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How to Make Sure You’re Building Better When You’re Building Bigger

From the $3.1 billion One Vanderbilt skyscraper in New York to the $2.7 billion Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Project in North Dakota, enormous – and eye-wateringly expensive – construction projects are on the rise.

These ambitious projects don’t just demand bigger budgets. They also create far more onerous demands when it comes to effective coordination. Without an effective way to manage these endeavors, things can quickly descend into chaos, pushing projects over budget and schedule.

To cope, contractors increasingly embrace approaches like BIM – and technologies built around this – to help them pinpoint effective design solutions, identify the best possible materials, and handle scheduling.

Let’s take a closer look at how this works.

But first.. what is a “mega” project?

A mega-project refers to any construction project valued at a billion dollars or more. That could include infrastructure projects, airports, hospitals, large-scale schools or any other sprawling, high-budget project.

The complexity of the project varies from case to case, but in every situation, contractors need reliable ways to coordinate teams, anticipate and overcome obstacles, and boost efficiency at every stage.

Why the trend for bigger buildings?

Mega projects aren’t a new thing, but we’re about to see a boom.

Many projects that were put on hold around the world due to the pandemic are now reopening. Efforts to restart the economy mean spending packages are being announced in many countries.

In the U.S. in particular, billions of dollars in funds are being released into infrastructure renewal.

Investment in U.S. infrastructure

President Biden recently unveiled plans to invest heavily in American infrastructure. This includes modernizations for 20,000 miles of highway and roads, repairs for major bridges and 10,000 smaller ones, upgrades to airports and rail and bus stations, and expansions of existing railway and subway networks.

That’s a lot of complex construction work on the horizon – including, potentially, several mega projects. What’s more, since these projects are funded by government authorities, and fall under the jurisdiction of multiple departments, they’ll be subject to rigorous oversight from several stakeholders.

Right from the design stage, many different groups will need to agree on the design of each project. Once they are ready to mobilize, this will take a ton of pre-planning, with all these different groups weighing in. Unless you’re incredibly organized, this can lead to delays – especially if there is no clear, delegated “owner” of the project to drive it forward.

The challenges of building bigger

The larger and more complex your project, the more each individual problem will spiral out of control. If the scope of work changes, it’s frustrating enough to have to rework a single contract or schedule. When you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands, this can be disastrous.

Take the Honolulu rail project in Hawaii. Ten years ago, when the project began, it was forecasted to cost $5 million. Now, an avalanche of problems has bloated the costs to a whopping $9 billion – and it’s only half-built!

Much of the trouble stemmed from the fact that the city began building before planning was complete. Without a proper strategy in place, disputes emerged and a hundred contracts had to be renegotiated. It then turned out that the lines were going to cut through native burial grounds – something the project managers should have known – and work had to stop for more than a year while a solution was found. It’s unlikely that the rail project will be operational until at least 2026.

This project might not have started out as a mega project, but thanks to poor planning, organization and oversight, it’s certainly become one now.

Generally speaking, the larger the project, the more layers and complexity this will add. Depending on the type of project, you may find that contractors are subject to far more scrutiny and oversight than usual, given the high stakes. If it’s a publicly funded project, especially, multiple different bodies will likely weigh in with their own standards, regulations and reporting requirements. That’s a lot of quality control layers to jump through, so you’ll need a way to double and triple check you’re meeting every single demand. Otherwise, a small oversight could cause major delays.

But on the other end of the scale, on some projects that really could do with the extra oversight to keep them on track, contractors and subcontractors end up being scrutinized less. If they haven’t been properly planned, there may be fewer checks and balances in place – or the project may lack communication channels to monitor these individual teams.

This might feel like less of a hassle to deal with than micromanaged projects, but it creates enormous risks. If no one notices quality slipping in one area, or that the project is in breach of city codes, or that a contractor is going over budget and fudging the numbers at the end of the month, these issues will eventually come to light. They simply can’t be concealed forever. And when they do, the entire project could be thrown in jeopardy – or at the very least, be put on hold until you get to the bottom of the problem.

Getting the right technology mix

The key to getting this right is to make sure you have easy-to-use technologies that support the move towards modular construction and prefabrication.

You need to simplify your management of larger projects as much as you can – including using pre-assembled components where possible. You also need a swift, effective way to communicate the latest information to all personnel.

A platform that combines BIM and project management is essential here. This reduces risk and alleviates coordination challenges by helping you split up the project into smaller chunks. It also means that you can share access to up-to-date building models, status and other information with key stakeholders and participants, keeping everyone on the same page.

It also helps you to handle another common problem: labor shortages. The pandemic saw millions of construction workers laid off – and many of these have moved into other fields, rather than returning to the industry. Staffing mega projects compounds this issue. Not only do you need more people to work on the project, it’s harder to organize the teams you do have efficiently and effectively.

With a BIM-based management tool, you get better visibility over the project. You can visualize exactly where you’re at. You can reshuffle schedules, mapping the knock-on effect this will have on other tasks and labor demands to complete them.

Final thoughts: seizing the opportunity

Increased investment in infrastructure – especially mega projects – creates the potential for incredibly lucrative projects for general contractors. But without the right technology to handle them, they can quickly turn into loss-making disasters.

Whatever system you choose to manage your project, make sure that it combines BIM, project controls, quality control, document management, building coordination and visual scheduling. That it supports a pivot to LEAN processes. That it helps you map out and communicate every stage of the project successfully and seamlessly. That it improves transparency, so that nasty surprises don’t spring up and threaten the project.

This gives you the ability to create a watertight strategy, zoom into the details and manage your workflow throughout the project. But it goes further. With these best-in-class tools on your side, you can demonstrate to project owners or government bodies commissioning them that you’re set up to minimize disruption. That they’ll get complete oversight. That you’ll keep them on schedule and under budget.

These are the assurances you’ll need to make to win these bigger projects in the first place – and reap the rewards of the building bigger trend.

Unsure where to start? Discover the tools that Hexagon PPM software offers to help you manage bigger projects here >

About the Author

DJ is an AEC Senior Industry Consultant, and his experience in the construction industry over the past decade spans from New York to California. He has worked on projects in healthcare, senior living, mixed-use, renovations, power plants and distribution centers. He holds a bachelor of science in structural engineering from the University of Illinois and has received certifications as a Certified Healthcare Constructor (CHC), Certificate of Management – Building Information Modeling (CM-BIM) and Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certification (LSSYB).

Profile Photo of DJ Weymouth