Construction Monkey

Construction Monkey Blog

Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War in the 6th Century BC.  Since that time military experts have considered it a complete view on how to operate a military machine and business scholars have claimed it applies to business dealings as well.  I can tell you that there are several parts that directly apply to Estimating in Construction.

Sun Tzu says: "In respect of...method, we have:
  1. Measurement
  2. Estimation of Quantity
  3. Calculation
  4. Balancing of Chances
  5. Victory"
He was talking about sizing up a battle, but let's face it every estimating (especially in today's environment) is a battle if not an all out war.  So let's see how these priniciples apply to our ability to get and win work.


Measurement is not quantity survey.  From the Chinese word it actually translates to something more like surveying.  In battle it is understanding the position you have and what position your competition has.  In work procurement it is not different.  Do you have a shot at the project?  Where is your competition?  What strenghts do you have that you can bring to bear?  What weaknesses do they have that you can exploit?  Most contractors that I know occasionally skip this step.  They are asked to bid a project and the question is do I have the time?  This is the wrong question, it should really be about measurement.  Sun Tzu also said "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat, but if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."  Know the battle space.  Know the competition.  Know yourself.  If you don't start here, victory surely lies in the hands of chance and not skill.

Estimation of Quantity

This is the easy correlation.  Takeoff the job.  Get a good sense of the quantities needed to perform the project.


Probably the most overlooked yet performed function in winning a project.  Surely you need to calculate the total material dollars and hours needed to perform the project.  Without such calculations the total bid amount could not be ascertained.  During these calculations there are sometimes things that are overlooked in the costing structure.  This is typically because the Measurement stage was not followed.  If properly done, the Measurement stage should tell you a lot about the battlefield.  The battlefield is the job condition.  How many stories, what are the safety requirements, what are the work hours, is it LEED Certified, etc.?  All of the data about the battlefield gained in the measurement stage should be related over to the calculation phase, otherwise you will not have all of the cost covered or possibly some costs covered too much.

Balancing of Chances

Your almost done.  Now it is time to go out with the proposal.  Any job affords itself with many different ways to propose on a project.  Do you offer Value Engineering?  Do you need to put your past experience in front of them to separate yourself from the competition?  The means by which you go out will be a function of balancing the chances you will win.  At this stage, it is critical to step back and look at the entire picture.  Take a satellite view of everything from your competition's past experience to your team's resume.  Look at the job in depth.  Look at everything from the eyes of the client.  A good vision of all of the items relative to the job will allow you to pick the right strategy.


The easy part.  With a perfect execution of the above steps, it is a matter of signing a contract and generating revenue.

I would suggest you look at putting together a process if you don't have one that embodies these steps.  Over 2,500 years have past since Sun Tzu wrote his masterpiece, but it is as real today as it was in ancient China.

About the Author

Craig Pierce

Craig Pierce has been working in the construction industry for the past 25 years helping subcontractors master their trade. Currently he is President of Atalanta Enterprises which provides consulting services to contractors And software solutions through