How to Use Construction Cost Codes

  • 5 min read
  • 5 min read
In this article, we cover how to use construction cost codes to become more competitive when submitting bids, create accurate project budgets, and select projects based on profitability.
In this article, we cover how to use construction cost codes to become more competitive when submitting bids, create accurate project budgets, and select projects based on profitability.

Tracking Job Costs Is So Much Easier With Workyard

    In this article, we cover how to use construction cost codes to become more competitive when submitting bids, create accurate project budgets, and select projects based on profitability.

    Construction cost codes keep costs grounded amid a project full of moving parts. We all know how easy it is to fall down a budget hole in the construction industry. The key to becoming a more profitable company is having a good cost coding system in place that enables you to develop a rigorous understanding of cost drivers and in turn fine-tune your bidding and execution.

    Standard construction cost codes are values that allow you to categorize job expenses for a clearer viewpoint on cost versus profit. When contractors share documents, these standardized values make it easy for everyone involved to interpret the data. This allows contractors to:

    • Stay on budget
    • Track real-time costs
    • Monitor project spending
    • Track material costs
    • Analyze spending
    • Download cost-tracking data

    Cost codes align strategy with budget realities. They also simplify the conversation among contractors, estimators, accountants, and other stakeholders.

    How to Use Construction Cost Codes

    Construction cost codes are used to track and manage the costs associated with a construction project. Codes can be broken down by material, equipment, subcontractors, labor, and other associated costs. Codes should be integrated into every aspect of a project’s budgeting plan, from procurement to labor costs. Pristine job costing starts with understanding how cost codes are supposed to be used.

    What Are Construction Cost Codes?

    Construction cost codes belong to a fixed set of codes used for cataloging, tracking, reporting, and managing all costs associated with a project. Project managers use these codes for full budgeting visibility throughout each project. Some features that can be tracked, managed, and reported on using codes include:

    • Material costs
    • Material quantities
    • Labor costs
    • Profits

    The real genius of codes is that they allow contractors to separate costs into specific categories belonging to various divisions. This segmentation allows contractors to see true job costs compared to budgeted costs. As a result, contractors are able to relay budget updates to project owners. They can also reconfigure a project’s budget by identifying where cash flow is being drained.

    Cost codes also offer a cumulative “business objective” benefit by providing a contractor with historical cost data that can be used for forecasting. When the right organizational system is implemented, a contractor can divide costs into organized buckets that are used to easily create future estimates.

    What Is the CSI Format for Cost Codes?

    Anyone who has spent time on construction projects has at least a passing familiarity with CSI cost codes. Developed by the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), the CSI MasterFormat is a widely used standard used by contractors for organization details for commercial and industrial building projects in North America. You can see just how specific and granular the CSI MasterFormat construction cost code list gets in this helpful video from a mechanical design professor.

    As of 2022, the current MasterFormat Divisions in the construction cost codes list are:

    • Procurement and Contracting Requirements
    • General Requirements
    • Existing Conditions
    • Concrete
    • Masonry
    • Metals
    • Wood, Plastics, and Composites
    • Thermal and Moisture Protection
    • Openings
    • Finishes
    • Equipment
    • Furnishings
    • Special Construction
    • Conveying Equipment
    • Fire Suppression
    • Plumbing
    • Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (HVAC)
    • Integrated Automation
    • Electrical
    • Communications
    • Electronic Safety and Security
    • Earthwork
    • Exterior Improvements
    • Utilities
    • Transportation
    • Waterway and Marine Construction
    • Process Interconnections
    • Material Processing and Handling Equipment
    • Process Heating, Cooling, and Drying Equipment
    • Process Gas and Liquid Handling, Purification and Storage Equipment
    • Pollution and Waste Control Equipment
    • Industry-Specific Manufacturing Equipment
    • Water and Wastewater Equipment
    • Electrical Power Generation

    Each division is broken down into a number of subcategories that ultimately represent 600 pages of highly specified tasks.

    There’s a simple way for contractors to create a streamlined system for project cost coding that allows them to get the insights they need based on the data that’s actually relevant to their work. Ask yourself which specific project costs are the most important to you. These are the costs that need to be tracked in detail. From there, you can customize your code format to ensure that you’re able to collect, analyze, and share the data that determines your success.

    CSI MasterFormat provides a great blueprint for how to organize cost codes. However, many small to medium contractors find the system to be cumbersome and clunky. It’s perfectly fine, and very common, for small to medium contractors to come up with simplified versions of cost breakdowns when they bid. Often a simple spreadsheet is more than enough to estimate bids and track costs during a project. On a project valued in the millions, however, cost codes are indispensable.

    Construction Cost Code Examples: Here’s What to Expect

    The CSI MasterFormat code list consists of categories covering all aspects of a typical construction project. Contractors in various specialties can be expected to utilize the MasterFormat differently based on in-house versus subcontracted work. Next, take a look at how different contractors might use CSI’s predefined codes.

    Example Cost Codes for a General Contractor

    Cost codes help general contractors break down costs using hierarchies based on real-time project flow. For a contractor juggling hundreds of tasks at a single site, it’s helpful to use cost codes to break the work down into smaller deliverables for each step.

    One of the best strategies is to create costing based on the chronological order of the jobs that need to be completed. This technique allows a contractor to see how costs will stack up as the project progresses week by week.

    Using the chronological strategy, contractors can determine if they’ve managed to generate profit in earlier phases of the work. This is important for making decisions when moving into the middle and end phases of a project. In addition, contractors can list the costs paid by the project owner alongside budget items to track profitability instead of just tracking money spent.

    Efficiency is important when using cost codes as a general contractor. There are two ways to approach cost code management. When a general contractor is performing the work, more detail is needed to cover every bit of work that falls under a subcategory. However, one code is often all that’s needed when a task is contracted out.

    For example, a contractor may need to use separate codes for rough electrical, electrical fixtures, trims, and alarms when performing a security installation on their own. However, a single code for electrical work may be all that’s needed when hiring out.

    Example Cost Codes for an HVAC Contractor

    While HVAC contractors may use fewer categories, they need to provide more specificity within each category. For general contractors hiring out, “HVAC” is an actual cost code category available in the CSI MasterFormat. However, the HVAC contractor handling the job for the general contractor may need to use between 10 and 20 codes within the HVAC subcategories to break down every aspect needed for completion.

    HVAC cost codes cover all aspects of maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, replacement, restoration, and preservation of HVAC systems. Here’s a look at the core categories under HVAC:

    • Operation and Maintenance of HVAC Systems
    • Common Work Results for HVAC
    • Schedules for HVAC
    • HVAC Insulation
    • Commissioning of HVAC
    • Instrumentation and Control for HVAC
    • Facility Fuel Systems
    • HVAC Piping and Pumps
    • HVAC Air Cleaning Devices
    • Central Heating Equipment
    • Central Cooling Equipment
    • Central HVAC Equipment
    • Decentralized HVAC Equipment

    With each of these categories covering one to two pages worth of specified codes, it’s easy to understand why having a uniform system for implementing codes in real time is essential for ensuring that every task is added for accurate estimates.

    Benefits of Using Construction Cost Codes

    Construction codes keep projects from diving off of cost cliffs. In addition to keeping projects on track, cost codes give contractors historic data for making cost projections for future projects. Take a look at the benefits for business health.

    Realistic Cost Figures

    Accurate budgeting is the biggest benefit of using cost codes. Cost codes allow you to plug in real numbers without intensive research. This is important for keeping up with price fluctuations for labor and materials.

    When you’re using a good system for cost codes, your historical spending will be used to formulate dynamic updates that reflect true industry pricing. The structure provided by cost codes creates access to costs in real time for realistic, accurate estimates every time.

    Staying Ahead of Costs Before They Spiral

    Real time cost tracking means you can steer projects before it’s too late. In addition to being practical, cost codes are also insightful.

    Contractors struggle with juggling costs across multiple jobs at a time. The standardization of cost codes makes it easier for contractors to collaborate with other stakeholders to determine profitable versus unprofitable aspects of projects. This can be done prior to the procurement stage instead of waiting until capital has been invested in “black holes.”

    Cost codes can also help contractors identify spending categories that are running off the rails after a project has started. Identifying bleed points allows contractors to pivot in real time.

    For instance, a contractor may find that they lack the resources to optimize a task without a substantial capital investment. The contractor may decide that allowing subcontractors to finish this portion of work is more profitable.

    Of course, cost codes also help control excessive costs in the most basic sense. That’s because they cut down on confusion and time loss caused by miscommunication. The standardization of cost codes helps to reduce human error by removing the burden of selecting the right phraseology when providing quotes. The “frustration reduction” element alone guard’s a contractor’s precious time for more important tasks.

    Data Insights Help Contractors Improve Future Bids

    Costs for materials and labor are dynamic. Cost codes are dynamic. That’s why standardized cost codes are important for becoming a “winning bid generator” as a contractor.

    When contractors underpromise, they miss out on opportunities to land lucrative bids. When contractors overpromise, they eat extra costs that ultimately rob them of profitability. Contractors with the right data are able to provide accurate bids that enable them to budget properly toward profit targets. This helps to create predictable cash flow that enables a contractor to run a successful, consistent business.

    Fueling Continuous Improvement to Increase Profitability Over the Long Term

    Insights provided by cost codes create a shortcut for identifying which activities are profitable for a contractor. Contractors can make business decisions about where to invest capital towards equipment, which jobs to take on, and more once they have data steering them toward high-return projects.

    Many contractors find that using cost codes actually allows them to finally create a refined business model based on the projects that actually drive profit instead of simply taking on a wide variety of job types in the hopes that it all “shakes out” to create positive revenue.

    How to Implement a Cost Code Tracking System

    Implementing a cost code tracking system isn’t the burden some contractors expect it to be. While a small initial investment of time is needed to settle on a system for implementing standard codes, there’s no need to conduct an overhaul of pre-production protocols. Codes integrate seamlessly into existing workflows.

    There’s actually a lot of flexibility regarding how your company decides to implement a plan for cost codes.

    While codes are based on industry standards, individual contractors are free to use software platforms of their own choice when accessing a “portal” for implementing cost codes. Take a look at the elements that are needed for successful project planning when using cost codes in any format.

    Good Cost Code Tracking Enables Your Crew to Tag Time to Projects and Cost Codes

    Labor is the chief cost that contractors manage. In fact, labor costs can account for between 30% and 50% of total project cost. For smaller construction firms, labor almost always counts for 50% of total project expenditure. This is why cost tracking needs to be somewhat synonymous with time tracking.

    Good project management software is essential when implementing cost codes. It’s very important to use a system that enables your crew to tag time to projects and cost codes. Crews need to be able to do this remotely to ensure accurate, real-time updates.

    In addition, it’s important to have flexibility for budget codes to make reporting as simple, complex, or specialized as your company needs when it comes to high-level tracking. Being forced into a rigid system for implementing codes can actually reduce accuracy and liability for pricing because you’re stuck trying to make your unique pricing needs work for a one-size-fits-all system.

    Integration is another core feature. This goes back to the need to use a cost code tracking system that enables your crew to tag time to projects. Merging code tracking with time tracking allows you to save time by aligning the two facets of costing without keying data into two separate systems.

    The Reporting Angle

    The first priority is making sure cost code tracking syncs with time tracking. The second priority is to make sure that cost code tracking is compatible with your current accounting system. For most construction firms, this means QuickBooks, Sage, or Foundation software. Your cost code data should ideally feed into your preferred system to allow for time information to be attributed to projects and cost codes.

    It’s important to remember that implementing cost codes only takes you so far. You need to use the insights generated from cost codes into the decision-making process in order to identify profit points versus unproductive spending. Cost codes are only as helpful as your ability to review the date generated using your construction management software.

    Construction businesses have everything to gain by using standardized cost codes. In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to begin using cost codes is that all of the competitors in your industry are already using them to work within the same pricing standards when submitting bids. That means you’re at a disadvantage if you’re not using cost codes.

    In addition to making you more competitive from the bid angle, cost codes simply allow you to manage project costs conscientiously without devoting a lot of your time to parsing out data to find out how much you’re really spending on each task.

    Using Workyard to Make Cost Coding Easy

    Workyard is already helping countless cost-conscious construction businesses maximize the benefits of cost codes without complexity. A leader in job scheduling software, Workyard lets you track time as a commodity. In addition to allowing you to track time per employee, the Workyard platform also allows you to track time per job using the relevant time code.

    Workyard’s cost code tracking makes it easy to capture hours per cost code to obtain insights on whether hours are over budget, or under budget, or right on target. What’s more, total labor costs don’t have to be the “wildcards” that leave you worried about hitting your profit goal on every project every single time. Contractors and construction businesses finally have a uniform way to predict labor costs for jobs using dynamic, data-backed information!

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