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The typical progression of a building contractor is this: You work
as a carpenter, start doing work on your own, hire a helper, hire an
experienced carpenter, start doing more complicated work, and, before
you know it, you’re doing a half million in volume and realize
you don’t actually know if you’re making any money or not. At that
point, you start looking for resources that can help you move from
busy to profitable.
For more than a generation, one of the first books people turned
to was David Gerstel’s classic, Running a Successful Construction Company.
It helped countless contractors navigate the perilous path, and
we were lucky that Gerstel was not only so well organized but such a
Now, Gerstel has come out with a book that, I think, will prove even
more essential. In Nail Your Numbers: A Path to Skilled Construction Estimating
and Bidding, Gerstel has put together a book that is as well-organized
and comprehensive as his estimating system. Getting through its almost
400 pages is a serious undertaking, but contractors at any phase
of their careers can profit from the book.
The book is divided in five parts comprising 19 chapters. Chapter 1
is titled, appropriately, “The Heart of Our Business” and is a full-throated
defense of why estimating is where a company is made or broken.
Gerstel has been a careful student of the subject and is generous in
acknowledging all the other contractors and writers whose work
has helped him along the way.
After this, he dives into the nitty gritty. Each chapter is a deep
dive into a subject, starting with such easy-to-overlook issues as
where are you actually working? Is it comfortable? Quiet? He also
takes the time to make sure the reader understands what a complete
set of plans includes, points out some common mistakes, danger
signs, or complications in plans, and even goes over some basic math
estimators need. In fact, he spends the first three chapters solely on
making sure the reader is ready to dive into an estimate.
Part 2 is really the heart of the book—creating your estimating
system. Over the course of five chapters and almost 100 pages, Gerstel
goes through, literally, the nuts and bolts of creating an efficient
but comprehensive estimating system—“if you have 100' of foundation
and are spacing bolts every two feet, you will need 50 AB’s
(100÷2=50), plus one more for the end of the run.”
In addition to valuable discussions on things like how to do a
comprehensive site visit, how to develop waste factors, and how
to create clear and well-organized take-off forms, there are innumerable
sidebars in which Gerstel illustrates his points with stories
drawn from his own or others’ careers. Topics range from how to say
no to a job and knowing the level of risk you are comfortable with
to various pitfalls he and others have encountered along the way.
As someone who is in mid-career, I found his chapter on General
Requirements particularly valuable. He argues convincingly that
this phase—comprising all the things that are part of, but don’t
become a permanent part of, a job—is where many contractors
lose untold thousands. Gerstel himself says he found that “General
Requirements consistently amounted to close to 10% of direct construction
What is included in this mysterious category? The book includes
a selected list with more than 100 items —everything from preconstruction
costs like permitting and plan check, to construction
costs like cleaning, getting materials, scaffolding, and snow removal,
through post construction service calls and project management
during the job. His compelling argument for why all these costs
belong together convinced me to adjust my own bid spreadsheet
and move where I entered certain costs. At a minimum, these adjustments
will allow me to track all these somewhat amorphous
costs as a percentage of job total with more accuracy in the future.
The rest of Part 2 consists of deep dives into various facets of
a successful estimate—specific phases like interior and exterior
finishes, how to get good estimates from subcontractors, how to
write scopes that accurately reflect the work proposed (and, just as
importantly, what is not included), and more. The sections can be
dauntingly detailed—this is a book that will require focus and return
trips to benefit from it. But anyone wanting to benefit from the
accumulated knowledge of a successful and systematic contractor
will be well advised to put in the time.
While many people have put together good estimating systems,
where Gerstel stands out is in the subject of Part 3—“Capture Your
Costs.” His focus is, rightly, on the area most of us struggle the hardest
with—our internal labor productivity rates. He takes us through
his steps for setting up, tracking, and using a well-organized, clear
set of assemblies based on carefully collected historical data. He also
gives examples of adjusting data to account for different conditions
(access, first vs. upper floors, fussy details, difficult client, and so
forth). His recommendations are a challenge to implement, but
will yield a treasure trove of essential info for the remainder of any
building contractor’s career.
Several times in the book, Gerstel makes the important point
that estimating is an administrative function, while pricing the job
is a management function. It is the job of the estimator to figure,
as accurately as possible, what it will cost to produce the job. What
to actually charge the client, however, is a different question and
should be considered separately. This is largely the subject of Part 4,
“Take Command.” This section of the book helps you consider questions
like how to recoup overhead and make a profit, then moves on
to other nettlesome issues like change orders, contract writing, and
charging for estimates.
He also returns to a related subject he discussed in Running a
Successful Construction Company—Capacity Based Markup. He argues
that, since total volume may fluctuate significantly from year to
year based on how much material we use or how many subs we
hire, we should base our markup (and thus our coverage of overhead
and profit) on the constants—either the number of project leads we
have or the total number of billable hours we expect our crew to
produce annually. I have long found this argument compelling, and
find that the approach helps provide a more accurate sense of risk
and reward on both labor-light and -heavy jobs. His treatment of the
subject is, not surprisingly, thorough and well-reasoned.
The final section is a brief discussion of the pros and cons of various
software solutions. Not surprisingly for someone who clearly
excels (foreshadowing alert!) at creating his own systems, Gerstel
comes down firmly on the side of creating custom spreadsheets that
meet your needs, rather than signing up for integrated packages.
Fortunately for us business-challenged contractors, there are
an increasing number of valuable books to help with what is, ultimately,
a challenging way to make a living. Nail Your Numbers is,
I’m confident, destined to be a central work for contractors and is
one of a small number of those books that I would say are essential.
Review written by Dan Kolbert, a General Contractor In Maine
Running a Successful Construction Company is often referred to as an industry "bible." Nearly four dozen reviews can be found on Amazon along with a “look inside” that will allow you to sample the book before buying it.
All of the reviews are genuine. You can take them at face value because David Gerstel does not solicit reviews with gimmicks such as give aways or raffles or by asking for endorsements from friends - all practices which are, unfortunately, common in the book industry and the reason many mediocre books are supported by a hundred or more four- and five-star reviews.
Crafting the Considerate House is a narrative about building a house that is affordable and environmentally considerate while also being livable and even lovable.
Considerate House offers practical ideas for every phase of design and construction. Examples:
Since its publication, Considerate House has received an enthusiastic response from both homeowners and builders. Here’s a sampling:
I really loved The Considerate House. The truth about "green building" in David Gerstel's book is so real and refreshing that everyone who wants to be a green builder or designer should read it.
Frank Squaglia, Builder
I bought this book to educate myself as I embarked on a feasibility study for a remodel of my home. It has been an invaluable guide. From page one, I was led by an experienced builder with an engaging voice. Yes, the book is a very good read, making it fun to hear about "grade beams" and "void forms," and to learn why "Finish work begins at the foundation." Today I appreciate the myriad considerations involved in building a home and have gained a better understanding of the structure in which I live. If you already own a home or are having one built, if you're embarking on remodeling or renovation, pick up and study this clear, concise, and information packed book. You will benefit from the years of hands-on experience of a man with an admirable building philosophy.
Jude, Homeowner reviewing Crafting the Considerate House on Amazon
I would much rather build projects that are necessary rather than extravagant, and I find David Gerstel's insight and ethics inspirational.
Michael McVey, Builder
A preview of what it's like on the front lines of building your dream green home, an in-the-flesh tour from foundation to finish with a kind guide at your side through the process of designing, building and working out the inevitable kinks that come up while building the "near-perfect house" at a perfect price.
For less than $20 Crafting the Considerate House will provide you with ideas that can save you tens of thousands of dollars even while enhancing quality in the construction of a home. To take a "look inside" at Amazon, click here.
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