Managing large construction projects


by Ross Foti

For most in construction management, “large“is a highly subjective term.

It means biggest project personally experienced until now. When looking at “large” through the triple-constraint triangle, the word can be defined in terms of scope (quality), resources (people) and time. Large construction projects are generally high-visibility, public sector works, like stadiums, capital improvement projects and transportation corridors. They often last longer than one year, require cooperation between hundreds of stakeholders and cost more than $50 million to complete.

Large can translate into intimidating, uncontrollable or even excessive, but project management principles relating to communication, time management, quality and human resources can transform overwhelming tasks into successful deliverables.

Communication Considerations

Both large and small projects share their need for communication procedures, quality control processes and schedules, but the importance and the consequences of such basics are much greater with megaprojects, according to Blake Peck, president elect of the Construction Management Association of America and a principal with McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc., Fairfax, Va., USA. Engineering News-Record lists the firm among the 2001 Top 100 Construction Management and Design-Build firms (

Peck says that, with much larger stakes, communications become paramount. “You must have good dialogue and maintain constant communication so there will be no surprises when scoping,” he says. “People hear, but they don't listen. Project managers must understand what level of functionality and quality the deliverable will have, the real budget, and both the absolute necessities and what the owner would fund if there is money left over.”

“Communication management and planning is a big portion of the project management effort that most people don't even think about,” says Greg Blakemore, a Louisville, Ky., USA-based onsite corporate trainer in project management methods. “So many people are concerned with fast tracking that, from a big-picture standpoint, communication planning is especially important. There are many stakeholders who want information, and project managers must figure out what pieces of information they need and when they need it.”

Time Management

Communication also plays a part in time management. While scheduling software is helpful in detailing tasks, when problems arise, it sometimes takes senior project managers to see inefficiencies and how to “crunch” time. “The people doing the work can have tunnel vision—it's hard for them to have a big-picture view of the schedule and what must be done to maintain the schedule,” Blakemore says. “It takes the right people to make a schedule happen.”


“Due to long lead times, you really have to be on top of scheduling because, if you delay, the lost time and money involved to rectify the situation are significantly magnified,” Peck says. “A small boat may be able to turn around quickly, but a large vessel takes more effort and manpower to get back on track.”

When possible, it's best to build flexibility and responsiveness into the schedule, Peck says, stressing that managers should look at places where more resources, manpower or equipment could speed tasks. “Also, look at processes that can be concurrent—what can be done at the same time that won't create problems in subsequent operations. Typically, there's a natural flow to construction—structure before walls, and so on. However, a floor doesn't have to be complete before moving to the next stage—with multifloor scheduling, the crew will be kept busy.”

Peck says that, when working with a schedule, managers should apply their construction knowledge to determine where preconceptions are restraining innovation. “Look at resources, time frame and how much work is occurring at one time,” he says. “In a preconstruction schedule, if a manager decides that time isn't realistic for a task, that should be shared upfront— the imposed end date may not be the real driving date.”

Quality Concerns

The larger the project the more specialists you'll need (i.e., team members focused on specific project management aspects). Like the term “large,” the concept of “quality” often is hard to judge; what's quality to one is not up to snuff for another, and communication of objectives remains pivotal.

For large projects, Blakemore advocates the employment of quality specialists. “Historically, we've relied on architects and engineers to perform inspections,” he says. “Every project requires some rework or has quality issues—everybody has their bad days, and you have to deal with that. In large projects, we build in time as well as a cost contingency. We don't tell the workers, but the owner knows that we are ready to deal with glitches. The key is to report these occurrences and to decide how to react to them.”


Construction Risks

Initiation can be a difficult part of large construction because scope definition and project planning will affect the quality of the deliverable. Permitting and zoning issues are typically covered during project planning.

“Always review the scope document with the owner,” Blakemore says. “Progressive elaboration occurs as you go through the project, but a lot of decisions are made in preliminary documents. Check that elaboration matches original intent to determine if you are exceeding or meeting expectations.”

Each operation should have checklists that communicate the key inspection points, Peck says, stressing that a punch list runs smoothly as long as team members know the expected quality from the start. “If quality problems are found later in the project, managers must rely on resources committed to the punch list items.”

Safety is another issue that requires special attention on large projects. An owner-controlled insurance plan may realize cost savings because one provider insures the whole job, according to Peck. “Assign risk to the party that can bear it at lowest cost. For example, a contractor does not have the capacity to generate an accurate design—it's better to employ designers and make them responsible for the associated risks.”

Big Projects, Bold Choices: Modern Works in Progress

Large projects present big challenges for all involved— and big opportunities. Here are some highlights of large construction in the works.

International Space Station

The International Space Station will be a 1-million-pound, 356 x 290-foot permanent orbiting laboratory capable of performing long-duration research.Due to its international nature and different countries doing concurrent research, it must be able to house up to seven astronauts at once. NASA reports that it will take more than 90 U.S. and Russian space missions and more than a thousand hours of spacewalks to complete.

Before space construction began, NASA and the Russian Space Agency cooperated using the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Russian space station Mir to prepare for station assembly and operation.

The flight of seven American astronauts and more than 140 experiments on Mir were important steps in preparing for Space Station assembly and research, according to NASA, which reports that engineers became aware that the International Space Station design needed adjustment. Improvements include:

image Modification to the station's software so that all intermodule ventilation can be shut off with a single command.

image Addition of Space Station track lighting for rendezvous and docking.

The project is scheduled for completion in 2002, NASA reports, and completed project milestones include:

image In November 1998, the control module Zarya (Sunrise), a 20-ton, 43-foot-long module that contains propulsion, command and control systems was launched on a Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan.

image In December 1998, Node-1, the first U.S. pressurized module of the Space Station, named Unity, was launched from Kennedy Space Center and was successfully joined to Zarya in space.


image In May 1999, an international crew of seven became the first visitors to the station on Space Shuttle mission STS-96, preparing for the arrival of its early living quarters. Space Shuttle Discovery carried more than 3,600 pounds of supplies to be stored aboard the station, ranging from food and clothes for the first crew to laptop computers, a printer and cameras.

Millennium Park, Chicago, USA

Planned as a new 16.5-acre park along Chicago's lake front, the Millennium Park project has suffered from scope changes, according to Design-Build (www.designbuild The $150-million plan originally called for reconstruction of a grass-covered parking garage, a new 2,400-space garage, a deck spanning rail tracks, and a park.

Today, donor-funded enhancements to the park include the Frank Gehry-designed music pavilion and trellis, an ice-skating rink, a large fountain, and a pedestrian bridge across Chicago's Columbus Drive, linking the music pavilion and great lawn to the eastern portion of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. As a result of the additions, the price on the project rose 80 percent to $270 million, according to Design-Build.

The reconstruction of Grant Park's North Parking Garage is the only portion of the entire Millennium Park project completed on time and on budget, according to Design-Build. Pushed to open the parking deck in time for December 2000 holiday shopping, a design/build firm completed the project seven months early under the $70-million price cap.

Quality control also has played a part in the project. After cracking was observed in the two lower levels of a different newly built parking garage, structural engineering firm McDonough Associates Inc., Chicago, Ill., USA, agreed to pay for the fix, according to Engineering News-Record (9 April 2001), which reports that the engineer was limited to two expansion joints per column “to satisfy architectural requirements.“Because the problem was caught early, repairs were not expected to affect the garage's scheduled completion. Completion of the park with enhancements is scheduled for 2002.

Gotthard Rail Tunnel, Switzerland

With a finish date of 2012, work is proceeding under the Gotthard mountain range (part of the Swiss Alps) on what's being billed as the world's longest rail tunnel. The project, initiated in 1993 and made possible with funding (85 percent) approved in a 1998 national referendum, will enable high-speed rail service along the 36 miles from Erstfeld to Bodio, Switzerland, approximately 25 miles from the Italian border—a heavily traveled route.

Preparation for the project included an exploratory program to clarify geological conditions, and in 1996, an access tunnel was begun in Sedrun, Switzerland.The portal sections in Erstfeld and Bodio are considered critical to the scheduled completion of the tunnel, according to AlpTransit Gotthard AG, the Swiss Railways subsidiary managing the project.

The tunnel work was designed to be constructed as five smaller sections (Erstfeld, Amsteg, Sedrun, Faido and Bodio) but two contingencies were developed based on use of a boring machine or blasting, the firm says.

”[The project] is so complex, involving so many different disciplines from geology and tectonics to ventilation, construction and tunneling, “AlpTransit Spokesman Yves Bonanomi reported to the Electronic Telegraph (“This is the project of the century.”

Tunnel boring is planned to start in 2002, and when construction is in full swing in 2003, the project is expected to be Europe's biggest construction site with 2,500 workers, the Electronic Telegraph reports.

The tunnel will be 14 miles longer than the Channel tunnel (England to France) and an estimated US$2 billion cheaper.

Tips for Managing a Large WBS

image Stick to the work breakdown structure (WBS) basics.Take the scope definition, make sure the owner and project team have an understanding about the work to be done, and communicate to make the shared vision a reality.

image Participate in a feedback loop to report on progress. Decide the level of control needed for each task and the level of tracking that is useful. If problems arise, report them accurately and offer solutions. Address them while there's still time to make an informed difference.

image Schedule the convergence of people and commodities. Many operations are based on a promise of delivery, so look at when resources are required. If supplies are late, have an alternative plan to keep the project going.

image Commit to a dedicated scheduler who is accountable. Larger projects require larger staffs. Know who is responsible for particular tasks and make sure they know the important metrics to track.

image Employ language standards in multinational projects. Because an owner may communicate in one language while the project team and those actually doing the work communicate in another, project documents should be standardized to minimize misunderstandings.

image Give realistic delivery dates. Don't base projections on what you're expected to say or the owner will encounter surprises later on.


“The people doing the work can have tunnel vision—it‘s hard for them to have a big-picture view of the schedule and what must be done to maintain the schedule. It takes the right people to make a schedule happen.”

“As companies mature, managers start to realize patterns,” Blakemore says. “Risk management plans become templates. Managers learn to balance common sense with time and effort.”

Handling Scope Creep

Generally, the larger the project, the more opportunities for scope creep to occur. One way to minimize the possibility is to detail scope during initial design, says Peck. “During the design phase, there are several scope checkpoints—starting when 35 percent of the conceptual drawing is complete. We then make sure that the scope matches up in terms of what's integrated at 65,95 and 100 percent of the final design.”

If a scope change occurs during the course of construction, a communication system must be in place to alert all decision-makers before the additional work is done. Project reporting must communicate how each change will affect schedule, quality, the budget and risk.

“It's important for the project team to understand the organizational breakdown structure,” says Blakemore. “Everyone on the owner's side may think they have authority to make changes, so sometimes changes occur without justification. Marry the culture of your organization and all the other entities involved.”

“Managing cost is a day-to-day thing, and weekly meetings with the owner's representative ensures that only approved changes take place,” Peck says. “Keep a running tally of the proposed changes vs. the proposed contingency plan and budget.”

In addition, Blakemore says that managers in the field must know their limitations and their decision-making power. “When only one person can make decisions, a project only moves as fast as that person can make them,” he says, stressing that a cost trigger can help speed processes.

If a customer wants something not originally included in a contract, it may throw a wrench into the original schedule. “Define the gray areas, accommodate what you can and look at the least obtrusive way of adding extras without significantly changing project timing,” Peck says. “Work around the changes and work concurrently so you don't lose time.”


Human Issues

Attrition occurs as a matter of course on construction jobs, but especially in long-duration projects. “A big part of managing projects is keeping the right people in the right positions at the right time,” Blakemore says. “You have to be sensitive to the team and project managers. Pull people aside to see how things are going. Keep your fingers on the project pulse and help with team-building efforts. People want recognition more than money.”

Blakemore asserts that team building is harder on today's construction projects due to turnover and the number of subcontracted services. He says construction firms must work at intertwining their corporate cultures with those of both their customer and suppliers. “Price is not the overriding factor when choosing services—corporate culture is. Realize who you can best work with right at the start.”

“Communicate expectations, achieve interim successes and celebrate those,” Peck says. “We always know about our mistakes, but it's important to know our successes too. If someone has a good idea, don't wait until the end of the project to give a quality award—that worker is doing something above and beyond what is expected and should be an example for others on the site.”

PM Network August 2001



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