What Makes Construction Projects Different?


Construction Of A New Tesco, Rotherham. Courtesy Chris FPage

As Project Managers, we are ultimately responsible for the success of any project; planning, organizing, and controlling every detail through to completion. We are often tasked with the organization and leadership of a team of design professionals, suppliers, contractors, and other service providers in the delivery of planned or structured works within client requirements, timelines, budgets, and specifications.

According to the Goals & Method Matrix developed by Turner and Cochrane, there are four types of projects. Construction projects are traditionally classified as Type 1 or Engineering type projects, differing from the others because their goals and methods are clearly defined. Covering residential, commercial, industrial, civil, and environmental applications, construction projects are heavily resource intensive and place a major focus on activity-based planning. They are thus more likely to succeed over other research, product, and system development type projects. Their complexity, uniqueness, uncertainty, major capital outlays, and operating environments also make them highly complicated and risky undertakings for any client. 

For Project Managers, having the requisite experience in and knowledge of the construction industry, applicable leadership and management skills, and understanding of what differentiates construction projects from other type projects, can help to better overcome the obstacles to implementation and improve chances for success. What then are those features which make construction projects so different? Let's take a look:

  • Construction is typically undertaken at a fixed location or site, requiring a closer look at the logistical complexities involved. The building materials and resources required will have to be procured and taken to the site. Where the works are significant in scope, working space, traffic management, security, public health and safety, and the environmental impact of the operations will all have to be given consideration.
  • Weather creates uncertainty for any project. Here in the Caribbean, we often contend with rain and potential threat of storms and hurricanes. In other parts of the world, temperature, snow, water, and sand can have a negative impact on the progression of works.
  • In modern construction, the introduction of new materials and technologies, methods, and requirements for sustainable or green development, can all contribute toward increasing levels of risk and complexity. Thorough project planning, design, research, and procurement can aid in their reduction and management.
  • Rodney Turner defined projects as temporary organizations to which resources are assigned to do work. This temporary organization means that there tends to be boundaries between the various members of the project team in terms of roles, skills, experience, and knowledge. This has perceptible implications for leadership, teamwork, collaboration, integration, communication, management, and organizational efficiency.
  • The uniqueness of construction projects also mean that the external influences and constraints would be different, yet subject to change throughout the project timeline. These can include rates of technological change, sources of financing, market forces, climate change, politics, and changing client requirements.
  • The timelines of construction projects are typically measured in years. Accordingly clients would typically be required to have prepared and formalized at a very early stage, a design and budget. With some projects, the finer details and points are not fully worked out until after the works have commenced, thereby negatively impacting cost, quality, and timelines for the completion of activities.
  • Finally, differing members of the project organization to have balance conflicting commercial business interests and against achieving the aims and objectives of the project. For example, contractors may focus more on profit maximization and less on the other parameters which define project success. Clients on the other will seek to have the asset delivered in the shortest time possible, at the lowest cost, with the highest quality. Consultants, based on their contractual arrangements, may seek to also maximize their incomes, by limiting their time on the project. This offers a very complex landscape which has to be navigated, and often doesn't work to the best advantage of the project itself.