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Conceptual cost estimation of building projects

with regression analysis and neural networks
Rifat Sonmez

Abstract: Conceptual cost estimates play a crucial role in initial project decisions, although scope is not finalized and
very limited design information is available during early project stages. In this paper, the advantages and disadvantages
of the current conceptual cost estimation methods are discussed and the use of regression, neural network, and range
estimation techniques for conceptual cost estimation of building projects are presented. Historical cost data of continu-
ing care retirement community projects were compiled to develop regression and neural network models. Three linear
regression models were considered to identify the significant variables affecting project cost. Two neural network mod-
els were developed to examine the possible need for nonlinear or interaction terms in the regression model. Prediction
intervals were constructed for the regression model to quantify the level of uncertainty for the estimates. Advantages of
simultaneous use of regression analysis, neural networks, and range estimation for conceptual cost estimating are dis-
Key words: conceptual cost estimation, regression analysis, neural networks, range estimation.
Résumé : Les devis estimatifs de projets de construction jouent un rôle important dans les prises de décision initiales
du projet bien que la portée ne soit pas finalisée et que très peu d’information sur la conception soit disponible au
cours des premières étapes du projet. Cet article aborde les avantages et les désavantages des méthodes d’estimation
des projets de construction et discute de l’utilisation de la régression, des réseaux neuronaux et des techniques
d’évaluation de la fourchette de coûts dans l’estimation des coûts des projets de construction. Les données historiques
de coût des projets de villages-retraite de soins de longue durée ont été compilées afin de développer des modèles de
régression et de réseaux neuronaux. Trois modèles de régression linéaire ont été étudiés dans le but d’identifier les va-
riables significatives affectant le coût du projet. Deux modèles de réseaux neuronaux ont été développés afin d’examiner
le besoin possible de termes non linéaires ou de l’interaction dans le modèle de régression. Des intervalles de prévision
ont été élaborés pour le modèle de régression afin de quantifier le niveau d’incertitude des estimations. Les avantages
de l’utilisation simultanée de l’analyse de régression, des réseaux neuronaux et de l’évaluation de la fourchette de coûts
dans l’élaboration de devis estimatifs de projets de construction sont présentés.
Mots clés : devis estimatif de projet de construction, analyse de régression, réseaux neuronaux, évaluation de la four-
chette des coûts.
[Traduit par la Rédaction] Sonmez 683

Introduction since project scope is not finalized and very limited design
information is available during the predesign stages of a pro-
Conceptual cost estimates, also referred to as predesign ject. A quick, inexpensive, and reasonably accurate estimate
cost estimates, are prepared at the very early stages of a pro- is needed, however, based on the available information.
ject, generally before the construction drawings and specifi-
Several techniques have been suggested for conceptual
cations are available. At this stage, cost estimates are needed
cost estimation. Regression analysis, simulation, and neural
by the owner, contractor, designer, or lending organization
networks are among these cost estimation techniques that are
for several purposes, including determination of the feasibil-
used during the early project stages. In regression analysis
ity of a project, financial evaluation of a number of alter-
the project cost is estimated with a regression model includ-
native projects, or establishment of an initial budget.
ing a number of independent variables. Kouskoulas and Koehn
Conceptual cost estimates are not expected to be precise,
(1974) used location, construction year, building type, num-
ber of floors, quality, and building technology as the inde-
pendent variables to explain the variations in the project
Received 26 August 2003. Revision accepted 22 March 2004.
Published on the NRC Research Press Web site at cost. Karshenas (1984) argued that because the type of
http://cjce.nrc.ca on 19 August 2004. building has an important effect on the project cost, different
types of buildings should be studied separately. Karshenas
R. Sonmez. Department of Civil Engineering, Middle East focused on conceptual cost modeling for multistory steel-
Technical University, Ankara 06531, Turkey (e-mail: framed office buildings and used published data for model-
ing. The model developed by Karshenas included nonlinear
Written discussion of this article is welcomed and will be terms to express project cost in terms of typical floor area
received by the Editor until 31 December 2004. and building height. Karshenas, along with Kouskoulas and

Can. J. Civ. Eng. 31: 677–683 (2004) doi: 10.1139/L04-029 © 2004 NRC Canada
678 Can. J. Civ. Eng. Vol. 31, 2004

Koehn, performed a residual analysis to check model predic- tion, and an historical cost index (time index) was used to
tions. Neither of the models was validated by a technique quantify the variability of project cost due to inflation
such as cross validation, however. (Waier et al. 1996).
Touran (1993) suggested using the Monte Carlo simula- Total building area for a CCRC was determined by adding
tion technique with subjective correlations for probabilistic the gross building areas of residential, health center, com-
cost estimating. Published data on low-rise building projects mons, and structured parking facilities. The percent area of
were used to show the application of the suggested proce- health center and commons was calculated by dividing the
dure. The simulated data were used against actual data to sum of health center and commons area by the total building
evaluate the accuracy of the technique. Isidore and Back area. Similarly, percent parking area was the ratio of struc-
(2002) discussed the importance of quantifying the risk of tured parking area to total building area. The number of
an estimate by using probabilistic range estimating. Isidore units is the total of all residential units including studios,
and Back developed an integrated range estimation and one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartment units, and du-
probabilistic scheduling technique called MSAT and used a plexes. The area per unit was determined by dividing the to-
construction project to demonstrate the technique. tal building area by the number of units.
Hegazy and Ayed (1998) utilized neural networks for con- Seven variables were used to model total project cost. De-
ceptual cost estimation of highway projects. Hegazy and tailed cost estimates for the projects were available and were
Ayed used 14 projects for training and four projects for test- used as the dependent variable in the conceptual cost mod-
ing the neural network models. Three neural networks mod- els. The detailed cost estimates for the 30 projects were very
els with 10 input variables were developed by different close to the actual project costs, and the majority of devia-
methods. tions were due to scope changes.
The techniques involving regression analysis, simulation,
and neural networks each have certain advantages and disad-
vantages for conceptual cost estimation. The advantage of Regression analysis
regression models lies in their generally parsimonious use of In this study, parsimonious models were considered for
parameters compared to neural networks. The technique of both regression and neural network modeling. A parsimoni-
regression analysis, however, requires the user to make deci- ous model can be defined as a model that fits the data ade-
sions about the use of interaction terms and also about the quately without using any unnecessary parameters. The
class of relationships (linear, quadratic, etc.). One of the principle of parsimony is important because, in practice, par-
main advantages of probabilistic estimating techniques is simonious models generally produce better forecasts
their capability to develop a range of estimates for quantify- (Pankratz 1983). In a study by Sonmez and Rowings (1998)
ing the uncertainty of the estimate. In simulation, however, a it was observed that models including only a few significant
probability distribution function needs to be selected to parameters forecasted labor productivity more accurately
model the data. On the other hand, in the common use of than the models including insignificant parameters. To
neural network models apart from the choice of neural net- achieve parsimonious models, a backward elimination
work architecture, the user does not need to exert too much method was used in which all of the independent variables
effort to decide on the class of relations or the probability were considered in the initial regression model and variables
distribution of the variables. As each technique has certain that were not contributing to the model were eliminated one
advantages, a pragmatic approach is to use a mix of tools at a time. Two regression statistics, significance level (P
drawn from regression analysis, probabilistic estimating, and value) and coefficient of determination (R2), were used for
neural networks, which is the focus of this study. determination of variables to be eliminated. The P value
gives an indication of the significance of the variables in-
Description of the data cluded in the model, whereas R2 gives a measure of the vari-
ability explained by the model.
The data for this study were compiled from 30 continuing The first regression model (RM1) included all variables
care retirement community (CCRC) projects built by a con- and was in the following form:
tractor in the United States. A CCRC can be defined as an
organization established to provide housing and services, in- [1] C = β0 + β1T + β2L + β3 A + β4H + β5U + β6 F + β7S
cluding health care, to people of retirement age. A CCRC is
generally a mix of residential, health center, and commons in which C is the total project cost estimate (in US$); T is
buildings, and some CCRCs may also have structured park- the time index for the project year; L is the location index
ing. for the project location; A is the total building area (in m2);
The cost of CCRC projects is affected by numerous vari- H is the percent health center and commons area; U is the
ables. Construction year (time) and location, total building total area per unit (in m2); F is the number of floors; S is the
area, combined percent area of health center and commons, percent structured parking area; and β0, β1, …, β7 are the re-
area per unit, number of floors, and percent area of struc- gression coefficients. Data from the 30 projects were used to
tured parking were the variables included in this study. The determinate the regression coefficients and statistics.
projects used in this study were built in 14 different states Regression statistics for RM1 are given in Table 1, includ-
during the time frame 1975–1995. The number of floors for ing R2 and the variable corresponding to the coefficient with
the residential, health center, and commons buildings was the highest P value. The P value 0.663 for the regression co-
between one and 12. A city cost index (location index) was efficient corresponding to the percent parking (P) indicate
used to quantify the variability in project cost due to loca- that this variable probably will not have a significant contri-

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Sonmez 679

Table 1. Regression models.

Independent Variable corresponding to the P value of the
Model variables R2 coefficient with the highest P value coefficient
RM1 T, L, A, H, U, F, S 0.951 S 0.663
RM2 T, L, A, H, U, F 0.950 F 0.383
RM3 T, L, A, H, U 0.949 L 0.110

bution to the model and therefore was dropped from the re- Table 2. P values for regression model RM3.
gression model to achieve a parsimonious model.
Independent variable P value of the coefficient
The second regression model (RM2), which included six
independent variables, was similar to RM1 but did not in- T 0.000
clude the variable percent parking. The R2 value for RM2 L 0.110
has only dropped to 0.950 from the value 0.951 for RM1 A 0.000
with the elimination of the variable percent parking (S). In H 0.049
model RM2 the coefficient for the number of floors (F) had U 0.095
a P value of 0.383, and this variable was dropped from the
model to obtain the third regression model RM3. In RM3,
the coefficient for the variable location index (L) had the
highest P value; however, this variable was kept in the Fig. 1. Neural network model.
model because the contribution of this variable with a P
value of 0.11 was considered to be significant. The P values
for the regression coefficients given in Table 2 indicate that
the contribution of the variables time index (T) and total
building area (A) was more significant than the contribution
of the variables location index (L), percent health center and
commons area (H), and the area per unit (U). Coefficients of
all five variables were significant at the 0.11 level, however,
and were included in the final regression model.
In the third regression model RM3, although an R2 value
of 0.949 indicates that the majority of variability in cost is
explained by the five independent variables, there may be
certain significant nonlinear or interaction relations that had
not been included in the model. A neural network model was
developed to examine whether the current linear model RM3
could be improved further.

Neural network models Comparison of models

Two feed-forward neural network models, as shown in The final regression model (RM3) and neural network
Fig. 1, were developed as an alternative to the regression models (NM1 and NM2) were compared in terms of close-
cost model RM3. The input variables of the neural networks ness of fit and prediction performance. Two error measures
developed for conceptual cost estimating included time in- were used for the comparison: mean squared error (MSE)
dex (T), location index (L), total building area (A), percent and mean absolute percent error (MAPE). MSE and MAPE
health center and commons area (H), and total area per unit were calculated as follows:
(U), which were also the independent variables of the final n
∑ (actuali − predictedi)2
regression model. The output variable of the neural networks [2] MSE =
consisted of the dependent variable total project cost esti- n i =1
mate (C). n actual − predicted

Two neural networks with a different number of hidden 1 i i
[3] MAPE = × 100
units were trained using the same variables with a back- n i =1 predictedi
propagation algorithm incorporating a sigmoid transfer func-
tion (Rumelhart et al. 1986). The purpose of training two in which i is the project number. The measures for closeness
neural networks was to seek a number of hidden units that of fit were calculated by using data from all 30 projects to
would result in an adequate prediction performance with a develop the models and then by comparing the model pre-
reasonable closeness of fit. The first neural network model dictions with the actual data.
(NM1) had six hidden units (the number of units in the input Prediction performances of the models were compared by
buffer plus the number of units in the output layer), and the a procedure based on the cross-validation technique. The
second neural network model (NM2) had three hidden units. procedure can be summarized in the following steps:
The neural networks were trained with the 30 project cases (1) Three projects were selected randomly as the test sam-
that were used to develop the regression models. ple and a new data set was formed. The training set in-

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680 Can. J. Civ. Eng. Vol. 31, 2004

Table 3. Closeness of fit of models. Table 4. Prediction performance of models.

RM3 2.1 × 1012 9.3 RM3 3.3 × 10 12
NM1 9.6 × 1011 8.5 NM1 3.6 × 1012 12.3
NM2 1.3 × 1012 8.6 NM2 3.8 × 1012 11.7

cluded data from the remaining 27 projects but not the Fig. 2. Impact of building area on cost per unit area.
data from the three projects selected as the test sample.
(2) Model parameters for the regression and neural network
models were determined with the training data set.
(3) The regression and neural network models with the new
parameters were used to predict costs of the projects,
which were selected as the test sample.
(4) All of the projects were selected as the test sample in
groups of three, and steps 1–3 were repeated for each of
the test samples.
(5) Mean squared error (MSE) and mean absolute percent
error (MAPE) were calculated for the regression and
neural network models.
The MSE and MAPE values of the final regression model
(RM3) and neural network models (NM1 and NM2) for
closeness of fit are given in Table 3. The MSE and MAPE
values of the neural network models NM1 (9.6 × 1011 and
8.5, respectively) and NM2 (1.3 × 1012 and 8.6) were Fig. 3. Impact of time index on cost per unit area.
smaller than those of the regression model RM3 (2.1 × 1012
and 9.3), indicating that the neural network models provided
better fit to the data. On the other hand, however, the MSE
and MAPE values of the regression model RM3 (3.3 × 1012
and 11.1, respectively) for prediction performance given in
Table 4 were smaller than those of the neural network mod-
els NM1 (3.6 × 1012 and 12.3) and NM2 (3.8 × 1012 and
11.7). Although neural network models provided better fit to
the data, the regression model had reasonably good predic-
tion performance; therefore; the regression model RM3
could be considered as an adequate model, and there is no
need to add nonlinear or interaction terms to the model. Al-
though neural network model NM1 had a better fit to data,
both neural network models had similar prediction perfor-
mance and NM2 was used for sensitivity analysis because it
was more parsimonious.
For 29 of the 30 cost estimates predicted by the regression
model the accuracy was within ±24%, and for one project ues, and time index (T) was kept constant at the reference
the accuracy was within ±40%. The accuracy range ±24% is year value to obtain Fig. 2. Figure 2 demonstrates the effect
acceptable and is within the range of –30% to +50% sug- of variable building area (A) on the project cost per unit area
gested by AbouRizk et al. (2002) for conceptual cost estima- for the regression (RM3) and neural network (NM2) models.
tion of building projects. The average absolute accuracy Both the regression and neural network models indicate that
11.1% is also acceptable and is within the suggested range cost per unit area decreases as the total building area in-
of –15% to +25% for the average accuracy (AbouRizk et al. creases. This is mainly due to decreasing indirect cost per
2002). unit area as a result of an increase in the project size and de-
creasing contribution of the exterior walls due to an increase
Model results in the building area. The sensitivity analysis of neural net-
work model NM2 indicates that cost per unit area increases
Sensitivity analysis was used to demonstrate the effect of to some extent from 15 000 to 25 000 m2, probably due to
independent variables on the project cost for the regression characteristics of project data captured by the neural net-
(RM3) and neural network (NM2) models. To perform sensi- work. Figure 3 demonstrates the impact of time index (T) on
tivity analysis, the values of one variable were varied while the project cost per unit area. Both the regression and neural
those of the remaining variables were kept constant. The val- network models suggest similar relations between time in-
ues of the variable total building area (A) were varied, loca- dex and project cost. Similarly, Fig. 4 demonstrates the im-
tion index (L), percent health center and commons area (H), pact of location index (L) on the project cost per unit area.
and area per unit (U) were kept constant at their mean val- The magnitude of the impact of location index on the project

© 2004 NRC Canada

Sonmez 681

Fig. 4. Impact of location index on cost per unit area. Fig. 6. Impact of area per unit on cost per unit area.

Fig. 5. Impact of percent health center and commons area on the project data. There was only one project with 12 floors,
cost per unit area. with the other projects having between one and six floors.
The independent variables included in this study were lim-
ited to seven, since the contractor compiled information only
on these variables. Study of other variables that may influ-
ence project cost related project management, site condi-
tions, and building and project characteristics that could be
identified at the conceptual stages would possibly improve
the accuracy of the models presented. On the other hand,
however, the R2 value 0.949 of regression model RM3 indi-
cates that the majority of variability in cost is explained by
the five independent variables, and also the average absolute
accuracy of 11.1% is acceptable for a conceptual cost

Prediction intervals
The neural network and regression models developed pro-
vide a point estimate for the project cost. During conceptual
cost captured by neural network model NM2 is more signifi- stages of a project, however, since the scope is not finalized
cant than the magnitude of the impact suggested by regres- and very limited design information is available, there are
sion model RM3. Sensitivity analysis of the both the numerous uncertainties that cannot be reflected by a point
regression and neural network models indicates that the cost estimate. Therefore, the use of range estimating is essential
per unit area increases as the percent health center and com- for quantifying the level of uncertainties.
mons area (H) increases (Fig. 5). Cost per unit area is ex- The use of prediction intervals for the regression models
pected to increase as the percent health center and commons makes range estimating possible. Before prediction intervals
area increases because the cost per unit area for the health are constructed, the assumptions of zero expectation, con-
center and commons buildings is usually more expensive stant variance, and independence of residuals are examined
than that of the residential buildings. Lastly, the sensitivity by residual plots for model RM3. One of the important
analysis of the regression and neural network models also assumptions for constructing prediction intervals is the nor-
indicates that cost per unit area decreases as the area per unit mality of the residuals. The normality assumption of residu-
increases (Fig. 6). This is because, for a given total building als can be examined using quantile to quantile plots and the
area, as the number of units decreases, the cost of accesso- correlation coefficient for the quantile to quantile plot (John-
ries per unit area associated with the number of units (such son and Wichern 1992), which was calculated as 0.97. Since
as plumbing and kitchen and bathroom accessories) is ex- this value is larger than the value 0.96 at n = 30 and α =
pected to decrease, resulting in a lower cost per unit area. 0.05 level of significance, the hypothesis for normality was
The magnitude of the impact of area per unit (U) on the pro- not rejected.
ject cost captured by neural network model NM2 is more Prediction intervals for the cost estimate using mean val-
significant than that suggested by regression model RM3. ues of the variables and reference time index were con-
As a result of regression analysis, the effects of the vari- structed for model RM3. Figure 7 illustrates a range of cost
ables percent area of structured parking (S) and number of predictions for different probability values. Estimates repre-
floors (F) on project cost were not found to be significant senting different levels of risk can be selected using the
for inclusion in the models. The insignificance of the vari- probability–cost curve. As an example, a 20–90% range of
able number of floors may be due to the characteristics of probability would be US$18 625 915 to US$22 463 544; in

© 2004 NRC Canada

682 Can. J. Civ. Eng. Vol. 31, 2004

Table 5. Case project.

(A) Model inputs
Time Location Residential Health center Commons
Total building area (m2) index index unit count area (m2) area (m2)
25 960 100.0 106.4 147 1795 2871

(B) Model results

Lower Expected Higher
Probability of beating the noted estimate (%) 20 50 10
Total programmed project cost (US$) 21 437 388 23 028 230 25 450 391

Fig. 7. Probability–cost (US$) curve. range for the prediction. The cost prediction of the model for
the case project was US$23 028 230. The model also indi-
cated that the cost of the project could be less than
US$21 437 388 with a probability of 20%, and also the cost
could be higher than US$25 450 391 with a probability of
10%. The cost estimate of the case project was calculated as
US$22 600 989 after quantity take-off and detailed estima-
tion was performed. The detailed cost estimate was within
the cost prediction range of the model and very close to the
expected cost.

Conceptual cost models for continuing care retirement
community projects were developed with regression analysis
and neural networks. The models were compared for close-
other words, for this range the probability of the detailed ness of fit and prediction performance. Both of the modeling
cost estimate being less than the lower value (US$18 625 915) techniques provided reasonably accurate cost estimates.
would be 20% and the probability of the detailed cost esti- Once the models were developed, cost estimates could be
mate being more than the upper value (US$22 463 544) made immediately.
would be 10%. A nonsymmetrical range was selected to de- Neural networks can identify the relations between vari-
crease the chance of an underestimate. A point prediction of ables and the project cost. Regression analysis, however,
US$20 147 235 for the project cost is limited in terms of requires a decision about the class of relations (linear, qua-
quantifying possible variability of the conceptual cost esti- dratic, etc.) to be used in modeling. On the other hand, the
mate, but the range estimate presented provides crucial in- regression models, most of the time, use fewer model pa-
formation about the uncertainty of the estimate. rameters than the neural networks, which may result in
In this study, linear regression analysis provided adequate better prediction performance if the relations between the
models for conceptual modeling of construction costs for variables are presented adequately. Comparison of the re-
building projects. Depending on the project type and charac- sults from the neural network model with those from the re-
teristics of data used for modeling, however, and also de- gression model may help to identify the need for nonlinear
pending on the independent variables included in the or interaction terms in the regression model. By using re-
models, neural network models can also be selected for pre- gression analysis and neural network techniques simulta-
diction of construction costs at the conceptual project stages. neously, a satisfactory conceptual cost model (which fits the
It is also possible to develop prediction intervals for the neu- data adequately and has a reasonable prediction perfor-
ral network models by applying techniques similar to the re- mance) can be achieved.
gression analysis (Dybowski and Roberts 2001). Prediction intervals were constructed for the regression
model for range estimation. The use of range estimation dur-
Case example ing early project stages would help to quantify the uncertain-
ties involved with the conceptual cost estimate. The writer
The latest project was selected as a case project to illus- believes that the techniques presented in this paper could im-
trate the use of the developed conceptual cost model. The re- prove estimation of costs in the early stages of a project. Im-
maining 29 projects were used to determine the regression provements in conceptual cost estimates would hopefully
model used to predict the detailed cost estimate for the case lead to more realistic expectations and better execution strat-
project. The model can be utilized as a spreadsheet program egies.
so that the user can easily make conceptual cost range esti-
mates (Table 5). Once the user enters the input values related
to the total building area, time and location indices, number
of residential units, health center area, and commons area, AbouRizk, S.M., Babey, G.M., and Karumanasseri, G. 2002. Esti-
the model can predict an expected cost and a 20%–90% mating the cost of capital projects: an empirical study of accu-

© 2004 NRC Canada

Sonmez 683

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© 2004 NRC Canada