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3 Construction Management Lessons From 21st Century Megaprojects

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Sometimes, it feels like you’re building the Burj Khalifa.

Sure, you’re actually constructing a four-story office building on the outskirts of town and not a 163-story mega-skyscraper in the heart of Dubai.

But on any construction project, you know things can quickly get very, very complex. Maybe you found out you have to totally reroute the plumbing, or a subcontractor got the math wrong on the flooring materials.

Construction management software can facilitate organization, but sometimes it isn’t enough. It takes leadership and experience to get a project done on time, and on budget.

Mistakes made on other construction projects offer learning experiences you can apply to your next project. Let’s dive into a few lessons from some of the biggest construction projects of the 21st century.

1. The Big Dig (Boston)

Photo of Big Dig via U.S. government

Aerial view of the Big Dig (via U.S. government)

The Big Dig in Boston may be the most infamous project of the 21st century. Launched in 1982, it involved building a tunnel straight through the heart of the city and extending Interstate 90 out to Logan International Airport (just two of the most significant aspects of this mammoth undertaking).

What you may not know is that this wasn’t even supposed to be a 21st century project. From the outset, officials planned to wrap up the project in 1998. Cost overruns, delays, design fails, bad execution, criminal prosecutions, and even a death caused the project to stretch out to December 2007.

A project that was supposed to cost $2.8 billion swelled to $8.08 billion in 1982 dollars by 2007 ($14.6 billion in 2007 dollars).

Key lesson for construction managers: One of the biggest obstacles during the project involved the dig. Tunnel workers ran into glacial debris, the foundations of buried houses, and even sunken ships.

Many construction projects will require you to dig, and although you’re unlikely to run into the same type of obstacles as the Big Dig, there’s all sorts of problems you can encounter while digging that can set your project back. And it’s not just money or delays you risk during a dig; striking a utility line you don’t know is there can injure a worker, or worse.

It doesn’t matter how small your dig is, you must call utilities by dialing 811 and ask them to come out and mark their underground facilities if you’re removing material. A staggering 700,000 underground utility lines are struck during excavation work every year. Don’t be next.

2. CityCenter (Las Vegas)

Photo of CityCenter Las Vegas via Wikimedia user Tristan Surtel

CityCenter in Las Vegas (via Wikimedia user Tristan Surtel)

Seventeen million square feet on 67 acres along the Las Vegas Strip. Considering the scope of this project, it’s no surprise that the Las Vegas CityCenter and Aria Casino project ended up costing $8.5 billion.

MGM Resorts International, in partnership with Dubai World, spearheaded the project, which was completed in December 2009 and represented the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history.

The project was announced in November 2004 and involved 2,400 condominium units and 4,800 hotel rooms, in addition to retail and entertainment space.

Key lesson for construction managers: CityCenter is an excellent reminder to construction managers of how important it is to keep safety front and center.

A total of six deaths occurred at the site over the length of the construction project. It led to construction workers shutting down the project in June 2008, and walking off the job to protest safety conditions. The Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council stepped in to demand that the contractor take steps to improve safety, which Perini Building Co. agreed to the next day.

As a construction manager, you are 100% responsible for the safety of your crew, both morally and legally. Workers getting hurt on the job not only sets your project back, but also opens you up to lawsuits and can earn unwanted attention from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Make reviewing OSHA standards a regular part of your routine. Construction managers often get sidetracked by pressing matters such as staying on schedule or managing supplies, but a lapse in safety standards can cause complete chaos.

3. World Trade Center (New York City)

Photo of One World Trade Center via Flickr user Joe Mabel

One World Trade Center in New York City (via Flickr user Joe Mabel)

Ever since the towers fell after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been itching for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt. The problem? There wasn’t much agreement on how to go about it.

After numerous setbacks, obstacles, and hiccups, the Freedom Tower now casts a shadow over Lower Manhattan. Construction of One World Trade Center was completed in November 2014, but various other buildings that are part of the intended overall complex are still under construction. The complex’s final cost is a moving target, but is somewhere in the area of $30 billion.

Key lesson for construction managers: Freedom Tower and the entire One World Trade Center project are intended as a massive memorial to the victims of 9/11, but are also an excellent reminder to construction managers of the importance of having your ducks in a row, whether it be reviewing local regulations, nailing down a detailed design with your customer, or making sure you’ve got all necessary parties dialed in.

Freedom Tower took well over a decade to complete (and the rest of the complex is still under construction). The project encountered constant battles along the way, starting with the design phase; some thought the whole site should remain undeveloped, some thought the original towers should be rebuilt, and some just hated the new design. Even after the project got underway, there were numerous clashes between the developer and the city. Plans were scrapped, and the project has gone through many alterations.

For a massive and highly public project like One World Trade Center, such struggles can’t be avoided. But as a construction manager, you can take steps to keep your project on track by dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s.

First, you must reach an agreement with your customer on a detailed design—not just a conceptual drawing. Secondly: review local regulations and zoning restrictions to make sure everything is up to code, and that nothing will spring up in the middle of the project to throw everything off track. And third, you need to consult with your suppliers and crew to determine if your schedule and budget are realistic.

What other 21st century projects left a big impact on you?

There are a lot of huge, multi-billion-dollar development projects going on around the globe, and undoubtedly one or two has caught your eye. Which ones do you find most fascinating? What lessons have you applied from those projects? Let us know in the comments below.

Looking for Construction Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Construction Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Dan Taylor

Dan is a content writer at Capterra, specializing in hotel management, construction and real estate. Outside the office, he enjoys spending time with his family and friends, catching up with the latest offering from HBO or paying a visit to a new place.

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