Project Management Institute

A fish tale


A project team constructs one of the world's largest aquariums in half the usual time—even with the marine life dictating the design.

by Carol Hildebrand photos by Michael Blackwell

a fish tale

from left, Jeff Swanagan, Georgia Aquarium; Bernie Marcus, The Home Depot; David J. Kimmel, Heery International Inc., all in Atlanta, Ga., USA


The modern school of thought in fish circles is that building an aquarium—from the first planning meeting until that last manta ray slips into its tank—typically takes about seven years. But Bernie Marcus, cofounder of The Home Depot chain, was having none of that. He was determined to build an aquarium in Atlanta, Ga., USA, as a “thank you” for the early support of associates, customers and shareholders in the mega-retailer's home state. And he wanted it to be one of the world's biggest and delivered in half the usual time.

Thanks to a clear, well-communicated vision and some creative project planning, Heery International Inc., a project management firm in Atlanta, finished the $290 million Georgia Aquarium project in just three years and eight months. The stellar effort earned the aquarium a spot as a finalist in PMI's 2006 Project of the Year competition.

To get a sense of the project's scope, look at these numbers: more than 100,000 animals swimming in over eight million gallons of water housed in a 505,000-square-foot spread. The aquarium even boasts its own water treatment plant with greater processing capability than the City of Atlanta Public Works Department.

When Mr. Marcus began to dream about the aquarium, whale sharks were at the top of his list. Naturally, this large sea creature dictates some enormous living quarters, but letting the animals drive the design is rather unusual. “In many cases, companies do just the opposite by designing the building and then deciding on the content,” Mr. Marcus says.

But for him, the creatures came first. “We've always felt that what was inside the aquarium was more important than the building itself,” he says. “The fish are the stars. We wanted to make sure each one of them had the right habitat to be presented properly.”

To help him make his vision a reality, Mr. Marcus first hired Jeffery Swanagan as executive director of the aquarium. “Frankly, one of the reasons why this worked is that we didn't have the program team at first,” Mr. Swanagan says. “It was just me and [Mr. Marcus]. We traveled to 55 aquariums in 13 countries in three months.”

After the initial fact-finding missions, Heery and three more fish experts—or “the fish guys” as they were known—joined the team. In March 2002, the group sat down with Mr. Marcus to brainstorm. “He was very closely involved,” says David Kimmel, a vice president and director of program management at Heery. “He'd tell us, ‘You've got that right, but that's wrong,’ and the team would go from there.”

What emerged was a concept quite different from the norm. The standard-issue aquarium is built around one big tank, with walkways spiraling from top to bottom. “Georgia Aquarium is not like that,” Mr. Kimmel says. “It's more of a shopping mall. Malls have an atrium surrounded by department stores. The Georgia Aquarium has an atrium and then five separate aquariums surrounding it.”

Each of the galleries tells its own story and has a distinct mood and music.

  1. Georgia Quest: Focused on the oceanic life off Georgia's own Gray's Reef, this family-friendly, interactive gallery encourages the touching of creatures, such as starfish, shrimp and little rays.
  2. Fresh Water River Scout: Here, viewers walk under a freshwater river filled with catfish, piranha and Asian small-pawed otters.
  3. Cold Water Quest: Cold-water animals, such as the beluga whale, octopus, California sea lions and otters are the stars here.
  4. Ocean Voyager Journey: This immense and dramatic tank contains schools of fish, including hammerhead and sawfish. Those guys all share quarters with the four majestic whale sharks, believed to be the only ones housed in an aquarium outside Asia.
  5. Tropical Diver Coral Gallery: Dramatic backlit tanks turn color as jellies and sea nettles swim under different colored lights. Waves crash overhead and symphony music plays as visitors check out the big attraction: a live coral reef.

The fish are the stars. We wanted to make sure each one of them had the right habitat to be presented properly.

–Bernie Marcus, The Home Depot, Atlanta, Ga., USA

Mr. Marcus envisioned the aquarium as a place of entertainment, not just science, so the team also included Gary Goddard Entertainment, Los Angeles, Calif., USA. “Their role was to assist us to be more entertaining—but entertaining with a message,” Mr. Swanagan says. “We can't compromise the dignity of the animals, but we can still deliver a powerful message while having fun and learning.”

Throughout the project, Mr. Kimmel worked to balance the sometimes disparate aims of the fish guys and the entertainment firm. For example, when the teams talked about how to display animals, the fish guys approached things from a scientific angle, proposing a traditional viewing window. “Hollywood was on the far other end,” Mr. Kimmel says. “Our job was to mesh them together and let [the creative] juices work together.”

For example, the Gary Goddard Entertainment team dreamt up a virtual online aquarium, but the fish experts took issue with the integrity of what was essentially an unreal environment. Instead, the team brought the interactivity of the virtual environment into the exhibits with viewing and touch tanks.

Heery's role extended beyond the general description of a program or project manager—the company acted as Mr. Marcus' agent, responsible for all aspects of aquarium development. “They stayed on the project constantly,” Mr. Marcus says. Before it even began, Heery committed the team “would work on only the aquarium job and no other.”

Heery assisted with site selection as well as choosing architects, designers, consultants, vendors and the like. The team was also responsible for site development, zoning and permit issues, and financial record management, and helped negotiate aquarium services, such as food and retail.

Mr. Kimmel started out all of the contributing firms on the same level by dividing the project companies into six distinct areas:

Program management

Major designers




Purchase orders.

He then created a set of standard contracts to ensure they were coordinated and in sync with one another on items such as turnaround times. “We wanted to make sure that we were asking architects to do the same things as contractors, and set a common standard,” Mr. Kimmel says.

A complex project with a timeline this ambitious required some creative management methods. Missing the deadline was never considered an option—even when the site moved midway through the design.

Several guiding principles aimed at keeping the project on track were established at the beginning. First, every company agreed to have Mr. Marcus hold the profit portions of their fees pending the successful completion of the aquarium. The retainage was structured so that either all firms received it or no one did, depending on whether the project accomplished its goals. “All of a sudden, everybody is in the game together,” Mr. Kimmel says. “You forget, ‘No, that's not my job,’ and start working in a fast, easy manner.”



Aquariums are visited, and a list of the marquee fish and an overall vision of the aquarium are established.

June-March 2004

Exhibits are designed.


Construction begins.

March-November 2005

Exhibits are built and installed on a concurrent basis.

August–February 2005

Tanks are built.


Creatures are moved to their permanent homes.

November 17

Project is completed.

November 19

The aquarium opens to the public.

The team used a weekly meeting as the primary decision-making tool. Mr. Marcus set the criteria, and team members were given responsibility for decisions within their domain. “We had no patience for ‘I need to check this issue,’” Mr. Kimmel says. “Decisions were made on the spot at meetings—we had the authority to commit [Mr. Marcus] and money to move things along.”

Workers at all levels were encouraged to point out issues and suggest changes. At the same time, senior personnel with decision-making authority stayed on site. Both tactics helped reduce change orders and save time, he says. “I've had a contractor say, ‘I don't think Mr. Marcus will like this,’ and the two of us went out and fixed it,” he says. For example, one on-site change called for adding a section of ceiling where none had been designed.

The team also tried to preemptively troubleshoot by identifying obstacles ahead of time and neutralizing them. For example, Heery knew the city's complex permit process might delay the project. So the team approached Atlanta officials to create a partnership with the permits and inspections group. “We brought them into the design review process and shared facility plans so there were no surprises,” Mr. Kimmel says. Officials were able to bring up possible code issues during the design phase, and the team could resolve them before they became a hindrance.

To verify things were getting done correctly, the team often went directly to the source of vital materials. The acrylic for the tanks, for example, had to be incredibly strong and distortion-free, so team members flew to the development site in Japan to inspect the windows prior to shipment.

Construction was further complicated by the fact that marine life acquisition had to proceed on a set schedule. If the main tanks weren't ready by the stipulated time, the creatures could be at risk. Aquarium staff members were interviewed to make sure their timetables—from acquisition to quarantine to installation in the tanks—aligned with the construction schedule.

The building proceeded in phases dictated by the fish husbandry schedule. “We turned it over tank by tank. It was the only way we could make the schedule,” Mr. Kimmel says. “Animals were arriving during construction. We had to segment off buildings so that we wouldn't let dust and fumes into the open tanks.” Each section of the building had to be completely finished before the fish were installed.

Once the marine life was in the tanks, those areas were handed over with no residual punch list. “Because we phased the turnover, we were doing punch list work a year in advance,” Mr. Kimmel says.

The aquarium opened on schedule in November 2005 and has since welcomed more than 3.6 million visitors—and there's nothing fishy about its success. “We did it with planning, committed people, quick decision-making, and honestly, we did it with a lot of luck,” he says. PM

Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based in Wellesley, Mass., USA. A former editor at CIO, she has appeared in Computerworld, Darwin and other publications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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