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Construction Project Management

The Owners' Perspective


Construction Project Management Like the five blind men encountering different parts of an elephant, each of the numerous participants in the process of planning, designing, financing, constructing and operating physical facilities has a different perspective on construction project management. Specialized knowledge can be very beneficial, particularly in large and complicated projects, since experts in various specialties can provide valuable services. However, it is advantageous to understand how the different parts of the process fit together. Waste, excessive cost and delays can result from poor coordination and communication among specialists. It is particularly in the interest of owners to insure that such problems do not occur. And it behooves all participants in the process to heed the interests of owners because, in the end, it is the owners who provide the resources and call the shots.

By adopting the viewpoint of the owners, we can focus our attention on the complete process of construction project management for constructed facilities rather than the historical roles of various specialists such as planners, architects, engineering designers, constructors, fabricators, material suppliers, financial analysts and others. To be sure, each specialty has made important advances in developing new techniques and tools for efficient implementation of construction projects. However, it is through the understanding of the entire process of construction project management that these specialists can respond more effectively to the owner's desires for their services, in marketing their specialties, and in improving the productivity and quality of their work.

The introduction of innovative and more effective project management for construction is not an academic exercise. As reported by the "Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness Project" of the Business Roundtable:

By common consensus and every available measure, the United States no longer gets it's money's worth in construction, the nation's largest industry ... The creeping erosion of construction efficiency and productivity is bad news for the entire U.S. economy. Construction is a particularly seminal industry. The price of every factory, office building, hotel or power plant that is built affects the price that must be charged for the goods or services produced in it or by it. And that effect generally persists for decades ... Too much of the industry remains tethered to the past, partly by inertia and partly by historic divisions...

Improvement of construction project management not only can aid the construction industry, but may also be the engine for the national and world economy. However, if we are to make meaningful improvements, we must first understand the construction industry, its operating environment and the institutional constraints affecting its activities as well as the nature of construction project management.

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1.2 The Project Life Cycle

The acquisition of a constructed facility usually represents a major capital investment, whether its owner happens to be an individual, a private corporation or a public agency. Since the commitment of resources for such an investment is motivated by market demands or perceived needs, the facility is expected to satisfy certain objectives within the constraints specified by the owner and relevant regulations. With the exception of the speculative housing market, where the residential units may be sold as built by the real estate developer, most constructed facilities are custom made in consultation with the owners. A real estate developer may be regarded as the sponsor of building projects, as much as a government agency may be the sponsor of a public project and turns it over to another government unit upon its completion. From the viewpoint of project management, the terms "owner" and "sponsor" are synonymous because both have the ultimate authority to make all important decisions. Since an owner is essentially acquiring a facility on a promise in some form of agreement, it will be wise for any owner to have a clear understanding of the acquisition process in order to maintain firm control of the quality, timeliness and cost of the completed facility.

From the perspective of an owner, the project life cycle for a constructed facility may be illustrated schematically in Figure 1-1. Essentially, a project is conceived to meet market demands or needs in a timely fashion. Various possibilities may be considered in the conceptual planning stage, and the technological and economic feasibility of each alternative will be assessed and compared in order to select the best possible project. The financing schemes for the proposed alternatives must also be examined, and the project will be programmed with respect to the timing for its completion and for available cash flows. After the scope of the project is clearly defined, detailed engineering design will provide the blueprint for construction, and the definitive cost estimate will serve as the baseline for cost control. In the procurement and construction stage, the delivery of materials and the erection of the project on site must be carefully planned and controlled. After the construction is completed, there is usually a brief period of start-up or shake-down of the constructed facility when it is first occupied. Finally, the construction project management of the facility is turned over to the owner for full occupancy until the facility lives out its useful life and is designated for demolition or conversion.

Project Life Cycle

Figure 1-1:  The Project Life Cycle of a Constructed Facility 

Of course, the stages of development in Figure 1-1 may not be strictly sequential. Some of the stages require iteration, and others may be carried out in parallel or with overlapping time frames, depending on the nature, size and urgency of the project. Furthermore, an owner may have in-house capacities to handle the work in every stage of the entire process, or it may seek professional advice and services for the work in all stages. Understandably, most owners choose to handle some of the work in-house and to contract outside professional services for other components of the work as needed. By examining the project life cycle from an owner's perspective we can focus on the proper roles of various activities and participants in all stages regardless of the contractual arrangements for different types of work.

In the United States, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has in-house capabilities to deal with planning, budgeting, design, construction and operation of waterway and flood control structures. Other public agencies, such as state transportation departments, are also deeply involved in all phases of a construction project. In the private sector, many large firms such as DuPont, Exxon, and IBM are adequately staffed to carry out most activities for plant expansion. All these owners, both public and private, use outside agents to a greater or lesser degree when it becomes more advantageous to do so.

The project life cycle may be viewed as a process through which a project is implemented from cradle to grave. This process is often very complex; however, it can be decomposed into several stages as indicated by the general outline in Figure 1-1. The solutions at various stages are then integrated to obtain the final outcome. Although each stage requires different expertise, it usually includes both technical and managerial activities in the knowledge domain of the specialist. The owner may choose to decompose the entire process into more or less stages based on the size and nature of the project, and thus obtain the most efficient result in implementation. Very often, the owner retains direct control of work in the planning and programming stages, but increasingly outside planners and financial experts are used as consultants because of the complexities of projects. Since operation and maintenance of a facility will go on long after the completion and acceptance of a project, it is usually treated as a separate problem except in the consideration of the life cycle cost of a facility. All stages from conceptual planning and feasibility studies to the acceptance of a facility for occupancy may be broadly lumped together and referred to as the Design/Construct process, while the procurement and construction alone are traditionally regarded as the province of the construction industry.

Owners must recognize that there is no single best approach in organizing project management throughout a project's life cycle. All organizational approaches have advantages and disadvantages, depending on the knowledge of the owner in construction project management as well as the type, size and location of the project. It is important for the owner to be aware of the approach which is most appropriate and beneficial for a particular project. In making choices, owners should be concerned with the life cycle costs of constructed facilities rather than simply the initial construction costs. Saving small amounts of money during construction may not be worthwhile if the result is much larger operating costs or not meeting the functional requirements for the new facility satisfactorily. Thus, owners must be very concerned with the quality of the finished product as well as the cost of construction itself. Since facility operation and maintenance is a part of the project life cycle, the owners' expectation to satisfy investment objectives during the project life cycle will require consideration of the cost of operation and maintenance. Therefore, the facility's operating management should also be considered as early as possible, just as the construction process should be kept in mind at the early stages of planning and programming.

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Major Types of Construction

Since most owners are generally interested in acquiring only a specific type of constructed facility, they should be aware of the common industrial practices for the type of construction pertinent to them. Likewise, the construction industry is a conglomeration of quite diverse segments and products. Some owners may procure a constructed facility only once in a long while and tend to look for short term advantages. However, many owners require periodic acquisition of new facilities and/or rehabilitation of existing facilities. It is to their advantage to keep the construction industry healthy and productive. Collectively, the owners have more power to influence the construction industry than they realize because, by their individual actions, they can provide incentives or disincentives for innovation, efficiency and quality in construction. It is to the interest of all parties that the owners take an active interest in the construction and exercise beneficial influence on the performance of the industry.

In planning for various types of construction, the methods of procuring professional services, awarding construction contracts, and financing the constructed facility can be quite different. For the purpose of discussion, the broad spectrum of constructed facilities may be classified into four major categories, each with its own characteristics.

Residential Housing Construction

Residential housing construction includes single-family houses, multi-family dwellings, and high-rise apartments. During the development and construction of such projects, the developers or sponsors who are familiar with the construction industry usually serve as surrogate owners and take charge, making necessary contractual agreements for design and construction, and arranging the financing and sale of the completed structures. Residential housing designs are usually performed by architects and engineers, and the construction executed by builders who hire subcontractors for the structural, mechanical, electrical and other specialty work. An exception to this pattern is for single-family houses which may be designed by the builders as well.

The residential housing market is heavily affected by general economic conditions, tax laws, and the monetary and fiscal policies of the government. Often, a slight increase in total demand will cause a substantial investment in construction, since many housing projects can be started at different locations by different individuals and developers at the same time. Because of the relative ease of entry, at least at the lower end of the market, many new builders are attracted to the residential housing construction. Hence, this market is highly competitive, with potentially high risks as well as high rewards.

Residential Steel Framing    Residential Steel Framing Completed

Figure 1-2:  Residential Housing Construction

Institutional and Commercial Building Construction

Institutional and commercial building construction encompasses a great variety of project types and sizes, such as schools and universities, medical clinics and hospitals, recreational facilities and sports stadiums, retail chain stores and large shopping centers, warehouses and light manufacturing plants, and skyscrapers for offices and hotels. The owners of such buildings may or may not be familiar with different types of construction project management technics and, or construction industry practices, but they usually are able to select competent professional consultants and arrange the financing of the constructed facilities themselves. Specialty architects and engineers are often engaged for designing a specific type of building, while the builders or general contractors undertaking such projects may also be specialized in only that type of building.

Because of the higher costs and greater sophistication of institutional and commercial buildings in comparison with residential housing, this market segment is shared by fewer competitors. Since the construction of some of these buildings is a long process which once started will take some time to proceed until completion, the demand is less sensitive to general economic conditions than that for speculative housing. Consequently, the owners may confront an oligopoly of general contractors who compete in the same market. In an oligopoly situation, only a limited number of competitors exist, and a firm's price for services may be based in part on its competitive strategies in the local market.

PPG Building in Pittsburg, PA

Figure 1-3:  Construction of the PPG Building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (courtesy of PPG Industries, Inc.)

Specialized Industrial Construction

Specialized industrial construction usually involves very large scale projects with a high degree of technological complexity, such as oil refineries, steel mills, chemical processing plants and coal-fired or nuclear power plants. The owners usually are deeply involved in the development of a project, and prefer to work with designers-builders such that the total time for the completion of the project can be shortened. They also want to pick a team of designers and builders with whom the owner has developed good working relations over the years.

Although the initiation of such projects is also affected by the state of the economy, long range demand forecasting is the most important factor since such projects are capital intensive and require considerable amount of planning and construction time. Governmental regulation such as the rulings of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States can also profoundly influence decisions on these projects.

Benzene Plant

Figure 1-4:  Construction of a Benzene Plant in Lima, Ohio

Infrastructure and Heavy Construction

Infrastructure and heavy construction includes projects such as highways, mass transit systems, tunnels, bridges, pipelines, drainage systems and sewage treatment plants. Most of these projects are publicly owned and therefore financed either through bonds or taxes. This category of construction is characterized by a high degree of mechanization, which has gradually replaced some labor intensive operations.

The engineers, builders and construction project management teams engaged in infrastructure construction are usually highly specialized since each segment of the market requires different types of skills. However, demands for different segments of infrastructure and heavy construction may shift with saturation in some segments. For example, as the available highway construction projects are declining, some heavy construction contractors quickly move their work force and equipment into the field of mining where jobs are available.

Dame Point Bridge

Figure 1-5:  Construction of the Dame Point Bridge in Jacksonville, Florida

For extensive information on this subject go to this Carnegie Mellon University web site.