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The underutilized and awesomely powerful spreadsheet
From what I gather in my dealings with builders and designers, our industry underutilizes spreadsheets.
Call me a geek but this is a topic I get all revved up about. Or call me lazy because spreadsheets save so much time and effort, using them feels like I’m cheating or loafing. Really I’m not. Spreadsheets make me efficient, and in my way of thinking, efficiency equals profit.
Every builder is painfully aware of the instances when, after you’ve written out your bid and worn your fingertips to a nub on calculator keys, you discover a typo on a unit price. You find a second error in your estimate column. Maybe you figured out a way to do a task using fewer hours or suddenly realize you need 41 yards of concrete instead of 50. So you go back to your paper—now with an eraser—change the numbers, and recalculate the entire column. A couple days later and 30 minutes before the bid is due, you get a frantic call from your concrete supplier who apologizes extravagantly because their cost on cement just went up $3 a ton, which boosts their delivered price to you by $5 a yard. You race back to the eraser and calculator sweating cannonballs and hoping that you’ll be able to revise everything, now within 21 minutes, and that your leather-tip fingers don’t inadvertently press a wrong button.
I keep all my billable time on a spreadsheet. I created this product after sharing an office with an attorney who, in 2004, was still using paper and pencil to record his time. I was using a proprietary program that caused me more grief than it helped. I knew I could do better. My spreadsheet handles time calculations as well as normal record keeping. And the nice, neat printed report gets attached to an invoice.
I do about 100 engineering jobs a year. With each project, I track customer billing info, job address, job owner, and cost. I made a spreadsheet that not only stores this data; it also prints a folder label and a one-page summary that goes on the back flap of the job’s file folder. Microsoft Excel has powerful database features built-in that allow sorting and filtering with a click or two.
A pro forma calculates a venture’s expected profit—in other words, income less costs. The pro forma I developed handles land development and rentals, but any venture could be applicable. Excel comes with powerful graphing functions that can show income and expenses so you see at a glance what the numbers indicate.
I use a spreadsheet for my standard engineering contract. The upper part is a cost estimator similar to the first example at left. The bottom part contains contractual verbiage and signature lines in a text box. What makes this so efficient is that I only write boilerplate once and store it in a separate text box outside the printed area. Modifying a specific contract is as simple as copying and pasting clauses from one text box to the other. The final version prints on one 8.5-inch by 11-inch page.
Tim Garrison is an award-winning author, and founder of ConstructionCalc Excel-Based Software. He welcomes correspondence via BuildersEngineer.com.
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