Project Success: Q&A with Builders and Managers

All Owners work closely with their contractors and other vendors on projects, but do they fully understand the contractor’s perspective? We spoke to Larry Casey from Skanska USA and Keith Douglas from Whiting-Turner to find out what makes or breaks a project’s success from their point of view.

OP: In your opinion, what is the most successful project you have been involved in at your current company?

Keith Douglas, Whiting-Turner: After 27 years with Whiting-Turner, I now manage five offices throughout the southeast and countless projects. In that time, I would like to think that all of these projects have been successful. However, the one that clearly stands out in my memory as being the most successful was constructing the Aquatic Center for the 1996 Olympic Games on the campus of Georgia Tech.

Larry Casey, Skanska USA: The $1 billion New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, completed this year for the New York Jets and New York Giants football teams, was an extremely successful project for Skanska USA.

OP: To what factors do you attribute this success?

Douglas: The overwhelming sense of pride that all of the team members felt after completing the project and literally having the world see what we created. We set out to achieve many goals at the beginning of design; schedule was obviously very important, as was budget. We achieved both of those goals. But, we also wanted to design and build the fastest competition pool in the world. We wanted the swimmers to break world records. On this front, we were highly successful. A world record was broken in the first race on the opening night and many more followed.

Casey: The project delivery method. The Owner chose the Design/Build approach, which provided a single point of responsibility for project delivery in collaboration with an Owner’s representative and active ownership team. Skanska exceeded 30 percent minority participation for this private ownership team and we were the first to use BIM and RFID on a stadium that enabled schedule acceleration. The project was completed five months ahead of the original opening date within budget and with minimal Owner changes.
OP: Tell us about your most successful Owner/vendor partnership on a project.

Douglas: The Olympic Aquatic Center was an extremely successful Owner partnership.

Casey: The New Meadowlands Stadium, explained in the previous question, was the most successful partnership I’ve experienced.

OP: What made this relationship go so smoothly, both on your company’s end and on the Owner’s side?

Douglas: The biggest factor I can attribute to our success was that everyone was truly motivated to succeed. The project goals were real; they were clearly articulated; and they were understood by all team members and trades people. It was a great example of “IPD” before there was IPD. On all of the projects that I have been involved in since, I have tried to implement these basic IPD principles.

Casey: An atmosphere of open communications, trust and having competent and committed people engaged at every stage of the project.

OP: In your experience, what can Owners do to ensure success?

Douglas: Owners should never underestimate their role in the process to help motivate their teams and implement principles of IPD. Simple signs of appreciation make a big difference. I always encourage my Owners to host milestone events, present safety or quality awards and simply attend weekly subcontractor meetings to thank everyone for their efforts. I even had one Owner that insisted in personally working the grill at a monthly luncheon for the workers. Things like that make a big difference to morale. The payoff is creating a highly motivated team that delivers better quality at a faster pace.

Casey: Have a clear scope of work or program; make timely decisions; hire the best consultants; pay fair fees for services; and trust your consultants and contractors.

OP: What should owners avoid doing to ensure project success, from your point of view?

Douglas: Owners should avoid separation between themselves and the vendors and instead give as much information as possible about the project so that the vendors are just as invested in the project as the Owner.

Casey: Not being engaged 100 percent in the decision-making process causes problems. Avoid delaying, over-analyzing, delegating the decisions. Defer to the builder’s recommendations based on our expertise an experience.

OP: What is a major lesson you have learned from past projects, and how has it affected your future projects going forward?

Douglas: Because contractors can take the “sticks and bricks” approach to a building instead of understanding the importance of the buildings purpose in the end, I now strive to engage the Owner and have them articulate what it is that we are building; and what they need from us and why. For example, when we were building a medical research building for Emory University, I asked the researchers to come in and talk to construction foreman and make sure that they knew how critically important an early completion was to their research. The researchers did a wonderful job of explaining how an early delivery equated to saving lives.

Casey: We are proponents of various elements of the integrated delivery method, engaging team members early on, holding each accountable, sharing in risks and rewards and being innovators. Owners and their project team members should focus early on developing an atmosphere of teamwork that fosters collaboration and trust. Each firm must commit to engage highly competent professionals from beginning to the end of an assignment. Continuity of staff and a continuous focus on goals and objectives will lead to a successful project. Open communications and being forthright about bad news will prevent surprises.

OP: What is a common misunderstanding between contractors/vendors and Owners during a project?

Douglas: Owners often overlook their role in helping to foster highly collaborative teamwork. Contractors often overlook the importance of what it is that they are building and think more in terms of assembling “sticks and bricks”.

Casey: Owners have the misconception that contractors are making a substantial amount of profit on a project, when in reality, compared to the risk we are taking, it is a very small percentage.

OP: How do you feel this misunderstanding could be resolved?

Douglas: Owners should show appreciation to vendors and include vendors in as much project information as possible. Contractors should view the project in a more big-picture way to see the motivating purpose behind it instead of just viewing the building as an object.

Casey: It would be helpful for Owners to take an interest in understanding the contractor’s side of the business: what a fair profit is, what motivates the contractor and how to help the contractor do their job as efficiently as possible.

OP: What do you wish Owners understood better about your role in the project? Why?

Douglas: Despite the best of planning, problems happen; but we try our best to overcome each and every challenge by collaboratively working together.

Casey: As builders, we have our areas of expertise or competencies, just as the design community. Understand our responsibilities, risks and reward system; leverage our expertise early on in the design process; and trust our recommendations. We do a pretty good job keeping our pulse on market trends such as labor, materials and insurances. Owners should leverage this knowledge early on to enhance the program budgets, design and schedules.