Material estimating can be one of the most tedious yet critical tasks for builders and remodelers. It’s a familiar task: printing plans, using a ruler and calculator to measure based on the scale, and with notebook at my side, manually calculating the quantities needed for each project.
Then a few hours spent Googling and making phone calls to assemble pricing. Estimating always meant sitting down for several hours per project to figure these things out. If clients changed their minds, then you were literally back at the drawing board.
After a few years of this, I decided to try to improve the process using Excel spreadsheets with formulas to help do some of the math. I created a spreadsheet containing prices of frequently used materials. I even created a specialized one just for bathroom remodels. This was an improvement but still meant a lot of manual data entry, and the chance for making mistakes was high.
As my workload increased and my crew grew larger, I knew I needed to spend less time doing material take-offs. By chance I stumbled onto Stack. While doing a full-access free trial, I quickly realized that the cloud-based software was a robust solution to increase the ease, speed, and accuracy of material take-offs.
To get started, you log in to the website, create a new project, and upload a set of plans. Stack has some intelligent code that will read the title block and auto-organize the sheets for you. The program works directly off plans—so you measure directly on top of the drawings. Like most software, when you open it up for the first time, it can feel a bit overwhelming. But Stack comes loaded with a robust item-and-assembly catalog to get you estimating as quickly as possible.
Once the plans are imported, each project is built around “Takeoffs”—which are individual measured items that you apply “Items” and “Assemblies” to. For instance, if you want to measure baseboard and shoe molding in a room, you’d create a “New Takeoff,” select “Linear,” name it “Baseboard Trim,” set the scale, and click on the areas you want to measure. Once you’ve drawn all the areas you want to measure, you apply an assembly from your assembly database. Stack will then auto-calculate all the items included in the assembly and present them in a takeoff report that auto-updates as you build and add more measured takeoffs.
The power of Stack comes from its items and assemblies libraries. Let’s say you do a lot of additions and often work with the same group of materials—2x6 exterior walls with 7/16-inch ZipSystem sheathing, R-23 Rockwool insulation, 1/2-inch drywall, 1x6 baseboard trim, and shoe molding. You can build a linear-measurement takeoff that has all those assemblies attached to it and measure them all in just a few clicks.
If you are a finish carpenter, you know how time consuming it can be to measure multipiece trim assemblies—in particular, door and window casing. I do all my painting in-house, and for that, I need to also estimate how much caulk and putty I need per job. So I built an assembly for that. More-complex formulas can require converting area measurements to linear ones but with the help of the Stack support team, we figured this all out. In a few clicks, I can now create a takeoff, measure it, choose my items (materials), and generate a report showing how much trim I need for all the doors and windows on a job.
Each takeoff report has pricing attached to it. The beautiful thing is that when you add an item to your item catalog, you can enter a price. You can duplicate and modify the Stack catalog, to get up and running faster. But when you begin using Stack, the majority of your time is going to be spent adding items and assemblies with prices to suit your needs. At the time of this writing, Stack added a feature that allows you to integrate current regional and national material prices directly into Stack, powered by cost data from BNi Building News CostBooks.
Stack can measure anything that can be translated into linear, area, cubic, or count measurements. That includes labor. Let’s say you hang drywall and work by the square foot. Build an assembly for it and add it to the drywall measurement takeoff! Maybe you’re an electrician and want to measure your wire length and charge by the receptacle? Build a takeoff that uses “linear with drop” measurement and calculate both at the same time.
In an effort to streamline my admin and back-of-house tasks, I have tried a lot of software, and I’ve found that most of it requires you to do double data entry. When you build a takeoff with Stack, however, you can save it to your “Takeoff Library.” This is a tab that is shown globally on every project, and you can quickly insert a prebuilt takeoff into a new project rather than having to duplicate it or redo it each time.
I can say that I have easily cut my estimating time in half since I got Stack configured. As a remodeling company, we do a lot of bathrooms. I can now estimate a master-bath gut remodel in about 10 minutes, instead of two or three hours.
Once you’ve measured everything, you can quickly turn the takeoffs into a “Proposal.” The current construction marketplace is a volatile place with extreme price changes. Stack allows you to modify item prices and add markup, sales tax, and unmeasured costs before completing your proposal. If you created a proposal six months ago and want to review older costs, no problem: Your previous version is saved for you. The export feature allows you to generate proposals with the option to toggle on or off line items or category details for as much transparency as you are comfortable with.
Training. I like to think I’m someone who is technologically savvy, and I was not scared to jump right into using software. That said, if I had to do it again, I would have started with more training sessions. The staff at Stack Construction Technologies have helpful insights on how to organize and build an assembly library, set up your account, and connect additional software like QuickBooks, Procore, and Buildertrend. Taking the time to set it up correctly in the beginning will mean spending less time modifying things after the fact. (Ask me how I know.) The support staff is always available during business hours—just click the message icon on the bottom right of the screen to begin a chat. There have been many times I needed immediate help building an assembly or dealing with a feature I didn’t understand and was able to solve the problems right away.
No software is perfect. I’d bet that most of the better features are born of user experience. Stack does a nice job of taking feedback and feature requests but also provides a public development road map that shows improvements it is considering, planning, and working on, and that it has released. In the last year, it acquired SmartUse, which allows blueprint sharing and markup among collaborators. It recently added QuickBooks integration to send proposals and invoices directly from Stack.
Builders can be allergic to spending money on anything other than tools. I encourage you to start as I did with the free trial. You can create a free account and get full access to features for seven days with the ability to apply 10 takeoffs to each project. If you decide to continue, the current rate is $1,999 per year for the first user, and about $1,500 per additional user. For a small company, a single user is likely all you’d need.