beginning of the familiarization process. As you tag the drawings, the building type and the structural system employed, the size and height of the building, whether it is new construction or renovation to an existing structure, etc., this formula will become easier. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of this process.

A strong understanding of the characteristics of a building is essential in producing a comprehensive and accurate quantity survey. If, as they say, every battle is won before it is fought, it is because the winner had an advantage going into the fight. Gain your advantage in the battle of the quantity survey by adapting good referencing techniques that are consistent and of assistance to you.

Next month, we will continue our discussion of referencing techniques. The subject will be color-coding for reference purposes. In the meantime, try the indexing technique I described above. The half-hour or so it takes you to index your drawings will save you hours of wasted time and effort—trust me!