Large-Scale International Projects, in Theory and in Practice: Challenges & Opportunities for Landscape Architects
Yogi Berra had it right. He said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”
How does a very large and very complex project—1.5 kilometers long and more than thirty international consultants—get built?
Here’s the simple summary: there are three players. Number one: the owner—the owner has the money and property to develop the project. Number two: the consultant—the consultant does the design and engineering for the project. And number three: the contractor—he builds the project. Then the owner moves in and operates the project. Straightforward, right?
Here is how it works, in theory and in practice, in real life. The Owner/Developer intends to build a certain project, and provides the money behind that project. At the outset, at the behest of an Owner/Developer, Consultants drive large international projects. That is the theory.
The Owner/Developer hires a Consultant for the planning, design and engineering. The generic Consultant is often, in reality, a team of thirty or more Sub-Consultants, each responsible for specific aspects of the design. The Consultant translates the Owner/Developer’s intent into design documents. The design documents are a coded set of reproducible plans, drawings and specifications that translate the Owner/Developer’s intent into a buildable project. The Owner/Developer then hires a General Contractor to build the project, according to those design documents. The General Contractor then hires and coordinates a wide range of specialist Subcontractors to build their individual specialist parts of the construction.
The Consultant provides oversight during construction, to assure that the Owner/Developer’s original intent is met and built according to the design documents. In the end though, the practical reality is the General Contractor truly drives the built project, because he has the final responsibility for opening on time, for all liabilities, for all warranties and for everything built.
Now, that is the basic tradition—the simple project process, the players, and the basic template for all projects. However, with large, complex, international projects, in addition to the usual personality tensions between thirty or more consultants, and another thirty or more contractors, and their suppliers, lots of extra layers of management are often added. These added layers often bring extra challenges—each extra layer of management tends to fray the clarity, fray the directness, fray the quality of the project.
The Owner/Developer often hires a Project Management team, to reduce the Owner/Developer’s workload, and to oversee the day-to-day schedules and activities of the Consultant and the General Contractor. Then, during the design process, these often inexperienced Design Managers from the Owner/Developer and Project Management teams second, third and fourth guess the Consultant. These continuous battles often undermine not only Consultant morale, but also project quality.
After this, if the Consultant has any morale or will power left, it is completely burned away by an additional series of reviews—cost control reviews. These cost control reviews are known as the value engineering process, or VE for short. Essentially, VE is when people who know little about either the construction process, the local procurement market, or the local environmental conditions get a chance to look good by simply lowering the cost estimates—less natural stone, more concrete, thinning the hard materials, less, less, less—smaller trees, simpler wayfinding, fewer interpretation systems, less lighting. VE people regularly have no idea about how contemporary social culture—that is, the local people—will actually use the site and the project, on a diurnal and seasonal basis. Most of the time, the VE result begins a snow-balling disaster.
So, by the time a project gets to the site for construction, the Consultant has been severely beaten up. Is this important? And, what does this mean in reality?
It means the Consultant rarely has Western-trained senior staff on the job site. In other words, on the job site, the Consultant usually gets abused—they often get walked all over. On site, the Consultant staff sit in the air-conditioned office, waiting for materials submittals, shop drawings, requests for information, requests for inspections and as-built drawing submittals.
All of this happens in the Empty Quarter, Gulf Region, Arabian Peninsula part of the world, as 45-50°C temperatures and sand blasting windstorms ‘conspire’ to make sure no Consultant ever leaves the air conditioned site offices to visit the actual work in progress, thus opening more doors to undermine the final result quality.
And these huge natural environmental difficulties continue daily as the Owner/Developer’s financial, public marketing and brand image are all under pressure to have opening day festivities occur exactly when originally promised two years earlier—huge pressure on both Contractor and Consultant in a major time squeeze—just to assure that the Owner/Developer’s intent and promises are met at the scheduled opening day. The Consultant has been battered. The Consultant has become fatigued.
The Consultant, however, is in business to make money through repeat work with clients. So, in order to maintain reputation and workload, the Consultant must apply reasonable attention during the construction.
This is the simplified large international project work environment. There are positions for landscape architects on each team: owner, consultant and contractor.
Between 2006 and 2011, I worked as a senior development consultant responsible for a number of very large projects in landscape architecture planning, design, construction and facilities management in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including Al Nakheel projects such as The Palm Jumeirah, and the Waterfront as well as Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) projects such as Sadiyat Island, Eastern Mangroves and Qasr al Sarab. Each project required senior regional experience of approximately ten years in addition to a university degree and professional license.
On all of these project assignments, it was clear that original landscape architecture design intent can be compromised at every step of the long and complex process for these large projects. Someone has to champion the original design—represent it in the face of many challenges right on through to and including facility management. There are many opportunities for landscape architectural services for professionals capable of the larger perspective of design in relation to costs, to procurement of services and materials, to schedules, to construction observation and management, to return on investments and facilities management. Success across that spectrum means successful implementation of the original landscape architecture design.