Illustration of model construction materials


A material takeoff is one of the unsung heroes of the construction industry. While few people particularly want to do a takeoff, the fate of the project — and a contractor’s profitability — relies on the estimator’s accuracy and attention to detail. 

An accurate takeoff can make the difference between a profitable job that’s on budget and schedule, and a job that suffers from schedule delays and shrinking profits. Let’s take a look at what a construction material takeoff is, what to include, and how you can improve your takeoff process. 

What is a takeoff in construction?

In construction, a takeoff is a document that lists all of the materials required on a project and their associated costs. The term takeoff refers to the estimator’s process of “taking materials off” of the drawings and recording them in a list.

Preparing a material takeoff is one of the most important steps in a project, and an integral part of developing a construction estimate. An estimator will prepare an estimate based on the material takeoff, so it’s crucial that it be as accurate as possible.

When an estimator receives a set of plans or drawings, they need to determine which materials are necessary to actually build the project and in what quantity. They do this by “taking off” the materials from the blueprint. By carefully measuring walls, floors, pipes, electrical conduits, and other items based on these plans, they can determine with great accuracy how much of each item they’ll need.

The process doesn’t stop there. The construction takeoff also helps to establish the cost of each of the materials. By multiplying the number of materials by a unit price, the estimator can establish the overall cost for items like lumber, flooring, ceiling tiles, drywall, and other materials vital to the completion of the project.

Related: What Is a Bill of Quantities?

When the estimator takes their time and accounts for all the materials needed, they can create an accurate estimate that helps protect the contractor’s bottom line. If they do a poor job, they’ll miss materials or make mathematical errors, resulting in too much material, too little, or none at all.

An inaccurate takeoff can destroy a project’s timeline and profitability.

Items included in a material takeoff

A material takeoff includes all of the materials necessary to build a project according to the blueprints. It will include the quantities and costs of things like lumber, concrete, roofing, blocks, pipes, wire, as well as fixtures and flooring. 

Because it’s so important that a takeoff be accurate, it should include all of the important construction specifications

For instance, a takeoff will not simply say “pipe” with a quantity next to it. By using the plans, the estimator will break pipes down by diameter, material, and length. They’ll do the same for lumber, breaking each board down by dimension (2×4, 2×6, etc.), length, as well as the species and grades called for by the plans. The estimator will repeat this process for all of the materials required.

Common blueprint symbols used to create a construction takeoff

When working from a blueprint, the estimator can identify many of the materials called for by referencing the symbols used in the drawings. Common items, like doors, windows, and electrical outlets typically use universal symbols so they are easy to identify.

Measuring materials

Due to the vast array of material types used on any given construction project, a takeoff will calculate material quantities using different measures: By unit, by area, by volume, or by length. The measure of each material will correlate to the way it is typically sold.

By count

Individual items like standard wall studs, light fixtures, outlets, air handlers, windows, doors, and other similar items are simply counted.

By area

Other items, like flooring, drywall, sheathing, and roofing, are typically included in a takeoff by square foot.

By volume

A takeoff will usually list bulk materials like concrete, sand, and gravel by cubic foot or cubic yard. Bulk liquids, like paint or

By length

Standardized materials, like lumber, conduit, wire, ductwork, and pipe are typically listed by linear foot.

Once the estimator establishes the types of materials and the quantities of each, including extra units to account for wastage.the cost in the takeoff. By multiplying the unit of measurement used for each material with an accurate and up-to-date price, they’ll establish the cost for that particular material. Adding all of these costs will allow them to create an accurate construction takeoff for estimating purposes.

A takeoff is only for materials, so it’s just one tool in the estimation process. It won’t include mobilization costs, labor, insurance, or other overhead costs attributed to the project. The estimator should take those values into account when submitting an estimate, but they won’t find them in the takeoff. 

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How to do a construction takeoff: Tips for accuracy

We’ve already established how important an accurate takeoff is to a successful project. Here are a few tips for creating better, more accurate construction takeoffs.

1. Measure twice, do takeoffs once

The more detailed and accurate you can be in the process of creating a takeoff, the better the end result will be. Taking exact measurements and adding in a set percentage for wastage will create a consistent cost-scale that you can be confident in.

You should also be as precise as possible with your materials’ costs. Underestimating a material’s cost, if only by $.05 a unit, can add up to a costly mistake. Get the most up-to-date prices that you can for creating your takeoff.

2. Make sure you’re working from the latest drawings with the most up-to-date specs

It might go without saying, but working off old plans while performing a takeoff can have a catastrophic effect on your estimate. 

Changes in the footprint, layout, or material specifications in the project can change drastically from revision to revision. Creating a takeoff based on outdated plans is a recipe for an inaccurate estimate.

3. Create a checklist

The materials takeoff process can be long, taxing, and even convoluted. It’s easy to make a mistake that you’ll have to pay for later if you don’t have a roadmap to follow.

Creating a checklist will keep you on the right track. Be sure to include each material type and check each space as you go. How you label and organize your checklist will be up to you, but creating one will ensure you don’t miss a step.

4. Use construction estimating software

One of the most significant issues that occurs during the takeoff process is the introduction of human error. A miscalculation in material type, quantity, or size can be difficult to pick up right away, making it very hard to right the ship once the mistake is evident. 

In the past, takeoffs were done manually. The estimator would review the paper blueprints and calculate material quantities and costs by hand in a spreadsheet. Now, most architecture firms provide digital blueprints. Estimating software is often equipped to read the schematics and develop a rough material takeoff automatically. Of course, a computer-generated takeoff will still need a review from an experienced estimator to ensure the quantities and prices are accurate.

Software for takeoffs

Regardless of your company size, you should consider integrating construction estimating software into your material takeoff and estimate process.

There are lots of software programs and apps available to help with preparing takeoffs. Some examples include:

  • PlanSwift: A Windows-based program that integrates with Excel
  • Knowify: A GPS-enabled, cloud-based program optimized for tablets to allow job-site integration
  • Clear Estimates: A cloud-based program aimed at small to mid-sized builders and home remodelers
  • Jonas Premier: A cloud-based program ideal for general contractors and project managers

There are countless other programs that will work, as well. These software programs can take much of the guesswork and human error out of the estimation process.

Some can also track updates to material needs after change orders, track project budgets, and organize accounts payable and receivables.

The material takeoff can make or break your bottom line

While the takeoff isn’t the most glorious part of a construction project, it’s easily one of the most important.

Contractors that base their estimates on inaccurate takeoffs will have a reputation for materials and timeline overruns. Those that take the time to create the best possible construction takeoff will find they finish on time, within budget, and with healthy profit margins. 

By streamlining your takeoff process with construction estimating software, accurate measurements and values, a checklist, and using the latest plans, you’ll be able to create spot-on takeoffs for your projects.