Jim Christenson is an APPA member emeritus and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can't see the big picture if you are inside the frame.
For most people, especially those of us who were trained as civil engineers, having a part of the action in constructing a new building is fun. It always has been-especially if someone else does the less desirable parts of the work. The Luxor-Karnak temple complex of ancient Egypt, built by Herod the Great, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Neuschwanstein, and any one of three castles built by "mad" King Ludwig II, are but a few examples of impressive construction. One might argue that the pharaohs and kings, at least, were most interested in leaving a legacy. But I think they also enjoyed seeing a structure grow out of the ground into a thing of beauty.
When I wander through such structures, I am impressed with the architectural and engineering skills demonstrated, but even more by the effort involved in managing such projects. According to construction records, 81,322 people worked on the temple complex at Luxor 3,400 years ago. The Karnak temple alone is large enough to hold both St. Peter's and St. Paul's cathedrals, with room left over. A forest of 134 stone columns, 15 feet in diameter and 75 feet high, supported a partial stone roof. One-piece obelisks or spires of stone 75 to 214 feet high, weighing up to 200 tons, were quarried 250 miles away, moved down the Nile during spring floods with as many as 32 boats supporting a single stone, and erected to stand vertically for millennia. Ignoring the unsavory fact that many of the workers were slaves, the organizing of such a project had to be one of the more challenging jobs of the time.
We aren't lacking challenging projects today. The successful voyages to the moon and back required detailed planning and project management. Rebuilding the World Trade Center area appropriately is a challenge that awaits us. And, more to the point, most chief facilities officers become involved in constructing something for their institution. If that something is to serve the customer well and exceed the users' expectations, the project must be managed well.
What are the tasks of a construction project manager? I suggest these:
This is a tall order. Some institutions divide the work among several people and sometimes several organizations. While a few of the tasks listed can be done by others effectively, it is important that each customer have a project manager who is able to answer questions and get things done. So the project manager has to at least take part in the activities listed. There should be one person handling all the projects for each customer, although one project manager may have many customers. The customer should be able to depend on that one person to totally understand the culture and needs of the school or department and to be that customer's liaison and advocate to the service providers.
Unfortunately, project managers are only human, so a facilities organization needs to arrange for another project manager to back up the first during sickness, vacations, etc. But I want to emphasize what is so often ignored: customers do not like to deal with a different person for each phase of a project. It wastes their time, communications become flawed, and the final product is sometimes an unpleasant surprise to the users.
As most of us have been told, listening is one skill that is vital, yet is rarely taught. Since there is no room here to provide a course in listening skills, I'll only refer to Stephen R. Covey's recommended fifth habit in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: "Seek first to understand… Then to be understood." The order of action is especially important. Architects and engineers often exhibit a bad habit of assuming they know what the customer wants. The project manager must make sure there are no assumptions, that there is a full understanding of the function the facility is to perform and of all the expectations of the users. A standard list of detailed questions can help provide assurance that nothing critical is missed in developing the concept.
Listening to the dean or department head's staff is not enough. If the facility is to function, those who maintain and operate building systems must be heard. Although standard specifications for mechanical, electrical, and other systems can help prevent future problems, the maintenance folks must be given a chance to voice their needs and concerns on each project.
The customer usually can describe the function the building is to perform. Unfortunately, customers are often much like the pharaohs. They go beyond describing the desired function and try to become directly involved in the design process. They may work out some of the floor plans and materials. So, after extracting all the functional requirements from the customer, the project manager's task is to tactfully lead the customer to believe that the architects and engineers can do an effective job of translating the requirements into efficient space and maintainable systems. Of course, that assurance can only be given if the institution has a history of selecting architects and engineers who seek to satisfy the customers' requirements more than to earn a design award from their professional organizations.
Design guidelines and standard specs are important. But they should not be allowed to stand in the way of creative thinking. There are always alternative ways to satisfy a need. The design fee negotiated should be high enough to permit the designers to explore the functional effectiveness and life cycle cost effectiveness of alternative space arrangements and building systems. If high quality professionals are selected, the funds spent on design will return the investment many times over in functionality and energy savings.
Institutions usually get this backwards. Too early in the process, someone determines that the facility will cost $10 million. The trustees or regents approve this figure before enough work is done to make a realistic cost estimate of the facility that is envisioned. Once that is done, the administration is loath to return to the governing body or, even worse, to the state legislature, to have the allocation changed. So a facility is built that fails to meet the expectations of the users and/or employs inexpensive, outdated systems that will forever burden the operating budget.
A better way is to persuade the governing body to permit the expenditure of a limited amount of money to perform "preliminary engineering" or concept development before fixing the budget on any significant project. This frees the user and designer to decide the scope of the work that represents the best convergence between user needs and potential funding resources.
But that is only the beginning. As the steward of the funds provided, the project manager may need to represent the interests of the taxpayer; the donors; the architects, engineers and contractors; the users; and the university administration simultaneously throughout the project. The taxpayer and donor are interested in minimizing the cost. The architects, engineers, and contractors are interested in having real money available at the right time to pay for their services. The users want the best quality and greatest quantity they can get. The university administration has all of these objectives, as well as a responsibility to be sure contractual matters are properly handled and fraud prevented. So although computer programs make it relatively easy to stay on top of project balances, being a good project manager is not a task to be taken lightly.
Tracking and Facilitation
The project manager is held responsible for making sure the approved scope is not exceeded, that the budget stays in the black through to the end of the project, and that all dates are met. Exceeding the scope-"scope creep"-is the subtlest of these. The scope must be carefully and synergistically crafted before seeking approval and, once approved, enforced in the face of untimely customer requests for adding this or changing that.
The user wants the facility today. The legislature asks for a ten-year projection of needs and certainly doesn't want to see projects walked in at the last minute. The students don't want construction activities while they are on campus. The professors don't want noise during finals. How can you reconcile these conflicting desires? You can't. But the project manager has the challenge of trying.
For four decades, PERT (program evaluation review technique) and CPM (construction program method) have been common tools used to manage projects. PERT and similar tracking techniques provide a mechanism for identifying critical decision points in advance so unhappy surprises are avoided. CPM is especially useful in identifying potential interferences, the timing of resource needs, and the optimum schedule. The value of such techniques has not disappeared. Whatever the method used, the project manager is expected to find ways to speed up funding, design, and construction.
Once a decision to go is made, impatience rules the day. The most difficult task for a project manager, though, is to shepherd the project to successful completion in the absence of direct authority over any of the people doing the work. A project manager must be a master of communication and persuasion.
Finally, the project manager needs to coordinate commissioning, move-in, and evaluation. The users' impression of a wonderful facility can evaporate if the end of the show is not well orchestrated. And the next customer will benefit from analysis of the process and the feedback from users six months into their occupancy of the new facility.
Managing a project today is as much of a challenge as it was in ancient times. It requires daily attention to detail. Lapses in coordination cost time and money. With the burdens, though, comes the satisfaction of being in the unique position of knowing the details of the project while still understanding the big picture.