How to create an accurate design/build estimate

March 21, 2022 -  By
Brittany Madden, account manager with ND Landscape Services says Landone Takeoff updates its satellite images every three months which keeps developing project measurements accurate. (Photo: ND Landscape Services)

Accurate estimating is a critical part of a design/build project, says Kellan Vincent, CEO and owner of Vincent Landscapes in Austin, Texas. He says it’s also the difference between a good and bad relationship with a client for his high-end residential design/build and irrigation business.

“The last thing you want to do is go, ‘By the way, there’s going to be a 10 percent change order because we didn’t do this right,’” he says. “At the very least, you’re damaging the relationship. At the very most, you’re going to end up in (a legal dispute).”

Vincent; Scott Burk, president of Scott’s Landscaping in State College, Pa.; and Brittany Adams Madden, account manager of ND Landscape Services in Georgetown, Mass., share steps to creating an accurate estimate.

Know your quantities/takeoff

Experts say working with takeoff software is a critical component of estimating. ND Landscape Services started using LandOne Takeoff two years ago for its commercial and residential design/build, maintenance and snow and ice management business. Madden says she likes how the software integrates with satellite maps, which update every two to three months. She says having updated satellite images comes in handy if a site changes between bid and construction.

“If it’s a project that’s developing or if it’s something that’s changed in the landscape, you can go back into your old estimate, copy that over, and then put it into the new overhead mapping,” she says.

Vincent Landscapes uses Vectorworks and its data and calculations to increase its accuracy with estimating. Vincent says in the past, the company would pad estimates with overages. Now, he says, the team is more confident in its data.

“We’ve gotten a lot closer estimating sod volume or the total square feet,” he says. “We used to do that by hand, measuring rectangles over and over and you’d be within 10 percent, which could be a couple of pallets. You end up with two pallets or a pallet and a half sitting there that you have to dispose of now. Now, we’re within about a half a pallet.”

Know your production rates

Burk says another component to a successful estimate is understanding production rates, essentially how long it takes a crew to perform a certain job. These figures must be realistic, he says.

“In the morning, if you plant 2.5-inch trees, you might plant them in two hours,” he says. “It gets hot, the crew slows down and the afternoon it might take you three hours. You have to have a sustainable production rate that you can do all day long.”

Vincent says his company records how long it takes a crew to do each specific job, the quantity involved (depth, length, etc.) and uses averages to attach labor hours to each project for each aspect of the job.

“I know in rocky soil, how much labor it takes to plant a certain type of tree, versus normal soft soil,” he says.

Have a good bidding system

Another critical component to estimating is accurate material pricing. Vincent says his company pulls direct SKUs from Vectorworks into the estimate for an itemized list of products that goes into his company’s budget for a project.

“You have to have the whole thing buttoned up from design to estimation and execution has to be almost exact or else your estimate doesn’t really count,” he says.

Burk says accurate bidding comes down to a company’s confidence in its measurements and production rates. A company should verify its figures.

“You should (be able to) have three different estimators sit down with the same plan and come up with almost the identical same number,” he says. “If you can do that, you have a good estimating system.”

This article is tagged with , and posted in Design/Build+Installation, Featured, February 2022
Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the editor of Landscape Management magazine. Known for her immersive approach to travel from coast to coast in her previous stint as senior editor of American Fruit Grower Magazine, she uses social media (Twitter/Instagram @EditorHerrick) to share her experiences on the road with her audience. Herrick has a degree in journalism from Ohio Northern University. She can be reached at

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