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Challenging And Record-Setting Projects

Cooper River Bridge, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

The building of something, especially a large structure such as a house, road, or bridge can involve technical innovations, breakthrough designs and management challenges. The way in which something has been built, especially with regard to the type and quality of the structure, materials, or workmanship can make it record-setting. A project is a task or planned program of work that requires a large amount of effort or planning to complete. Challenging and record-setting projects are a visual work of art of construction at home and around the world.

There is a specific viewpoint in discussing the participants, the processes and the techniques of project management for construction. This viewpoint is that of owners who desire completion of projects in a timely, cost effective fashion. Some profound implications for the objectives and methods of project management result from this perspective:

  • The "life cycle" of costs and benefits from initial planning through operation and disposal of a facility are relevant to decision making. An owner is concerned with a project from the cradle to the grave. Construction costs represent only one portion of the overall life cycle costs.
  • Optimizing performance at one stage of the process may not be beneficial overall if additional costs or delays occur elsewhere. For example, saving money on the design process will be a false economy if the result is excess construction costs.
  • Fragmentation of project management among different specialists may be necessary, but good communication and coordination among the participants is essential to accomplish the overall goals of the project. New information technologies can be instrumental in this process, especially the Internet and specialized Extranets.
  • Productivity improvements are always of importance and value. As a result, introducing new materials and automated construction processes is always desirable as long as they are less expensive and are consistent with desired performance.
  • Quality of work and performance are critically important to the success of a project since it is the owner who will have to live with the results.

In essence, adopting the viewpoint of the owner focuses attention on the cost effectiveness of facility construction rather than competitive provision of services by the various participants. By understanding the entire process, all participants can respond more effectively to the owner's needs in their own work, in marketing their services, and in communicating with other participants.

Construction planning is a fundamental and challenging activity in the management and execution of construction projects. It involves the choice of technology, the definition of work tasks, the estimation of the required resources and durations for individual tasks, and the identification of any interactions among the different work tasks. A good construction plan is the basis for developing the budget and the schedule for work. Developing the construction plan is a critical task in the management of construction, even if the plan is not written or otherwise formally recorded. In addition to these technical aspects of construction planning, it may also be necessary to make organizational decisions about the relationships between project participants and even which organizations to include in a project. For example, the extent to which sub-contractors will be used on a project is often determined during construction planning.

Forming a construction plan is a highly challenging task. As Sherlock Holmes noted:

Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backward.

Like a detective, a planner begins with a result (i.e. a facility design) and must synthesize the steps required to yield this result. Essential aspects of construction planning include the generation of required activities, analysis of the implications of these activities, and choice among the various alternative means of performing activities. In contrast to a detective discovering a single train of events, however, construction planners also face the normative problem of choosing the best among numerous alternative plans. Moreover, a detective is faced with an observable result, whereas a planner must imagine the final facility as described in the plans and specifications.

As in the development of appropriate alternatives for facility design, choices of appropriate technology and methods for construction are often ill-structured yet critical ingredients in the success of the project. For example, a decision whether to pump or to transport concrete in buckets will directly affect the cost and duration of tasks involved in building construction. A decision between these two alternatives should consider the relative costs, reliabilities, and availability of equipment for the two transport methods. Unfortunately, the exact implications of different methods depend upon numerous considerations for which information may be sketchy during the planning phase, such as the experience and expertise of workers or the particular underground condition at a site.

In selecting among alternative methods and technologies, it may be necessary to formulate a number of construction plans based on alternative methods or assumptions. Once the full plan is available, then the cost, time and reliability impacts of the alternative approaches can be reviewed. This examination of several alternatives is often made explicit in bidding competitions in which several alternative designs may be proposed or value engineering for alternative construction methods may be permitted. In this case, potential constructors may wish to prepare plans for each alternative design using the suggested construction method as well as to prepare plans for alternative construction methods which would be proposed as part of the value engineering process.

At the same time that the choice of technology and general method are considered, a parallel step in the planning process is to define the various work tasks that must be accomplished. These work tasks represent the necessary framework to permit scheduling of construction activities, along with estimating the resources required by the individual work tasks, and any necessary precedences or required sequence among the tasks. The terms work "tasks" or "activities" are often used interchangeably in construction plans to refer to specific, defined items of work. In job shop or manufacturing terminology, a project would be called a "job" and an activity called an "operation", but the sense of the terms is equivalent. The scheduling problem is to determine an appropriate set of activity start time, resource allocations and completion times that will result in completion of the project in a timely and efficient fashion. Construction planning is the necessary fore-runner to scheduling. In this planning, defining work tasks, technology and construction method is typically done either simultaeously or in a series of iterations.

The definition of appropriate work tasks can be a laborious and tedious process, yet it represents the necessary information for application of formal scheduling procedures. Since construction projects can involve thousands of individual work tasks, this definition phase can also be expensive and time consuming. Fortunately, many tasks may be repeated in different parts of the facility or past facility construction plans can be used as general models for new projects. For example, the tasks involved in the construction of a building floor may be repeated with only minor differences for each of the floors in the building. Also, standard definitions and nomenclatures for most tasks exist. As a result, the individual planner defining work tasks does not have to approach each facet of the project entirely from scratch.

In addition to precedence relationships and time durations, resource requirements are usually estimated for each activity. Since the work activities defined for a project are comprehensive, the total resources required for the project are the sum of the resources required for the various activities. By making resource requirement estimates for each activity, the requirements for particular resources during the course of the project can be identified. Potential bottlenecks can thus be identified, and schedule, resource allocation or technology changes made to avoid problems.



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