In an ideal world, all cleaning would cost a buck-fifty per square foot. Period. Spec sheets would include a list of duties, but the most important number would be the cleanable square footage of the facility. The contract process would simply be a matter of which company provided better service for that buck-fifty.

But in the real world, only in rare cases can the cost of cleaning be distilled to one magic number. In fact, cleaning different rooms within the same building can cost as little as pennies, or as much as a few dollars, per square foot. But facility managers and contractors alike want to know if such a magic number exists.

“Customers have always wanted bids in cost per square foot,” says Bill Garland, joint managing partner of Daniels Associates, a cleaning consulting firm in Toronto. “It’s a simple measure, and a decent benchmark, but it’s not a good way to do it.”

In fact, that inaccuracy is evident in Cleaning Makes Cents, a Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International resource to help facility owners and managers benchmark cleaning costs. Cleaning Makes Cents does list the average per-foot cost of cleaning, but it breaks it down by market, building type, age and more. The important thing, says Garland, isn’t so much the dollar figure but what goes into that figure. And the components of a per-square-foot quote, whether it’s 80 cents or $1.80, are key.

For instance, geography can greatly affect the cost of cleaning, says Garland. Of course, different cities and states can have dramatically different labor and materials costs, but even different parts of the same metro area can vary. Generally, downtown buildings cost more to clean than their suburban counterparts.

“When the day is done, it takes the same amount of time to vacuum a hallway downtown, but the costs of labor usually are higher downtown,” Garland says. Also, cleaning standards usually are more complex in the cities than they are in the suburbs, he adds.

In addition, contractors need to assess facility type when workloading. The more specialized the building, the more complex it is to clean.

The most complex facilities to bid are industrial buildings, says Tom Heveron, CBSE, CEO of Beachland Cleaning Service., Vero Beach, Fla.

“You’re almost designing plans specifically to meet their specs,” he explains. For example, in a regular office building that’s vacant at night, it usually doesn’t matter to the client whether cleaners are on the first floor or the sixth floor at 10 p.m., so long as the work gets done in the time allotted. However, since many industrial facilities operate around-the-clock, contractors not only must account for the amount of time it will take to clean a given room, but specifically when that room will be cleaned, so as not to disrupt operations.

But some manufacturing plants have ample office space, and others don’t contract out their production area, so bidding on those accounts might be more like bidding on commercial buildings.

Also, facilities such as corporate headquarters that act as showpieces for a given company may require more detailed service than a multi-tenant office building, says Garland, and thus they will be more costly to clean.

The building’s population and density also is vital. In general, the more people working in a given area, the longer it will take and more expensive it will be to clean.

One person per 150 square feet of building space is the typical density of an office building, explains Garland. More than one person in that space can increase cleaning labor costs by up to 25 percent, he says, because there’s more foot traffic, more trash and more spills to clean up.

Other factors to consider include the age of the building, the age and experience of the crew, and the special requests of the facility manager.

In spite of all of these variables, there is a place for per-square-foot bidding, says Mark Browning, CBSE, senior vice president of Varsity Contractors, Boise, Idaho. Browning also is co-author of Cleaning Up For a Living, a how-to book that includes detailed sections on workloading.

“When you really know your market, it gives you a down-and-dirty measurement,” he says. For example, if a company specializes in corporate headquarters in a downtown area, requirements tend to be consistent.

A more accurate method
However, when the space is diverse or unfamiliar, BSCs have to be more specific, advises Browning.

“Go in and break it out,” Browning advises. “Assign a production rate to each area and add it up that way.”

Production rates, also known as cleaning times, are simply measurements of how long it will take an average worker to clean a specific area, surface or fixture. These rates can be determined from a variety of sources, including books, computer programs or through a cleaning company’s own historical data.

The International Sanitary Supply Association, Lincolnwood, Ill., offers 358 Cleaning Times, a detailed list of production rates. Building Service Contractors Association International sells bidding and estimating publications, and also offers an extensive, day-long seminar on the topic.

To use production rates, simply add up the number of fixtures or square footage of surfaces, then multiply that number by the production rate. For example, as reported in ISSA’s 358 Cleaning Times, an average janitor can vacuum 1,000 square feet of carpet, using a 12-inch upright vacuum, in 26.8 minutes. If the facility has 2,500 square feet of carpet, it should take approximately 67 minutes of labor. If that task needs to be done five times a week, it will take five hours and 35 minutes per week.

Figure out the cleaning times for all fixtures, surfaces and special tasks in the building, and that should result in a figure indicating how much labor it will take to clean the facility. Then use labor figures, plus equipment, supplies and overhead, to formulate a bid.

The best way to do the math, says Garland, is by using a computerized workloading program.

“In 1969, computers knew, to the second, how long it took to get to the moon; we should be able to figure out how long it takes to clean a restroom,” he says.

Workloading also can be done by hand.

“I do the bidding and estimating in my head,” Heveron says. “I learned 25 years ago from my dad. I know how long it takes to clean a restroom. I’ll be very close to a machine-generated number.”

Whether they use a workloading program or a pencil and paper, Heveron says contractors must go for a walk-through, rather than just relying on specification sheets, because the specs rarely account for variables such as traffic, how many doors there are to unlock and so forth.

Even if a customer has a detailed spec sheet, be on the lookout for items that seem out of place, Garland says.

“Most people tend to overwrite specifications and ask for many services they really don’t need,” he says. For instance, many purchasing managers will specify all of the carpet needs to be vacuumed daily, but if there are a lot of low-traffic areas, that point may be negotiable.

Customer expectations
After all of that effort, sometimes clients still want to see one number at the bottom of the page explaining the charge per square foot. And unfortunately, in many cases, there’s not a lot to do about it.

“So many contractors are driven by customer expectation,” says Browning. “Companies that are expanding nationally want square-foot pricing for all facilities. We’re forced to do it.”

If a customer asks for a bid in terms of cost per square foot, contractors still should go through the walk-through and workloading processes to arrive at the total cost of the contract, Garland says. Then, simply divide that number by the square footage of the building. It may be an extra step, but it’s the best way to ensure accuracy, he says.

“One of our clients had six properties, and they wanted a common dollar amount per square foot,” Garland says. “But the buildings differed so much, the actual cost ranged from 40 cents to more than $2.”

If a similar situation arises, Garland advises contractors to tell the client that bidding per square foot is impossible when the variables are so great.

“In order to be fair, I tell them I can pull out any number I want, but the best way for me to do the bid is to look at the specific property,” Heveron concurs. The only exception is if a client asks him to add on extra space within the same facility, such as a new wing of an office building.

“If that happens, I can take the current square-footage price and maybe offer them something a little lower, since the people and equipment will already be on site,” he says. “But it’s different if they want me to clean a satellite facility.”