Clever collaboration



On large-scale construction projects, contractors, subcontractors, consultants and owners may be joining forces for the first and last time. In many cases, team members have had little say in whom they will be working with and, in fact, may even be required to form a temporary alliance with a competitor. Throw in a fast-track deadline, complicated engineering and public pressure, and you create a situation in which few teams can survive peacefully.

Project owners who understand project challenges are seeking different ways to collaborate. “Some owner companies today have downsized to the point where they may not have the level of expertise or manpower to effectively manage construction projects,” says Les Prudhomme, chair of the Project Management Institute's Ethics Review Committee and director of research for the Construction Industry Institute, Austin, Texas, USA. “So they outsource it.”

Collaboration between stakeholders in the Invesco Field at Mile High project, Denver, Colo., USA, was integral to success

Collaboration between stakeholders in the Invesco Field at Mile High project, Denver, Colo., USA, was integral to success.


On any major contract project, you could have anywhere from 50 to 400 different companies, each with their own game plan.


As outsourcing becomes a necessity, software technologies can ease communication and increase accountability among teams, but project managers must possess the skills to keep things humming, he says. After all, tools only work when in the right hands.

Building on a Solid Foundation

“On any major contract project, you could have anywhere from 50 to 400 different companies, each with their own game plan,” says Gretchen McComb, managing director of the Owner Services Group, FMI Corp., Denver, Colo., USA. “The question is, how do you bring them together with one game plan?”

Completing the $384 million Invesco Field at Mile High, which replaces Mile High Stadium, the previous home of the Denver Broncos football team, was a lesson in teamwork at the highest level. When the project was initiated in 1998, the owners requested completion for the 2001–2002 season. The Metropolitan Football Stadium District, which consists of six Denver counties, chose Turner Corp., Dallas, Texas, USA, to head construction of the stadium and HNTB Architects Engineers Planner of Kansas City, Mo., USA, to design it. The schedule forced the project on a design-build path, something that no previous sports stadium project had ever tried.

“Coming into it, we didn't know we were about to enter into a joint venture with HNTB,” says Charlie Thornton, Turner's project manager for construction. “But once the owner recognized that, to complete the stadium on time, we would have to use design-build, we all realized there would be no other way to do it.”

It also became obvious that Turner and HNTB would have to divide risk on the project 80/20. “It's pretty [unusual] for a designer to hold any risk on a project like this, but I think we both saw it as a great opportunity to build a team and show the marketplace that design-build is a positive way to move these projects forward,” says Thornton.

The next tier below the joint venture consisted of major construction and design firms, each with limited experience and knowledge about each other. At this level, agreements were made about the number of hours and fees per project, but none of these team members held any risk. At any time during construction and design, there were 75 to 80 contractors on the project and a maximum labor force of 1,200 to 1,300.

To maintain communication and align goals, the teams embarked on a multilayer meeting process (see chart “Relay Team”). For most project team members, this was a level of involved collaboration they'd never experienced.

“The joint venture was willing to take some risks with how this comprehensive process would be implemented, particularly in terms of how subcontractors and junior staff were involved with the biweekly owner/joint venture meetings,” says Bill Spragins, a director with FMI Corp. who led the development of the collaboration process for the project. “But it really worked for them.”

In the end, the stadium opened in time for the Broncos' season opener, and now other stadium projects are considering design-build as a way to fast-track projects. “The foundation to this kind of collaboration is trust and the culture the major stakeholders create on a project,” McComb says. “If the owners or major contractors' executives aren't capable of collaborating, then no other team member will be either.”

Global Proportions

The same principle applies on global projects, according to Ahmed Afify, project manager of upgrades for McDermott Caspian Contractors Inc., Baku, Azerbaijan. Afify leads a team to restore a fabrication yard on the shore of the Caspian Sea after 13 years of neglect. The yard was to be used to build the topsides of offshore platform.

While refurbishing the yard was enough of a challenge, Afify's team consisted of Scottish, Romanian, Indian, Pakistani, Egyptian, Philippino, British and Azeri leaders coordinating the work among Turkish, British, Finnish, Singaporean, Chinese, Malaysian, Taiwanese and Azeri subcontractors, engineers and vendors. The clash of languages and cultures on such projects can be overwhelming.

What made the project work, says Afify, was establishing and communicating collaboration standards up and down the project team. “Putting to work McDermott's teamwork principles and establishing them in the hearts of the team members provided a good example to the subcontractors and got them to join in,” he says. The principles—grounded in employee safety, employee development, fair treatment and leading by example—helped the team members bond “even when sign language was the only means of communication.”

The core standards are built into the McDermott “charter,” established years ago to deal with such complicated projects, and then posted throughout the worksite. “The first step on any collaboration effort,” says Afify, “is management buy-in. It has to start with company management coming on board and committing to turn it to reality.”

Technology Marches On

Because the construction industry still is dominated by family-run and small businesses, it has been slow to adopt the collaborative software project managers use in other industries, says Thomas Hernandez, a technology consultant for the architecture/engineering/ construction industry in New York, N.Y., USA. “We saw evidence of this a few years ago when there was a big push for online bidding,” he says.” The industry wasn't ready for it. Many contracts were awarded through long-term working relationships and over a handshake.”

Faced with complex construction processes, project managers may be at a loss to find easy-to-use software that isolates and automates the processes important in a small-business environment. But as software developers come to understand the needs of the industry, they have begun to get the attention of project owners across the country, especially when those owners have little other choice. This is the case with the Hudson River Park Project, a $383 million effort to rebuild 13 public piers and 550 acres of park along Manhattan's West Side in New York, N.Y., USA. In 1998, the city and state of New York created the Hudson River Park Trust solely to serve as owners of the project.

The schedule for Invesco Field at Mile High forced the project on a design-build path. In the end, the stadium opened in time for the Broncos' season opener

The schedule for Invesco Field at Mile High forced the project on a design-build path. In the end, the stadium opened in time for the Broncos' season opener.



The first step on any collaboration effort is management buy-in. It has to start with company management coming on board and committing to turn it to reality.


“One of the concerns was that there would be a misconception that the people's money was going to creating an overly large staff,” says Alex Dudley, vice president of corporate affairs and communications for the Trust. “Each person on our small staff has to have a large number of responsibilities. And what this software does is help us manage some of those responsibilities.”

The Trust chose a project management software that would help them collaborate on a project this size, offering access to requests for information (RFIs), transmittals, submittals, meeting minutes, change orders and reports. The project involves more than 50 contractors and about 150 individual architects and engineers.

Michael Breen, chief information officer for the Trust, says many team members initially were hesitant about using the software. “But they didn't have a choice,” he says. “I think that's what made this tool most effective for us.”

Each team member underwent two days of training—a small price to pay for the project's overall time savings, says Breen. “Today, for instance, we have well over 200 RFIs in submittal,” he says, “each with a 14-day maximum turn-around time. If you start adding 14 days to each of those, the time really adds up.” Using the software helps each of those RFIs to get through to the right people, and it holds them accountable for fulfilling their responsibility.

Once a contractor submits an RFI, the construction manager reads it to determine its validity and urgency and passes it to the architect of record. At that point, the architect is bound to respond to the contractor, thanks to the software's monitoring capabilities.

The Web-based software tracks when and who submitted the RFI, who has opened it and read it, and its progress to fulfillment. “This saves us, as the owner, from putting additional resources into tracking those RFIs that have fallen aside,” says Breen. The software also features reporting functionalities that can determine, for instance, the average report time for each architect of record.

No software can take the place of human contact. The project team still holds weekly meetings to discuss status and pending issues. “But now, even those meetings are more informed,” says Breen. “We have clear information about the issues and schedule.” PM

Monica Williams is an Austin, Texas, USA-based freelance writer and former Civil Engineering editor who has covered the construction industry for seven years.

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